Relational Branding for Fashion Companies

Thomas Brownlees

Thomas Brownlees

CEO and Founder,
440 Industries

Introduction

All of us are continually exposed to branding communication. Brands penetrate our lives in conscious and subconscious ways by attaching their logos, payoffs, and names to the world surrounding us. 

However, with a little bit of detachment and observational spirit, we can notice how brands are different from the rest. While most persuade us or entice us to have, some demand us to be.

In this post, we are going to discuss the evolution of the concept of the brand which has happened over the last few decades in order to assess how a fashion firm should conceptualize its branding strategy, and how a successful positioning statement can be achieved.

  1. The highly symbolic value of fashion brands.
  2. Branding is a relationship with your customers.
  3. Brands as an extended (relationship) stage.
  4. Conclusions.
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1. The highly symbolic value of fashion brands.

Despite customer overexposure to fashion and lifestyle brands, we can see that the content associated with communication is highly symbolic. There are in fact two distinct, and at times conflicting components to establishing a brand identity.

  • Branding in the context of evolving social identities. Brands are ideally created to provide a message and a promise of consistency that should echo for decades in the mind of customers. At the same time, however, the demands of an increasingly fast market push brands to stay current, and address the needs of customers whose social identity might change overnight. This poses challenges in maintaining the message and value of your brand relevant and interesting to your customers.

  • Branding in a world of user-generated content. Brands cannot fully manage the way they interact with their audiences anymore. Not only digital media is amplifying opportunities for success and failure by amplifying the breadth of a brand’s communication, but moreover, firms have to acknowledge the fact that the exclusive use of their own intellectual property can be put to the test by new trends in user-generated content. This phenomenon has shifted the focus of fashion companies from an advertising-focused approach to PR and media relations.

On top of these two important trends, we could analyze and map the benefits associated with brands, by splitting them into two categories:

  • Brands that deliver hetero-directed values. In this category, we find customers who use the brands as a means to ulterior goals, such as obtaining social currency or some form of social approval.

  • Brands that deliver self-directed values. In this category instead, we are likely to find customers who use the brand as a way of affirming their self-standing identity and autonomy.

Understanding the expectations and uses that customers have towards their brands are essential to understand their consumption patterns. These patters pertain to the type of relationship which is established between the customer and the brand, and we’ll discuss this in further detail in the next section of our post.

2. Branding is a relationship with your customers.

As discussed in the previous paragraph, only after carefully mapping the aspirational component of branding we can approach consumption patterns. However, we need to acknowledge that in reality, some challenges await us:

  • Customer consumption patterns are not logic.
  • Customer consumption patterns are not distinctive.
  • Customer consumption patterns are not coherent.

This poses one of the most interesting challenges for fashion companies, as their brand has to work entirely in the world of the irrational. This is no news, however, as the fashion industry is deeply rooted in the world of the dream and the imaginative.

The relational component of branding is essential as it paves the way to a variety of customer experiences that the brand will open for the customer. Before moving on let’s make an example of a relational effect connected to luxury good:

  • Luxury goods both relate to standing out as well as fitting in.  In terms of standing out, we need to think about how luxury or high-end fashion empowers customers to detach themselves from the masses while fitting in helps them show belonging to a particular group. We discuss this topic in greater depth, in a post entitled: How can your brand survive the growth of the luxury market.

Having said this, moving towards more practical, actionable points there are a few elements we can take into account in order to create a strategy.

  • Brands need to be relational. They need to be a vehicle for relations that may happen within the brand or outside the brand.

  • Brands are normative. They help customers show their own personal taste and make a statement about what is good or bad taste.

  • Brands are hedonistic. Ultimately the hedonistic component of purchase cannot be downplayed in terms of personal satisfaction.

As an additional component of complexity, we have to mention turbulence effects, which are conditioning customer behavior. Influencer marketing and social media are a leading factor causing customer liquidity, or in simpler terms, incoherency. As a result, customers live in a state of identity and branding chaos, which makes it particularly challenging to appeal to customers in the younger demographic segments who are especially unpredictable.

It is safe to say that because of these elements of complexity identity or the search for identity has become an obsession, which has been further enhanced by the accelerated pace set by social media.

The way out suggested by relational branding is to imagine the relationship between brands and customers are highly functional, where the pursuit of the brand can be seen as a natural extension of the self. This leads us to imagine the brand as an extended relational stage.

fashion retail flagship store

3. Branding as an extended (relationship) stage.

As a result, a brand can be identified as a gateway, by which a customer is able to engage with higher-level values. A product becomes the first step of a journey that creates the premises for a conversation whereby, in time the identity of the customer and the identity of the brand mix.

This can be seen in the way in which many fashion companies are currently pushing ideals that belong to environmental sustainability, corporate social responsibility and circular economies as foundational elements of their branding strategy. 

This has created a heightened sense of customer awareness, that pushes customers and brands to align even before the first product has been purchased. We address experiential branding in more detail in this article.

So how can brands attract their like-minded customers? 

This can be done through inbound marketing. As a result of interpreting brands as content creators, brands are able to plant the seeds of a communicational approach which will be unintrusive and will lead customers to naturally start a “conversation” with the brand.

Ultimately, as we’ve seen in some of our research in experiential retailing and experiential branding, it’s exactly this conversation between the brand and the customer that ultimately will create a type of intangible value that will constitute a competitive advantage which will be very difficult and resource-intensive to emulate. If we look at the evolution of retail and flagship stores, we will see how this approach will actually be very much aligned with many new perspectives in the fashion industry as a whole. If this might be an interesting concept to explore, here’s an article discussing it in greater detail.

4. Conclusions

As discussed in this post, both conceptualizing and acting upon the concept of a brand requires an in-depth sociological reflection on a firm’s target market. At the same time, given the high fast pace of today’s society, firms need to think about their positioning statements very dynamically, in order to understand not only the social (and existential) needs of customers now, but also in terms of their evolution in time.

Branding is an essential component of the strategy of a fashion firm. In our blog, we discuss many different components of a successful branding strategy, click here to access more free content.

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Relational Branding for Fashion Companies When you understand what kind of relationship to foster with your audience, you will be able to identify consumption patterns.
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Sources and Further Research

Thomas Brownlees

Thomas Brownlees

I am an Anglo-Italian business lecturer and consultant based in Florence, Italy. In 2017 I started 440 Industries, an education and training company focused on fashion, music, and technology. Our mission is to help students, entrepreneurs and managers in overcoming the challenges of starting, developing and scaling their business in the creative industries. When there's a will, there's a way!

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