By  on June 2, 2004

NEW YORK — Brand clutter actually may have an upside.

Clearly, the profusion of fashion names is making it harder than ever for consumers to differentiate one from another. But it also means a growing number of them — the 25 or so favorites — now possess the potential to burst onto the list of 10 apparel labels and logos American adults consider most important, although they’re not necessarily the ones they buy most often.

That’s because distinctions in popularity between the top 10 and 25 names have grown blurry, as they were rated more closely than in the past two years, noted Robert Passikoff, president of customer-loyalty specialist Brand Keys, in divulging exclusively to WWD his third annual fashion index. “Few would deny Nike or Ralph Lauren are doing it right; there are always market leaders. But the fact that several brands are new to the top 10 this year shows there is room for movement,” Passikoff declared.

To wit: Five brands are new to this year’s 10 most important as selected by a representative sample of 3,750 women and 3,750 men, drawn from the country’s nine census regions, who were surveyed by phone in the first quarter. They are J. Crew, ranking fourth and followed in the fifth through eighth slots by Gap, Adidas, National Hockey League-licensed apparel and Versace — names people had placed in their 25 or so favorites in 2003. Crew was cited by 12 percent of those polled, while the other four each were chosen by 10 percent.

Women added a trio of European designers to their 10 top labels — Versace, which placed seventh, mentioned by 16 percent of them; Chanel, eighth, also with a 16 percent share, and Louis Vuitton, ninth, picked by 15 percent. One new name rated in men’s top 10 this year: Adidas, identified by 18 percent of them.

Curiously, Nike tied with J. Crew as women’s favorite brand, as both won mention by 25 percent of the group, but among men, Nike tied for second with Armani, as each was selected by 23 percent. Brooks Brothers topped the men’s poll, favored by 26 percent.In all, 51 apparel labels were identified as preferred brands in this year’s fashion index, up 24 percent from 41 monikers last year and up 42 percent from 36 names in 2002.

That’s the good news.

Despite such shifts in the seismic scale of brand impact, Brand Keys found the capacity of fashion names and symbols to influence consumers keeps diminishing.

Indeed, the stakes are rising for brands with weak images as it gets harder for apparel marketers, among others, to differentiate those labels based on tangible assets such as product or store features, which are growing ever easier to duplicate, said Lois Huff, a senior vice president and consumer behavior specialist at management consultant Retail Forward.

Instead, apparel players ought to develop intangible assets, like clearly defined, relevant brand images; closer relationships with customers, and improved shopping experiences, Huff counseled in a presentation about dynamics influencing people to shop at Retail Forward’s 2004 Strategic Outlook Conference here last week.

As for creating meaningful brand images, the apparel business clearly has a long way to go, based on the findings of the Brand Keys fashion index.

Nearly two-thirds, or 64 percent, of the adults polled by Brand Keys said apparel names and icons are much less or less important to them compared with a few years ago, up from 61 percent in 2003. The change came entirely in the minds of men, with 64 percent placing less importance on it, up from 58 percent last year. The share of women who found brands less significant held steady at 64 percent.

“Women are smarter shoppers,” Passikoff maintained. “They pay more attention to fabrics and constructions, thus they put brands in perspective sooner. Men are catching up,” he continued. “They’re starting to make the effort to recognize quality apparel, instead of simply relying on a brand.”

Men have traversed some of their fashion learning curve online, Passikoff said of a group he described as “no longer content to always run to Brooks Brothers or Sears.”

Another measure of fashion brands’ fading clout is that licensedwear from shoppers’ favorite sports teams received a larger share of mentions than any single apparel label among people’s 10 favorites. It garnered a mention from 44 percent of adults, including more than half the men surveyed, or 55 percent, and more than one-third of the women, or 36 percent. As Passikoff pointed out, “People are investing more emotion in sports teams than fashion brands.”Yet some fashion brands remain alluring.

Designer names accounted for seven of the top 10 women’s favorites but only two of men’s. Sports-based monikers took six slots on the men’s chart but didn’t break into the roster of labels most popular with women, except for licensedwear from a favorite team.

Designers making the women’s grade, rated third through ninth, respectively, were: Giorgio Armani, mentioned by 22 percent of the group; Calvin Klein, with a 19 percent share; Perry Ellis, 18 percent, and Donna Karan, 16 percent, as well as Versace, Chanel and Vuitton. Further, the four European designers appearing among women’s 10 favorites this year compared with just one in 2003, Armani, who was ranked third — an upswing Passikoff pegged to the longevity and ad presence of Versace, Chanel and Vuitton, as well as an ebbing in the buy-American sensibility in the 32 months since 9/11.

