By  on April 14, 2010

A fashion brand’s value is now defined by a clear point of view and a consistent marketing message among consumers trying to decide what to buy, according to a new study.

The 10th annual Brand Keys Fashion Brand Index poll found labels with strong images, such as Ralph Lauren, Armani, Nike, Brooks Brothers and Levi’s, were “more important” or “much more important” to 28 percent of those surveyed, a 14 percent increase compared with last year.(See chart at bottom of article.)

“The critical word in that finding is ‘buy,’” said Robert Passikoff, founder and president of the New York-based research firm. “Last year’s findings predicted that value, not price, was the watchword in consumer behavior. But the brand has now become a surrogate for value.

“True brands provide meaningful differentiation in a world overrun by commodities — this being especially true in the fashion arena,” he said. “It’s a return to where brands were in the Sixties when they actually stood for something. Consumers then perceive that it’s worth the money.”

The survey in February of 3,750 men and 3,750 women, ages 21 to 65, from across the U.S. posted “the highest increase in a decade and gives us a real clear picture” of what is “resonating” with consumers, Passikoff said.

Five years ago, fewer than 3 percent of U.S. apparel shoppers rated fashion brands and logos “more important” when deciding what to buy. “But the brand-to-fashion consumer mind-set changed dramatically…when it comes time to decide which brand they will buy,” Passikoff said.

In order to capitalize on this consumer mind-set, Passikoff said brands must have a message that speaks to their attributes. Despite the proliferation of celebrity fashion deals — Madonna’s juniors line at Macy’s or Selena Gomez’ label at Kmart — the power of a famous name isn’t meaningful to today’s consumer, he said, describing such associations as “borrowed equity.”

In order to rise, a brand must be “infused with some degree of meaning,” Passikoff said. “You have to stand for something in the consumers’ mind. [A lot of people in the] fashion industry think a snappy photo or a celebrity is what’s important, but consumers are beyond that.”

Ralph Lauren is the “gold standard” of this new consumer attitude because of its long-standing and unwavering association with classic Americana. “Everything they do is consistent,” he said. “Ralph Lauren doesn’t need a celebrity.”

Since embracing its heritage several years ago, Brooks Brothers has also enhanced its standing with shoppers, Passikoff said, adding that Diane von Furstenburg’s continued association with her signature wrap dress helped enhance that brand’s standing among consumers.

“With so many products virtually identical — a men’s polo shirt, for example — consumers will look to the brand name as the differentiator,” he said. “There are a lot of clothing labels competing out there, but just like the automotive and electronics retail categories, retailers are going to be seeing more culling of fashion brands by consumer.”

Favorite sports team 34%Favorite sports team 40%Ralph Lauren 36%
Ralph Lauren 32%Nike 30%Favorite sports team 27%
Armani 21%Ralph Lauren 28%Armani 23%
Nike 19%Polo 25%Chanel 20%
Polo 15%Brooks Brothers 20%Versace 18%
Brooks Brothers 14%Armani 18%Donna Karan 16%
Levi’s 13%Levi’s 16%Burberry 15%
Banana Republic 12%Tommy Hilfiger 15%Banana Republic 12%
Tommy Hilfiger/J. Crew 11%J. Crew 12%Levi’s 10%
Burberry/Chanel/Versace 10%Banana Republic 11%J. Crew 9%

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