No. 273: Modern Luxe Doesn’t Bend

Pictured: Outdoor Voices, from our Open Letter to DNVB CEOs

In November of 2016, Lean Luxe’s Paul Munford penned somewhat of a scripture to upstart modern luxury brands: promotion-heavy retailers will not last. There are few takeaways from “The Downward Spiral” that are worth mentioning as recent economic reports suggest that the retail apocalypse is coming to an end, a great sign for aspirational DNVBs that are looking to expand into physical retail.

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We are in a time of unprecedented retail brand launches, collaborations, acquisitions, and re-imaginations – much of which is online-first. This begs the question, what will separate the winners from the commodities? There are early and permanent decisions that determine a brand’s trajectory. For every Mizzen + Main or Ministry of Supply, there is a State and Liberty. For every Outdoor Voices, there is a Bandier. And for every Away, there is a Raden. Each decision matters. And no decision matters more than pricing and a brand’s promotional tendencies.

Here are the top ten takeaways from some of Munford’s best work:

  • No maneuver in retail appears to be as easy to roll out, yet no strategy is as detrimental to a retailer’s long term prospects as the heavy discount. It is a palliative pill: wonderful for the consumer in the short run, but ultimately bad for both business and shoppers over time. It commoditizes the brand, forcing companies to differentiate on price. 
  • The second problem, also related to scale, is systemic to the industry itself: The need to constantly add more and more products at regular intervals, flooding the marketplace with goods that are newer, but rarely better.
  • The lure of the discount, then, becomes too hard to resist. It provides a short term boost to the bottom line and the illusion of growth, but at the expense of brand reputation and sustainable profit — two vital arteries for a business’s overall health.
  • Modern luxury companies have figured out the formula, and it’s remarkably simple: create less merchandise than will sell (and predict, if possible, the sell-through rate, with pre-orders), keep demand high. Embrace the waiting list, as Everlane, Glossier, Caraa, and Alala, among others, often do. 
  • Never discount; preserve the standing of the brand. These tactics certainly do not work, however, or at least for very long, if product standards are below par.
  • Hermes, for instance, is notorious for never slashing prices. Its products carry a prestige because of that, and there is always a demand, no matter how frivolous the item. And they certainly are not above testing the limits of consumer devotion: It has even gone so far as to repackage its cutting floor leather scraps to sell them as high-priced gift boxes.
  • That opposition to discounting would come from founders within the emerging modern luxury industry is no coincidence. For one, it displays the trademark sense of calm confidence in the product that this group is quickly becoming known for. 
  • As for Mr. Preysman, the full price mantra feeds into his mission to constantly refine the product, to make it better, and push it ever closer to perfection according to the standards of the brand.
  • Surprisingly, rejecting the discount is also quite consumer-centric. The eternally-wise Ben Franklin said it best, of course, when he offered this observation: “The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.”
  • It takes superb maturity and a great deal of resilience to fight the urge for the temporary discount boost at the expense of preserving a long term reputation. 

Maturity, patience, grit, and perhaps temporary poverty are keys to developing the types of brands that grow to compete with age old legends and fierce (but hopefully friendly) rivals. In 2013, Brooks Brothers commented on Mizzen + Main’s influence on the shirting industry for the New York Times:

While Brooks Brothers experimented with “performance” shirts akin to Mizzen & Main’s, [Brooks Brothers’ spokesman] Mr. Blee said that customers preferred the general wearability of conventional all-cotton. The stretch fibers felt synthetic to them. Although a range of Brooks Brothers oxford shirts have moisture-wicking properties, he said, “We are known as a natural-fiber house: 100 percent cotton, 100 percent cashmere.

Just five years later, Brooks Brothers is launching a competitor to compete in a menswear world that is being re-defined by technical fabrics and other innovations.

Mizzen+Main on Twitter

we’re old enough to remember when Brooks Brothers laughed at performance menswear:

I remember the joy of that article hitting the newsstands on December 18, 2013. Not because of the notoriety that it would provide but because it had been over a year and half and we really needed the sales. We stood firm on our price while we built allegiances and Kevin worked feverishly to improve the product. And the company lasted. What Lavelle and team has done today is nothing short of spectacular. And it has allowed the brand to stand, eye to eye, in the same clubs and on the same courses as the company that invented the polo shirt (sorry, Ralph).

To achieve growth and longevity, branding cannot be viewed as a soft skill. Price cannot be viewed as an arbitrary number to manipulate. The five forces must always be considered. And patience must be paramount because great brands start slowly. In the age of modern luxury DNVB’s this is as important as the products themselves.

Read more: An Open Letter to DNVB CEOs (Issue No. 254)

Read the rest of Issue No. 273 here.

