Brands: It’s all in the story…

In another post where I talk smack about stuff I really shouldn’t talk about, given that I’m a civil engineer not a marketing guru, I give you: What makes a brand? A name, a designer, a style, something ethereal and mystic, history, or something else entirely? To me, names come and go, designers are rarely given celebrity status, styles come and go, and yes, I was kind of kidding when I mentioned ethereal and mystic, though you’d think I was serious if you follow some of the menswear forums.

No, for me a lot of the lure of brands is the story, or the brand mystique, if you like. This works in two ways, as I see it. Some brands have history, they’ve been around for a while, their history has accumulated and it’s real. The other way it works is that the branding and marketing guys get really creative and come up with a story based on fiction, to a great or even greater degree.

Consider a company that’s been around a while, take Levi Strauss & Co. for example,. Established in 1853 and still around today. They’ve probably had their ups and down, times of being in vogue and out of vogue, product lines and styles coming and going, but all the way building up a portfolio of history that gives them credibility. Reading their history and heritage section on their website you can tell where the company is coming from. OK, so it’s an edited and prettified version of the company history, designed to give the kind of good feeling I’m talking about. If you want a more accurate and factual version, Wikipedia has more to offer. Still, it illustrates my point. What this gives them though among the other things is a rich archive to plunder, both of actual garments and advertising material. This is valuable stuff in these retro/vintage times. And as opposed to a lot of other brands, theirs is actually the real stuff.

There aren’t that many clothing companies that have been around for a really long time though, at least not any that readily spring to my mind. Well, there are a few of the old tailoring houses on Savile Row, but they’re not names I really consider brands in this respect. Having continuous history in the garment business since 1853 is almost like having been sewing since Jurassic times.

One example of a company I recently came across that had a surprising take on creating their history use the name of a British soldier from WW2 as their basis, Private White VC. Now, I’m sure the soldier in question did exist, and that he won his medal, and he may well have worked in the garment industry after the war. No issues in that respect. What made me pay attention though was how the company in question appears to have a tenuous connection to the long-dead soldier, through him apparently working in the factory building that produces some of their garments. The company itself appears to be very much the freshly minted, modern company though, with business and marketing plans, aiming squarely for the popular vintage/retro, British made market. Did they just buy the name and history as part of their business plan? In this case, I was curious about the company right up to the point where it all suddenly seemed wrong and fake, and then my interest faded to zero.

Let’s have a look at another brand that likes to hype up the history, Scotch & Soda. They’re not claiming their history goes back 150 years, but they are extending it back beyond what is likely real starting point. Partly this is done on their website, which vaguely states that the company “has it’s roots in the 80’s”, but in it’s current form started in 2001. Even worse is how they portray their jeans to be par of an illustrious history, while they did their first denim collection in 2011. Maybe I’m being a bit picky about this and that I should just buy into their little story, or should I expect more from them? It’s not as if they don’t make some nice clothing, which I can surely appreciate, I just like to be romanced in a more accomplished manner. Scotch & Soda are an example of a company that treats their history in the same manner a pickup-artist prepares his seduction lines.

Another variant is a company that in itself can’t lay claim to a long or specially interesting history. They just don’t have that many years in business, and have an inbuilt honesty that prevents them from making it all up. So what do they do? Well, for starters, sell what you do have, like honesty, style and quality. Start building your history and reputation from scratch. Or, you could inherit history by association. SEH Kelly are a prime example of this case. They’ve only been in business a few years. Sarah has some history from Savile Row, but not really anything concrete or saleable enough, and not really all that interesting. So what do they do? Well, part of their idea is to source all their materials from British makers, and have all their garments made in the British isles. This means that very many of their suppliers and makers have long and interesting histories, and this can be put to good use in creating a history for their own company. Paul at SEH Kelly does a fantastic job of documenting their suppliers and makers, and their history, which to my mind almost makes him a curator of histories far more interesting than anything they could have thought up with marketing experts. And in addition, they are building their own history along the way, based on this, and their own work.

