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Brands Should be the New Outlets for Self-Expression, WGSN Says

One step (or misstep) can make or break a brand in 2019.

This month alone, millennial-centric brands like Equinox, SoulCycle and Milk Bar experienced backlash when it was revealed that one if their investors, billionaire Stephen Ross, was hosting a fundraiser for President Trump’s reelection. For a week, celebrities like Chrissy Teigen, Billy Eichner and George Takei expressed plans to boycott some of the businesses. Likewise, designer Prabal Gurung and Rag & Bone pulled their upcoming New York Fashion Week shows out of Hudson Yards, a property owned by Ross.

Other times, news, a swift response or a clever marketing initiative can swing in a brand’s favor. Take, for instance, the “clap back,” a popular strategy that brands as varied as Wendy’s, Netflix and Patagonia have used to respond to critics on social media. These typically sassy responses tend to generate a flurry of applause (via the clapping hand emoji) from consumers.

What most of these brands have is personality. In an effort to spark retail magic, WGSN senior consultant Rachel Dimit outlined the “juice” behind some of the most sought after brands, urging brands to “get a little political, a little bit philosophical and even a little bizarre.”

This year, an Interactive Advertising Bureau survey found that young consumers are nearly twice as likely to choose brands that express who they are, Dimit reported.

“This is to say that brands are the new outlets for self-expression, whether through design, cultural cachet, social currency or Instagram-ability,” she explained.

Which is exactly why consumers are unafraid to jump ship when a company is struck by the bad publicity gods. Consumers, no matter how popular the product, do not want to be guilty by association.

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However, a new class of “cool kid” brands in the high-end and mid-tier markets have flourished by celebrating self-expression and identity, and “setting a bold tone that is trickling down to mass market,” Dimit said. These brands, she added, are new tastemakers in fashion that are changing the way consumers view design, inclusivity and storytelling.

Since 2006, rising fashion star Teflar Clemens has become the poster child for inclusivity with his line of luxury streetwear called Teflar. In 2017, he nabbed a the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Award and his show has become a hotly-anticipated event on the NYFW calendar. “But the social and political landscape of today is helping his defiance of gender, race and class resonate widely,” Dimit said.

The designer “retools the pain of being a black man in America into scenes of triumph and joy,” she said, noting collections like his Fall ’19 western-inspired line that references the “Yeehaw Agenda” which has become associated with rapper Lil Nas X, who publicly came out as gay this summer.

This “retooling” was even applied to White Castle uniforms, which Clemens redesigns each season for its 15,000 employees in an effort to make service workers feel less like a “billboard” and more like themselves. “These uniforms are pretty coveted now,” Dimit said. “Opening Ceremony wants to carry them and sell them for $200. That makes the workers behind the counter feel cool and empowered.”

Meanwhile Italian-British brand Aries has succeeded in “seamlessly blurring the line between menswear and womenswear” even though the streetwear brand launched as women’s line. “This is one of the first brands that men are reaching across the aisle to wear,” Dimit said.

And it’s paying off.

Aries, according to Dimit, saw 200 percent growth last year when it decided to pivot toward men’s wear buyers.

“It’s refreshing to see men being forced to make an effort to cross the gender boundary and not just putting the onus on women, because Aries represents a vibe that everybody wants to support,” Dimit said. “It’s a customer who can decide which pieces to wear and where to draw the line on their own self-expression.”

Aries sweatshirt
Aries Aries

That’s not to say brands from the old guard can’t be reinvented.

KFC, formerly known as Kentucky Fried Chicken, staged a comeback by creatively overcoming a perception problem it had with millennial consumers. KFC has become a master of “buzzy licensing deals” including chicken-flavored nail polish, fried chicken-scented and an entire line of apparel, licensed apparel and accessories, Dimit reported.

The company even found a way to earn street-cred by tapping into the fervor for exclusive streetwear. For Fall ’18, the fast food chain teamed with Japanese streetwear brand Human Made for a pop-up shop and a limited-edition collection of apparel, which became a hot commodity in the streetwear resale scene. Dimit reported that apparel was listed for as much as $300 on Grailed, while a ceramic chicken bucket was going for $10,000.

Consumers are eating it up. Dimit reported that KFC has outperformed the other fast food brands in the Yum! Brands portfolio, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, and has seen 16 consecutive quarters of same sales growth.

Similarly, Crocs, another “modern-day Cinderella story” turned a new leaf this year through an oddball collaboration with face-tattooed musician and long-time Crocs fan, Post Malone.

Teens are driving the popularity of Crocs, according to the latest Piper Jaffray survey of Gen Z. 
Crocs x Post Malone Courtesy of Crocs

The EVA shoe brand said Malone caught its attention when he tweeted “U can tell a lot about a man by the Jibbitz in his Crocs.” The initial collaboration—a clog with a devil print and six special edition Jibbitz—sold out in 10 minutes. The second in 10 seconds, Dimit reported.

As a brand that was once on the brink of bankruptcy, Crocs is now on the rebound by playing up what people described as its downfall—quirky design. This year alone, Crocs unveiled clogs with pockets to store small items, and clogs with sun visors. In Q2, the company saw revenues increase 12.5 percent to $358.9 million, leading the brand to raise its guidance for revenue for the rest of the year.

“With their impressive Hail Mary to the Gen Z crowd with the Post Malone collab, Crocs realize that nods to kitschy ironic accessories would be their saving grace,” Dimit said.