Over the past few years, established apparel brands have been plagued not only by the economy but also a challenge to engage a coming-of-age consumer group without isolating an aging target market. The brands that stay afloat rely as much on strategic PR and marketing as they do product development and operations.
JCPenney's recent assuming of control over Liz Claiborne's namesake line is perhaps the most contemporary and vivid example of this kind of challenge. On this month's launch of the Claiborne line at JCPenney, The Wall Street Journal reported the brand will cede production and marketing control to the department store. The news follows a Macy's-Liz Claiborne deal gone sour, as well as the brand's long battle to survive in a down economy and at a time at when its original boomer target market is retiring.
A couple of years ago, the brand embarked on an image makeover and hired celebrity designer Isaac Mizrahi as creative director, a PR move that perked the ear of younger consumers and landed the fashion-forward line in media such as Style.com, but one that ultimately didn't resonate with its core target or the company's shareholders.
Jane Randel, SVP of corporate communications and brand services at Liz Claiborne, told PRWeek via e-mail, “Consumers' affinity for the brand remains so strong that even though we have disappointed her over the years, she is not only hoping for us to get it right, she is ready to buy Liz Claiborne when we do. We believe – as does JCPenney – that that time is now.”
The question is how JCPenney will leverage the brand's equity, which, according to research, is strong, to effectively identify and reach its audience.
Julie Winskie, president at Porter Novelli, suggests Liz Claiborne should have enlisted a more in-depth customer research and engagement strategy that would have put pre-boomer and boomer women at the core.
“The customer was not in the center. It was about business and operations, department stores, and Isaac Mizrahi and what he'd bring,” she said. “Marketing and branding are every bit of what you do and we didn't see the customer in any of that.”
Talbots, a mid-tier fashion brand that faced a similar decline a few years ago, had attempted a different kind of refresh, putting PR and the consumer at its core.
The company hired Meredith Paley, VP of PR, two-and-a-half-years ago, along with a number of other senior-level employees, in an effort to turn around the brand. Through new product and PR, it attempted to market to a younger consumer in her 40s without isolating loyal boomers who have been with the brand since its inception in 1947.
“We faced a stigma. They thought of us as an old ladies' brand,” said Paley.
Talbots recently revamped its logo and web platform and has a new ad campaign in the works, but the team has spent the past two-and-a-half years fixing the product and image.
First on the agenda was dressing Michelle Obama - the brand sold 2,700 of the dress she wore in 10 weeks - and reaching out to a diverse mix of magazines such as Vogue and More. The marketing team also consistently consults its top customers for consumer insight into the kind of messaging and product that will resonate with dual audiences.
“We didn't lose the high-waisted pants but lowered others,” she said, referring to its revamped pants line featured in a heritage marketing campaign targeting dual age groups. “Keeping our eye on the product and the customer at the forefront is the way to stay in this game.”
Lisette Sand-Freedman, co-owner of Shadow PR, the firm that played an integral role in the Ann Taylor rebranding last year, explained that when a brand attempts to reach a younger consumer - and it always does - there's a fine balance in choosing brand ambassadors and messaging that speaks to dual audiences.
Like Paley, she emphasizes the necessity of a third-party partnership with which consumer groups can identify, as well as reaching out to various media with specific product targeted at the different audiences.
“Over the past 10 years, everyone has watched brands try and succeed, and try and fail, to use PR to keep their core customer coming back while trying to brand themselves for a younger demographic,” she said. “It's a task that marketing and PR must do together, hand in hand with the brand.”