Products carry a lot of baggage. We associate a lot of emotion with our things. Think about how hard it is to give up things that we loved in our youth or that belonged to past loves, how we choose one brand over another for a comparable product, and how fashion is such a powerful tool of individual communication.
We make choices with our clothes that tell a story about us. We make inadvertent assumptions about others based on the way they dress. These associations are universal enough that they’ve become a system of sartorial codes that we interpret when we interact with others.
How did this come to be? We can’t ignore the following facts: Brands have celebrity ambassadors, official and unofficial. Brands have price tags. Brands tell stories. Brands advertise. Consumers read magazines, emulate celebrities, go into debt for designer goods, often associate with people who dress much like themselves.
And so through our purchases we buy into the brand’s narrative, and project that story through our own personal narrative. Associating ourselves with the outdoor lifestyle of Patagonia or the edgy luxury of Balenciaga, the trend-loving-ever-changing wardrobe of Topshop or the budget conscious, design savvy Target.
As consumers, we empowered brands, over time, to play this role because we get something in return. It takes the guesswork out of decision-making, and gives us the power of the brand to tell our story. Through storytelling and advertising, a brand can speak to the consumer, but we know how that it is on the street through people wearing the products that the brand finds its voice.
As brands, in order to develop these narratives we curate and design experiences: The experience when discovering a brand or a product, then during the purchase whether on or offline, and then with the product in the world.
Brands are learning new ways all the time to create novel opportunities of experience for their customers. Today this exists as a constant back and forth between the brand and the consumer. And, much like I discussed in the article on apps accelerating consumerism, these methods can work for the consumer or against the consumer depending on your perspective. Here’s a list of some ways it’s going down:
1. It means letting the consumer participate more and more in generating brand content.
Increasingly, brands are using consumer-generated content to tell their story. A company like olapic, which collects the instagram photos of products taken by customers for their brand partners. The brands then curate that content on their site, creating a celebrity moment for that customer, and also driving aspiration for their customer base with fresh new ideas of how to wear those Steve Madden shoes or that J-crew cardigan.
Street style has become it’s own commercial operation. The old story of bloggers becoming brand ambassadors was a lesson to brands that the street has a strong voice and a lesson to normal folks that they could reach the brands & even become part of their sales strategy & communication (advertising).
These are all commercial opportunities for brands that can then inform their product development based on the way the consumer is engaging with their current offering.
2. It means not always letting the product speak for itself, but providing information around the product that will add to its value.
This is a tool that eco-brands & companies like Everlane and Honest By are based off of. It is their prerogative to communicate as much as possible about every element of the brand the same way it the prerogative of Armani to communicate on the men and women wearing the label on the red carpet.
Where is the garment made? What is it made of? Where does the material come from? What does “Made in Italy” or “Made in France” really mean? How is the price determined? Were the celebrities paid to go to the show? Were they paid to wear the dress or the tuxedo to the Oscars?
The label inside a product used to be more than enough to tell us the value of a garment. But now, there are many more elements weighed into that decision. The product no longer speaks for itself. The product needs a story.
3. It means being everywhere the customer might look for you.
Having online and offline accessibility is becoming common practice. Online presence provides a platform for the storytelling side, and the physical world is where you back up your claims with tactile reinforcement, gaining trust & loyalty.
Being online is also a portal for people who aren’t nearby to browse discover a brand, browse its products and inquire, read about your story and get to know the brand. Being on social media so they can hear your voice and converse with you.
A brand needs to be wherever the potential customer might stumble through their door.
4. It means good customer service, following up and follow through, listening to feedback and responding to questions.
The customer experience depends on the brand treating the indivudial as such. Personalization is a buzz word these days, and although sometimes misapplied I do believe it to be a key in the customer service process.
Brands need to listen to the consumer and make adjustments. Often now brands make themselves available to customers with customer service twitter feeds, 24 hour customer service, and live chats built into their websites.*
Companies hire people to go through their platform, place an order, experience the brand anonymously and then report back on their experience.
*Recent and frequent experience reminds me this is still a very American quality (the customer is always right, no?). Customer service in France, for example, has a long way to go.
In many ways, it’s all advertising, all marketing, and so it’s nearly impossible to tell what part of a brand’s narrative is genuine and what has been bought. As the consumer becomes more educated and more empowered, the most important code of a brand experience becomes honesty and transparency.
Tangible versus aspirational.
As brands, we have the choice whether to pioneer transparency before the demand from consumers forces us to do so, or we can continue to sell a dream, for the same of an outdated idea of luxury, with no real tangible provenance. To me luxury is in the choice and empowerment of the consumer, not the vague aspiration of a dream. This is the route we choose at Starkweather. Building a foundation on transparency, it’s a narrative I’m proud to sell.
As a consumer, we have the choice to buy things because some marketing campaign told us to, or because we are informed and we know what we’re getting for the hard earned cash we’re dishing out. When I make a purchase, empowered by my knowledge of the product and where my money is going, that positive experience lives on with the product and I’ll become an unofficial ambassador for that brand. It becomes a story I’m proud to tell.