By Web Smith and Meghan Terwilliger | About 2PM

No. 271: A Modern Luxury Update

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There is a famous scene in The Social Network where Justin Timberlake’s portrayal of Sean Parker tells Jesse Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg contemporary the story of the Victoria’s Secret rebirth. In the script, it was Sean Parker that explained the genius of Les Wexner and his ability to change with the times after acquiring the $6 million / year business for a fraction of its real value, only to turn it into a $500 million dollar brand just four years later. The brand grew from four to nearly 100 stores in that short amount of time. It was a historic turnaround for a brand that was more niche than it was main street at the time.

The fundamentals of the brick and mortar lingerie business changed because Wexner emphasized the appeal of the brand to female consumers. He set aside the money-losing model of selling lingerie to men and replaced it with one that focused on female customers. But more importantly, he recognized that it should have been that way all along. It was an authentic move that evolved Victoria’s Secret (and its parent company: L Brands) into the $10 billion dollar company that it is today. But the brand is overdue for another shift. And it’s worth considering the recent hires and acquisitions by Wal-Mart to turn L Brands‘ most valuable ship around.

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Now led by CEO Jan Singer (former CEO of Spanx and Global VP at Nike), Victoria’s Secret cites the lingerie icon’s struggles on corporate restructuring, ending the famous catalog, and exiting the swimwear category. These are contributing factors, in addition to increasing pressure from eCommerce-first retailers.

The growing competition is promoting more variety in models and products. Now in its fifth year, online retailer ThirdLove has shoppers answer a series of intimate questions about their breasts — which of these nine illustrations matches your breast shape? — while reassuring consumers that every woman’s body is unique. The company has raised $13.6 million from investors and expects to double its sales this year. Companies like Adore Me, True&Co. and Everlane are taking a similar approach.

Business of Fashion

Their chief challenger, Adore Me (21) was founded in 2010 with the express intent to challenge Victoria’s Secret by giving consumers an online-first, inclusive alternative to the lingerie titan. The latest Inc. 5000 list has Adore Me’s growing 1,400% from 2014 and 2016 with revenues exceeding $100 million. Now, Adore Me is looking to expand offline and the timing couldn’t be worse for the L Brands subsidiary.

Niche players may only have a small share compared to Victoria’s Secret, but their innovative approaches mean they are nibbling away at its market share.

GlobalData Retail Managing Director Neil Saunders 

In addition to intimates brands expanding into VS’ territory, there are adjacent pressures from the athleisure market, an evolving beauty market, and the rejection of lingerie by consumers looking for comfort, function, and individuality. Rather than continue competing against the likes of Adore Me (21), THINX, Inc. (31), and Third Love (51), or Savage x Fenty, Victoria’s Secret could re-invest in the brand, messaging, and end-to-end processes by following Wal-Mart’s lead.

Making a strategic acquisition to evolve Victoria’s Secret’s prized retail real estate could be just what the forty-year old retail property needs. The brand has a history of retail innovation. In addition to Wexner’s early decision to rebrand the shopping experience, Victoria’s Secret was one of the first brand’s to invest in early eCommerce (1999). In a recent retail roundtable, it was proposed that L Brands execute a Lore-like acquisition to oversee the brand’s eCommerce and omni-channel experience.

In addition, an interesting pivot was discussed. Victoria’s Secret could house brands and content across beauty, women’s athleisure, and intimates. The express goal would be to rebuild Victoria’s Secret as the premiere women’s-only destination – a house of brands, with their VS namesake positioned as the most premium offering within the store.

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Lean Luxe Founder, Paul Munford

In a conference call with Lean Luxe’s Paul Munford, he added, “Not every brand deserves to exist forever.” He also added that L Brands‘ recent track record has been less than favorable, making the idea of a pivot like this highly unlikely. Specifically, he cited the $710 million dollar La Senza acquisition (2006) that did not achieve the intended effect. According to Munford, there was no indication that the retail group could operate with the same speed and precision that Wal-Mart has since Marc Lore became their eCommerce CEO. Munford added, “With Lore coming in at Wal-Mart, there wasn’t a negative track record of Walmart acquiring brands and dropping the ball. Walmart just started from scratch. So comparatively, Victoria’s Secret’s task seems harder.” 

Though Munford and I disagreed on the approach that the vaunted L Brands subsidiary should take, we did agree that VS is a brand that is long overdue for a modern luxury update. One of the first names that arose when discussing who’d be a great number two to Jan Singer was Emily Weiss, founder of Glossier.

Read more of the issue here.

By Web Smith and Meghan Terwilliger | About 2PM

Member Brief No. 14: The Brand Co-sign

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Introduction to intra-package advertising. About four months ago, a few things happened in a short period of time. There began early conversations around Facebook and Google’s privacy shortcomings, marketers began discussing ever-increasing top funnel advertising costs, and I began thinking through methods for vertical brands to offset their growing logistical costs. To solve for all three, I proposed a simple solution to a few high-volume, brand equitable retail startups: offer promotional space within your existing packaging to a like-minded brand. Add value to a buyer’s unboxing experience.

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