Nigel Cabourn has been around for a while. I’ve heard tales going back 20-30 years and he’s an old hand in the garment trade. Nowadays he’s hard in the forefront of premium vintage-inspired clothing, but as far as I can tell, this is a fairly recent direction. There really isn’t all that much said about the history of his company, though much is made of Cabourns collection of vintage garments, and how they form the basis of new items he designs. There’s nothing unique about this approach, it seems everyone and his brother is busily creating new garments based more or less on vintage pieces. The Vintage Showroom could probably provide a nice list of designers that have visited and taken notes of items in their collection. The problem here is that just coming up with something based on a vintage item doesn’t give much of a story. And this is where Cabourn came up with his killer idea: Why not make collections based on actual, historical events, such as conquering Mount Everest, or reaching the South Pole? Instant history, instant advertising material, available vintage garments to copy, and a huge dollop of chest-thumping British patriotism to boot. Say what you like about Cabourn being cheeky when writing the prices on his tags, but he’s done an incredible job in acquiring history in recent years, and I can’t not give him credit for being properly clever in this respect.

My final example in this piece concerns a company with only a very recent history of their own, and their clever way of increasing their historical identity many fold. What they have done is splice their history on to existing relevant history, and one could almost say they have inherited previous history, and in a more physical sense, they have inherited machines and employees from the same. The company I have in mind here is Hiut Denim, who restarted the production of jeans in Cardigan, Wales, a town that had been a major hotspot for garment production until it was rendered obsolete by low cost production in other countries. So there was a history of garment production already, though not a really “cool”  history, but by working the angles, and coming in with an intention of saving the old industry, Hiut have made it into a very clever story. Not surprisingly the owners have previously worked in advertising at a high level. It all comes across as quite genuine and refreshing though, if maybe a little blue-eyed. After all, Hiut make premium, expensive jeans, and unless they change their business idea to creating cheaper and more sell-able product, I can’t see how they’ll succeed in getting the whole town back into garment production like in the old days. One thing is that the market for exclusive jeans is by it’s very nature limited, the other is that the story at the moment works well for ensuring exclusivity, but that is likely to be much less so if an entire town is knocking out trousers. Then again, David Hieatt knows a hell of a lot more about marketing and business than I do!

Oh, it suddenly struck me while we were in town for dinner this evening and walking past some clothes shops, the worst branding effort in recent years has to be the Italian brand Napapirji. For starters, their name is a Finnish word, misspelt. Secondly, they cover their garments with Norwegian flags. Truly sad, and the worst part of it is that it appears to be a success. If they’d had an “About us” section on their website, I’m sure it would have said something like “We came up with the worst possible idea for a clothing company, and people are buying our crap like crazy!”. What a shambles.

So, am I alone in caring about this? I’d love to hear your opinions. This is just a few cases that came to mind while writing this, I’m sure a heap more will come to mind the minute I post this.

7 Responses to “Brands: It’s all in the story…”

  1. Brian Small

    Great post. I to like to know the story of a brand. If that story is interesting and genuine then it can very well influence my interactions with that company. I enjoy shopping at the Hudson Bay Co. partly because of it’s deep and romantic past. For me however the story doesn’t necessarily have to relate an ancient history to be compelling. Often it’s a human interest angle that gets me. Recently I stumbled onto Love Jules Leather. Their story is pretty straight forward: a young couple trying to make a living making shoes on the West Coast of Canada and being very open about how that’s working out for them. I found their story compelling enough to place an order. Actually it’s the stories of these micro companies that interest me the most. Another example: my belts are made by a two person shop located in the highlands of Cape Breton who’s main product is leather buckets of the type used on sailing ships of the 18th and 19th centuries.

    Regarding topics outside your field of professional expertise: don’t sell yourself short. Good engineers have analytical minds and intellectually engaged engineers can apply their skills outside of engineering. I’m fairly certain this applies to you.

    Reply

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