November 2, 2018

There’s nothing worse for a once mighty, on-trend brand than a long, slow decline into cultural irrelevancy. Yet all too often, that’s the destiny of yesterday’s style masters. Old brands are often under the threat of appearing stale. And when that happens, restless, once loyal customers get fickle real fast.

The dictates of “creative disruption” calls for trend driven brands to actively seek out ways to reinvent themselves, even when it pushes them well beyond their traditional comfort zone. Just one of many recent examples is the collaboration between Japanese streetwear brand BAPE and the Southern California footwear brand UGG.

Announced this month, BAPE recently debuted a series of slides, slip-ons, sneakers, boots and winter slippers that combine the tan suede familiar to UGG loyalists with the camo pattern familiar to BAPE designs. The logos of both companies are stitched on the products. This hybrid approach is not new for either brand — This year, BAPE created a similar line for Doc Martens, Adidas, among others, and in the past, UGG has collaborated with streetwear brands Jeremy Scott (UGG boots emboldened with flames) and Heron Preston (featuring the streetwear company’s branded label on the front and a yellow ‘pull” tag on back).

In fact, streetwear collabs are fast becoming a core tool in the establishment brand playbook for expanding appeal to younger, trend-driven consumers or simply to reclaim their cool quotient. Iconic brands Carhartt, Disney, Hanes, and Crocs have all collaborated in recent years with streetwear brands BAPE, The Hundreds, Supreme and Balenciaga. The hybrid products typically create a momentary splash — the line of Balenciaga-Crocs clogs sold out instantly when they were available for pre-order, but with price points between $495 and $850, they remained a niche phenomenon.

Successful collaborations can become truly transformative. In 2010, Supreme worked with Champion, the athletic fashion brand that dates back to the 1930s, on a jacket that featured a combined logo of both companies. The jacket was so successful, Champion created a legitimate line of streetwear featuring collaborations with BAPE, Vetements, and Off-White, which resulted in a standalone store in New York that sold its full line of streetwear products. The brand suddenly transitioned from dated to hot — revenues grew by 15 percent in the last two quarters of 2018 alone.

The key for brands seeking similar transformations is to not be afraid to truly push themselves into unfamiliar territory. While the temptation is to cling to many of the values that propelled a brand to initial prominence, being too conservative in embracing a collab partner may invite ridicule rather than reconsideration. It’s interesting to think about what could have been had Sears sought out a radically transformative collab partner. While Sears – in a classic “too little too late” policy — failed based on trying to only incrementally enhance its appeal (combined with a lot of financial wizardry gone seriously awry), the opportunity for Sears to partner with a brand that might have invited serious reconsideration is hard to ignore. Sears/Disney (just think of what they could have done with all that real estate!) or Sears/Barnes & Noble collaborations are interesting pairings to ponder.

It’s important to note that brand collabs are only the most recent iteration of a long history of interesting brand reinvention stories. We can look all the way to the late-80’s for a standard setting examples of brand appropriation. Packard Bell, a historic brand of radios and televisions dating back to the 30’s, was repurposed in the late-80’s to become a leader in the emerging personal computer revolution. Philco, another iconic brand of radio and television sets early last century, was rebranded as a leader in car audio in the 1960s. English brand Burberry was created 150 years ago but late last century was associated with gangwear; it took overhauling the brand with a mix of modern and classic looks that made it relevant as a high fashion label. Belgian beer brand Stella Artois was an upmarket brand at home, but when it started selling at discounted rates during summer sporting events, it became known as “the wife beater” and sales plummeted. It came back through the creation of a range of premium beers under the Artois brand, as well as a cider.

The lesson for established brands experiencing diminished sales and a slow decline to irrelevancy may be to not just look at incremental tweaks but rather to push themselves outside of their comfort zones in ways that surprise consumers, forcing reconsideration of a brand’s historic role. In restless markets, the safe response may in fact be the most dangerous one.

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