Monday, January 11, 2010

Fashion-brand v Creator-brand in the recession

I am often asked about the role of "designer brands" in independent practice today. My view is that they can be useful but should not play a major part in an independent's strategy.

We need to address first things first.

This definition of "Designer Brand" is a misnomer.  There is a distinction between fashion-house and jewellery-house collections, which most will call "designer frames" or "luxury frames", and creator collections which can span the price ranges but seem to deliver much more excitement (and nervousness).

The latter, ironically, are imbued with innovative original design and creativity - its part of their DNA, whereas the former tend to be more of a formula (OK there are some, I think).

By definition therefore, if you want to know what styles are going to be important in the market we need to look to the edgy creators first. Everyone can recognise that Alain Mikli was central in resurrecting the trend of the strong brow bar.  Today this leading design edge is now provided by people like Jean-Francois Rey with his 2 main brands JFRey and BOZ.

I have found the French very strong in creativity and they use this to provide an alternative to the fashion-house brands of Italy. Their ingenuity allows opticians to offer unique, attractive and business building eyewear that demands attention in an increasingly polarised and homogenous market. The Koali and Oga collections, from Morel France are worth a look - they provide something dedicated to women and men respectively with award winning POS materials.

But the Italian's are not all about fashion brand - a design company NICO Design offer Derapage - this is the most awarded eyewear collection in Italy. This fact tells its own story about quality of design v "designer brands". Even the name (which means the edgy way a rally driver takes a corner) is intended to communicate the experimental "pushing the boundaries" approach.

Let's face it - the recession has affected everyone's buying decisions. We're all more deliberate and careful. It seems that with eyewear purchases especially the first thing consumers consider is "value for money".

Consumers are wondering if fashion house brands represent best value to them when they know that they are paying for the brand as part of their purchase. Many more people these days seem to be considering the prime attributes of the frame first -

"Do I look great in these?"
"Are they comfortable?"
"Will these suit everyday?"

For sunglasses the brand is of greater significance - whereas the brand, for those buying ophthalmic frames, is secondary.

What about the integrity of the brand? Can this be achieved in this segment?

Much of the cachet of the brand has its roots in exclusivity - but how can that stand up against being sold cheaply on the internet or in supermarket outlets?

In fact if we look for a moment at the structure of the market and at those who have bought the licenses for these fashion house brands we see that 2 out of the "big 3" are part of the same group as the retailer (see an earlier blog post).

So what does the fashion-house brand offer the independent optician?

The main reason an independent would require a fashion-house brand is in order to position themselves to a certain market segment - a case of "positioning by association" i.e. we attract the people to us who appreciate the brand and its attributes.

My assertion is that this cannot be a sustainable long term strategy for them. We only have to look to the large manufacturers' appetite for retail themselves - take this to the nth degree and their shareholders will demand more of the brand equity for themselves.

The surest way for an independent to thrive today is to focus on unique (i.e. not widely available) quality products and audacious service and experience. In order to drive referrals (which do not require advertising) independents need to create the "I go to True-Joy opticians - they're just amazing..." or the "Where did you get those - you look fantastic!" - without these reactions a practice stultifies. And these reactions are not a function of designer brand.