Stack Your Branding Deck with a (Kate) Spade

Smart marketing strategists study their direct competitors. Really smart marketing strategists study every company and company leader that has something to teach them.

You don’t have to be in the food industry to learn the value of consistency and quality from McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, and you don’t have to be a discount retail store to gain insight about building a business from Sam Walton, founder of Walmart.

Stack Your Branding Deck With A (Kate) Spade | KOTAW Content MarketingAnd you don’t have to be a fashion retailer — or any kind of retailer — to learn some valuable lessons about branding strategy from Deborah Lloyd, Kate Spade’s president and chief creative officer, who pushed the company to become a global lifestyle brand.

No matter what or whom you’re branding — an auto company, an author, a pharmaceutical company or a law firm — you’d be smart to study the marketing acumen of Lloyd, whose customers happily spend $400 on impractical dresses and who often send Lloyd gifts, most notably macarons, a French cookie for which she has a special fondness.

Over the weekend, I attended a Kate Spade event at The Grove here in Los Angeles. I didn’t know precisely where at the mall the event would take place but, when I looked over the railing of the parking garage’s eighth floor and spotted a bright yellow and pink truck, I knew it belonged to Kate Spade. Just as I knew that the promised free doughnuts would be coated with sprinkles.

Kate Spade never gets lost in a crowd.

Lloyd recently told Blue Carreon, a fashion writer for the Huffington Post that her legacy was a bow. Indeed, one of the notable distinctions about Kate Spade designs is the addition of a bow or something similarly whimsical to an otherwise conservative dress, shoe or handbag. Everything about Kate Spade is good-naturedly cheeky: think Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

I am far from an expert on fashion — that honor belongs to my younger daughter — but I can distinguish a Kate Spade anything without looking at its logo. So here’s the first branding lesson you can learn from Kate Spade: make your brand memorable.

Here are 5 more lessons Kate Spade can teach you about branding strategy:

1. Never forget your core customer

When Kate Brosnahan Spade, the company’s founder and namesake, started selling cloth-covered handbags in the 1990s, she identified her audience as an upper middle class New York woman.

The company has evolved, expanding its line and locations, and changed ownership. Lloyd, brought on board in 2007, has led much of the change. But the brand continues to cater to the type of woman who will “skirt the rules” but not break them.

Katherine Kotaw having fun in the sun at a Kate Spade event in Los Angeles.

Katherine Kotaw having fun in the sun at a Kate Spade event in Los Angeles.

Many of Kate Spade’s new millennium customers have never visited, much less lived in New York. But Lloyd has not forgotten her core audience. Nearly every collection includes several classic designs, such as the Jillian bow-front dress and the Karolina closed toe pumps.

No matter what service or product you sell and no matter how large your company grows, don’t neglect your core clientele.

2. Take calculated risks

KSNY x Darcel, the Kate Spade collection on display at the Grove, includes bold graphics by a New York designer named Craig Redman. Both the graphics — hot dogs, doughnuts and red apples — and most of the items in the collection — t-shirts, nail polish and makeup bags — are aimed at a teen audience.

Will teens in Los Angeles include New York-inspired accessories in their back-to-school purchases? Will mothers, who associate Kate Spade with flirty yet tasteful fashion, agree to buy their daughters $98 hot-dog-shaped coin purses?

Lloyd is betting they will:

“We turned to our home — New York City — for inspiration. In this crazy town, anything goes!” the company’s blog proclaims.

The collection is a risk for Lloyd. Kate Spade is not as well-known on the West Coast as it is on the East, and parents who buy Kate Spade for their daughters are more often shopping for graduation dresses than cell phone covers.

But no brand grows without trying new things. And if you want to court a younger audience, an upscale LA mall is a good place to test the market. Three hours after the event started, the line to get past the velvet ropes stretched a block long. Curiosity doesn’t always lead to purchases, but anyone who spent an hour staring at the carnival-like Kate Spade truck was going to have some memory — good or bad — imprinted on her brain.

3. Maintain brand integrity

Storyteller Katherine Kotaw enjoys a mini doughnut at a Kate Spade event in Los Angeles | KOTAW Content Marketing

Katherine Kotaw, wearing her Kate Spade typewriter necklace, shows off the sprinkled treat she scored courtesy of Sidecar Doughnuts.

