Consumers expect high-quality innovative products from the brands they trust. They expect consistency and reliability, not just in the messaging, design and fit of a brand, but in its commitment to being the decent and honest “global citizen” espoused in its corporate messaging.
They buy into brands whose lifestyle and values they align with and, in return, they expect the brands that they invest in to “walk the talk” of the requisite social responsibility initiatives, supply chain transparency and creation of desirable products that make them look good and perform better.
Abide by this pact and you’ll likely have a customer for life. Break it, and you could very well break your brand, so important is this trust factor between brand and today’s brand ambassador (aka consumer).
Three key areas to building and maintaining this sacrosanct trust in your brand are: accountability, speed and innovation in product development, and supply chain visibility.
Your brand has an intangible value that you, and especially your shareholders, probably don’t really want to know the value of due to negative PR. If your brand name is on the product, be it an issue with product quality or social compliance, you are accountable. As we’ve seen time and again being associated with a social compliance or quality failure cannot only be embarrassing, but quite costly for a brand or retailer.
The actual failure may have nothing to do with your product, but be guilt by association to something buried deep in the supply chain. These associations have a history of suddenly becoming trending items on social media and, inevitably, the brand becomes the scapegoat, share prices tumble and internally, heads start rolling.
Boards of directors and investors have certainly taken notice of this risk as of late and are demanding visibility as to which suppliers are approved and which products have been placed in which facilities.
As such, most companies have already established vetting, certification and auditing procedures but, more often than not, even with the sophisticated systems available, the paper trail is scattered across desks and functional areas where details lie unsearchable in PDF files attached to emails. However, if there is ever an issue or even a whisper of a potential threat, time is of the essence to identify where products are and which ones could be affected. It won’t wait until the sourcing team is back from a factory visit on the other side of the globe. Because, this is not just a sourcing issue; it affects the entire organization from design to point of sale. If your products are found to contain restricted substances or are tainted with dust from a building collapse, everyone in the organization is held accountable.
Many aspects of quality can be seen or felt, such as fabric characteristics or construction, but things like material content, chemicals used in a fabric finish or the ethical use of labor are all but invisible to the average consumer. Most of these elements are likely not forefront in their minds when they buy something, but consumers do expect that brands know what goes into their products.
Today’s supply chain visibility means an acute understanding of tiers far deeper than ever before, for not just raw materials but the chemical sources going back to the cotton field. This is becoming a critical component of what defines accountability and also plays a large role in the control of trust in quality. Smart brands need the right technology to enable access to this information throughout their business processes.
While years ago, assuring social and environmental compliance for mills and fiber sources was secondary to material development, now it must happen beforehand or in parallel. Verifying current approved vendor status or flagging potential new direct vendor partners, and the layers of their vendor partners, for the compliance team to vet is easier when this data is visible through a shared real-time system that’s available during material development.
Connecting material information and inputs to the source, supplier and test results is a critical piece of maintaining credible visibility and quality while realizing speed-to-market goals.
Speed and Innovation
There is a lot of excitement surrounding the introduction of innovative new performance materials. For brands that develop materials, staying on top of aesthetic trends, construction techniques and finishes, and delivering their own take on these is key to staying relevant in the marketplace.
In most companies, materials development is typically started before product development, or may be an ongoing process independent of product. In either case, efficient development is key to getting new innovations to market quickly. Innovators such as, Under Armour and Patagonia use TEXbase’s Materials Connect software to quickly develop, test and get new materials into production rapidly, In addition, they are creating a supply chain map from the start, which connects their testing labs and suppliers. When the materials and sources are approved, this information can be shared with product developers and other systems.
Many PLM systems capture basic material data such as supplier, content, price, and color, which is adequate for most sourced fabric or an already developed one. However, material developers often require more detail to capture polymer, fiber, yarn, construction and chemical data along with the iterations and testing required throughout the development process. In the case of a last minute supplier change or, more commonly, a last minute resourcing effort, material developers really benefit from info available and searchable right at their fingertips. As claims surrounding performance of fabrics and garments increase, documented lab testing of materials and final products is a life or death requirement – not only in dollars and cents but as well in the intangible value of a brand.
A nimble and transparent supply chain can enable speed to market while at the same time reinforcing the ability of a brand to innovate and meet the trust expectations of its ambassadors.
Now, more than ever, supplier, compliance and material data needs to be connected and accessible from supply chain to in-store and back to product and material development teams. Within a brand, your approach must be proactive to manage compliance and complexity with clear protocols that support modern customer expectations. Access to certifications, audits, specifications and tests surrounding product can easily prevent a $10,000 issue from becoming a multi-million dollar one. Building in this visibility proactively enables you to react quickly and troubleshoot if there is a problem and on the flip side can facilitate even faster innovation.
Capturing all of this data in one place brings accountability, visibility and trust to the forefront of your brand identity and functions as an extra insurance policy against the dreadful ramifications of that which we all strive to avoid – realizing the true intangible value of consumer confidence.
Kilara Le is an experienced apparel industry consultant with a passion for design, textiles, streamlining product development and implementing technology that moves the industry forward.