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.
And 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.
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
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.
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!