The average parent finds back-to-school shopping expensive. Add enough bargain items to your cart at Walmart, Target and Staples and you’ll run up a bill that will remind you of Christmas — but without the joy of eggnog and tinsel.

The KSNY x Darcel collection may appeal to a typical teenage girl, but the price tags may shock both them and their parents.

A pair of patent leather Gooey flats, adorned with a plastic doughnut, are priced at $258, $20 more than the price tag on a more classically-styled Tula flat.

Wouldn’t you think aimed at teens would cost less — considerably less — than a collection targeted at adults?

Smart decisions about pricing demand knowing your audience and respecting your brand identity. Walmart shoppers buy Twizzler’s licorice for about $1.75 a pound. Grove patrons spend 8 times as much — $13.99 a pound — for bulk bin licorice at Dylan’s Candy Bar.

At Dylan’s, part of the Farmer’s Market adjacent to the Grove, people pay a premium for their sweets because of the experience — loudly playing bubblegum music and a Willy Wonka-like explosion on their senses. And because they can afford to.

Kate Spade keeps its prices high because they know their audience will pay a premium for the label.

Never undersell your brand’s identity. Not on price, not on service, not on quality. If you want your audience to respect your brand, maintain its integrity.

Writer Katherine Kotaw shares branding tips inspired by Kate Spade | KOTAW Content Marketing

Never one to turn down a sweet, Katherine Kotaw gets ready to take a bite of her free mini doughnut!

4. Invite disagreement

Social media puts brands under sometimes harsh public scrutiny. It’s tempting to delete all unflattering comments posted to your company blog or Facebook accounts — or to avoid social media altogether.

But a willingness to accept criticism demonstrates confidence in your brand. And negative comments can help rather than harm your brand.

Not everyone is in love with the KSNY x Darcel collection. Melissa Miller wrote this comment on the Kate Spade blog: “Wow, I’m sorry to say — I have been a big customer — but you are losing it. Who is your target audience again? Children? These look like Halloween costumes, not serious clothes that grown women would actually wear to work or whatever.”

If you’d read a comment like this about your latest product or newly-launched service, you’d be tempted to take it down. Don’t.

Let your customers know that you value their opinions — good or bad — and they’ll stay loyal to your brand.

5. Have fun

No matter what business you’re in, make your brand fun at least some of the time.

This doesn’t mean you should swap out the mahogany table in your boardroom for something in kitschy Formica or that you should put smiley faces on your company’s letterhead.

But bring at least the occasional bit of Kate Spade whimsy to your brand.

We’re not giving away free doughnuts as rewards, but we’d still really, really appreciate your feedback!

Please comment below — then go out and treat yourself to something sweet!


  1. Alexis says:

    So impressed by your gift of seeing the storytelling and marketing potential in everything.

    • Katherine Kotaw says:

      Many thanks, Alexis. I hope you’ll visit the blog often. Just so you know, the Off the Clock posts will always appear below the featured post, even if it’s more current. If you want to make sure you don’t miss anything, there’s a separate page for the Off the Clock and Our Blog posts. Come back soon!

  2. Elyse says:

    I’m a huge fan of kate spade new york and I spent many years working for the company. I believe that Deborah Lloyd and all of the senior account marketing executives would be so impressed by your article and also honored by your high praise of the company’s branding efforts. I know that the kate spade new york team works really hard to promote the company as a lifestyle brand so I’m sure the company would be delighted that your agency highlighted them as THE model for branding.

  3. Denise says:

    I’m interested in your thoughts on the evolution of the Kate Spade brand. When the brand was fairly new (before Deborah Lloyd came on board as creative director) one of the chief criticisms of the line was that the design of their handbags was so simple (cloth-covered, structured box-shape construction) that they could be easily replicated. In fact, shopping mall kiosks sold “kate spade new york” labels and provided the service of sewing them onto generic, similarly designed purses. But now, as you say, the company is the epitome of distinction and provides the perfect example of branding. Thanks to Deborah Lloyd, Kate Spade is probably the most recognizable, unique brand of its kind. The transition is remarkable. Great article, Katherine.

