With L.L. Bean joining the fray of brand collaborations, I’ve been asked about whether the world really needs any more one-off fashion collections and “updated classics” from another earnest, fashion “collective” or style savant. But it continues, brands and retailers continue to seek out the whiz kids of fashion to help them bring customers back into their stores.
From big box retailers (think Target) to the small heritage brand (think LL Bean), everyone is joining the collaboration club. The majority of the time, though, it’s the fuddy-duddy retail giant who is looking to garner some street cred.
So does it work, and do consumers really respond to it?
Yes and no. The fact is, the goal should not only be to sell product. Most of the time the brands who mate for one night (or one collection) don’t make much profit when it comes to collaborations. But what they gain is consumer insight and awareness. In other words, it’s a relatively cost-effective experiment in brand development.
The aim should be for the major players to gain a different perspective on their business and smaller brands to dip their toe into the waters of mass-market retail.
In the best scenarios, a great collaboration lets both brands share resources and brand equity, and in this economy, who doesn’t need that?
The novelty of say, Sonia Rykiel and H&M, or Thom Browne and Brooks Brothers means customers are inspired to shop, especially when it’s in a store they wouldn’t normally be caught in.
Collaborations also bring a sense of authenticity to a brand because suddenly it isn’t quite so mass-market. It seems special and exclusive. A Goliath like Target gets some boutique brand sincerity and the cachet of “designer” without the sticker-shock.
Of course both brands hope to gain something from the relationship without cannibalizing their audience. There are certainly cases where that’s been true, most notably with sportswear brands. In the late 1990’s Puma elevated its profile when they collaborated with designer Jil Sander.
And in 2005, Puma opened multi-branded stores where they featured collaborations with Christy Turlington, Philippe Stark, and others. I think the point here is that it spoke of the brand’s stance in terms of innovation: that collaboration is truly collaborative — not dictatorial. Nike kind of missed that bandwagon preferring to be the ne plus ultra of sportswear, “i.e., we don’t need anyone else’s help.” The right move? Well, with so many athletes endorsing their products, I guess they really don’t need any help.
Karl Lagerfeld got to see just how much of a household name he had become when he collaborated with H&M on a capsule collection. Fans lined up around the block (other H&M collaborations weren’t quite so well received, such as the Madonna collection in 2007.)
Brief and copious one offs — like Levi’s and Opening Ceremony — are a bit more difficult to quantify, because they are so short term and in the case of Levi’s, they just happen a bit too often. Levi’s has been a bit garrulous about chasing the collaboration train, and it can make some wonder if they’re investing enough in their own heritage and equity. In other words, collaborations shouldn’t replace a company’s ordinary business model. It should be a tool that is used sparingly and carefully to enhance what you already have.
Collaborations are strategic experiments in new business development. That’s already proven itself with Brooks Brothers which has quietly taken Brown’s ideas and integrated silhouette and detailing into its classic label collection.
If the cost of producing an additional collection is daunting, consider media budgets and the cost to launch new products on your own. The cost of producing these collaborations can often be off-set by the amount of pro bono buzz as opposed to traditional advertising channels — buzz from previously, unavailable channels, such as opinion leaders and early adopters. This kind of presence goes a long way in growing a new customer.
Questionable payoffs do exist though. Consider the Gap and Paris’ trend-setting Colette store. What was the latter’s gain in opening a pop up shop at the Gap’s New York flagship (or Paris’ Merci, who also opened a pop up the following year at the Gap)?
Frankly, I’m really not sure either one got what they were looking for. Instead it felt like a charity case on the part of Colette for the Gap; a brand which has been frantically trying to rebuild its image after too many years of self-sabotage. It was a collaboration that felt more like desperation than innovation.