    • Katherine Kotaw says:

      Yes, Denise, the brand has certainly evolved. There remains simplicity in the cut of dresses and bags, but nothing could be easily replicated by a knock-off artist. And that’s what intelligent branding is all about — creating something coveted and distinctive.

  4. Sharon says:

    I wonder if it would have been a better idea to lower the prices somewhat on the teen-oriented Darcel pieces. Not so much that the reduction would undersell the brand, but maybe just enough so that it’s slightly more affordable for teenagers (or more reasonable to ask parents to pay).

    • Jules says:

      @Sharon. In a video on Deborah Lloyd is promoting the Darcel items as pieces of art.

    • Katherine Kotaw says:

      You make an excellent point, Sharon. The Darcel pieces definitely would have been out of my price range when I was shopping for my daughters. I am guessing, though, that the Darcel collection is aimed at a small market — private school kids. We’ll have to wait and see if the high-price strategy pays off.

  5. Meghan says:

    Lesson #3 about maintaining brand integrity is really poignant. A lot of companies are offering cheapened versions of themselves in the hope of appealing to — or becoming more accessible to — a wider audience. For instance, high-end designers are now making it a habit to collaborate with companies like Target and H&M. I think Kate Spade got it right when they established their lower price point sister company, Kate Spade Saturday. The prices and designs (higher hemlines, lower necklines etc.) of Kate Spade Saturday are geared toward a younger market, but the spirit and integrity of the original Kate Spade is still intact. Yes, the price points are lower, but not to an extreme (think a dress for $180 instead of $380). It’s nothing like Rodarte pretending to sell couture for 20 bucks at Target. Amazing quote from your article that I couldn’t agree more with: “Never undersell your brand’s identity. Not on price, not on service, not on quality. If you want your audience to respect your brand, maintain its integrity.”

    • Katherine Kotaw says:

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Meghan. I agree that Kate Spade made a smart decision to separate its “Saturday” store from its main brand. They are maintaining brand integrity while also cultivating a new audience. In a similar, smaller way, we keep our Off the Clock blog separate from the main blog. OTC are frothy posts about things the KOTAW team does after hours, while the main blog focuses on our real work in personal branding, content marketing and such. Please visit the blog again soon, Meghan.

  6. Hello darling….

    I know NOTHING about Kate Spade or Deborah Lloyd, but I know one thing, for sure: my Kat’s brand identity is #KOTAWEsome

    As always, I was transported to the land of $380 bags, pink donuts with sprinkles and an upscale lifestyle through your words. I completely agree with Meghan. The following lines left me in awe of your skills as a writer and your genuine aura as a person: ““Never undersell your brand’s identity. Not on price, not on service, not on quality. If you want your audience to respect your brand, maintain its integrity.”

    Most importantly, you look SUPER-cute in that lovely outfit, and your smile leaves me feeling so much better about life!!! #Muaahhh

    I LOVE you, Kat….


    • Katherine Kotaw says:

      How kind you are, dearest Kit! And how happy it makes me to know my words transported you!!

      Maintain YOUR brand integrity, Kit. You are building something truly special. Nurture and protect it.

      And keep smiling your dazzling smile. ;)

  7. […] as I mentioned in my blog about kate spade new york — despite not being a fashion aficionado like Kelsey, I can spot a kate spade item without ever […]

  8. Tammie says:

    I just live that you reposted this. The fact is, this still holds true. And, I live in a college town, you have no idea what kind of things will catch on. I see kids every night out on the town in hoodie pajamas. Bc they are cold. I am sure if they started to be couture, they would alllll wear them out. I just loved this article.

    • Katherine Kotaw says:

      Juicy Couture made a fortune on what was essentially hoodie pajamas. But they didn’t successfully evolve and they shuttered all of their U.S. stores. No one wanted to spend $150 on a pair of sweat pants that were no longer cool.

      I’m so happy to see you here again, Tammie! Thank you for your kind words and keen insights.



  9. […] Lloyd, Kate Spade’s president and chief global officer, has fans who know her taste so well that she routinely […]

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