On the men’s chart, second-place Nike was followed by third-place NHL-licensed apparel, preferred by 21 percent of those polled; seventh-ranked Adidas, with an 18 percent share, and licensedwear from the National Football League, Major League Baseball and National Basketball Association filling out the eighth through 10th spots. NFL and MLB apparel each were cited by 16 percent of men, while NBA items were mentioned by15 percent.

The two designer brands most popular with men were perennial powerhouses: Armani, favored by 23 percent for a second-place tie with Nike, and Ralph Lauren, named by 19 percent and placing fourth.

A significant difference in the power of apparel brands and logos this year unfolded according to age group: The youngest cohort surveyed — ages 21 to 34 — pushed three new brands into their 10 most important, compared with just a single new one in those most popular with both the 35- to 44-year-olds and 45- to 59-year-olds.

New entries for the youngest segment were NFL-licensedwear, which ranked sixth, with a 23 percent share; Gap, eighth, with mentions by 20 percent, and J. Crew, ninth, with 19 percent. Vuitton was the only new name among those most prized by 35- to 44-year-olds, placing sixth and selected by 22 percent of them, and Chanel was the sole newcomer to favorites of those ages 45 to 59, rating ninth and noted by 18 percent of the cohort.“While apparel marketers traditionally haven’t done a great job marketing, they tend to do the best job with younger customers,” Passikoff observed. That tendency, he said, explains the decline in share of adults ages 21 to 34, who found apparel brands and logos much less or less important this year than in 2003, by a margin of 6 percentage points, or 40 percent of the group, down from 46 percent a year ago.

In contrast, observers agree, the declining influence of apparel brands and logos for Baby Boomers ages 45 to 59 reflects a lack of care and consistency in targeted marketing, rather than a burgeoning disinterest in fashion within the group. Nearly three-quarters, or 74 percent, of those Boomers said apparel names and symbols were less important to wear, up from 70 percent a year earlier.

However, unlike previous waves of people north of 49, today’s 50-and-up set is spending on apparel aggressively, noted Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at Port Washington-based market researcher NPD Group. “Apparel continues as a priority for the Boomer generation and they’re buying it passionately,” he observed. “The fiftysomething market today thinks like they’re still in their 40s or 30s, and has more discretionary income than any other age group. The younger you go, the less a priority apparel becomes,” Cohen added. “They’re thinking about how they’re going to pay for a car or plasma-screen TV.”

As a result, traditional department stores are starting to add apparel and accessories with fiftysomethings in mind, Cohen noted, pointing out Federated Department Stores is the latest to do so. Saks Fifth Avenue initiated a similar effort last year, and Lord & Taylor did so starting in 2002, he added. “The focus on the youth market has only born so much fruit,” Cohen said in explaining those attempts to lure the 50-plus fashion customer.

Whether they’re brands ignoring fashion-hungry Boomers or simply failing to reach out to the broader population of shoppers, apparel players ought to work harder to connect with consumers, Passikoff advised. “Most apparel brands don’t have much impact,” the Brand Keys president asserted. “They’re talking to each other more than to the consumer.”People are looking for excitement, but much of the apparel business is playing it safe in its marketing efforts, said Sam Shahid, president and creative director, Shahid & Co., who himself is no stranger to controversy, as the creator of Abercrombie & Fitch’s former racy magalogues. “Fashion companies are playing it safe, so people don’t feel fashion is something fabulous to have,” Shahid offered in referring to apparel ads that portray a dreary similarity in visual motif, regardless of product or fashion strata. “It’s as if everything has become basics,” he added of the syndrome, which observers have blamed on an over-reliance on a relatively small group of models and photographers.

One fashion ad that did capture Shahid’s fancy recently was a full-page black-and-white portrait for Fred Perry polo shirts. “It was just a photo of a boy or girl wearing the shirt,” Shahid said. “There was no type in the ad — just the Fred Perry logo. It conjured up a sense of quality and simplicity,” he related. “They weren’t trying to be Dior or anyone else.”

And the fashion business will have to make a stronger appeal to contemporary values like quality and simplicity if it expects to develop more effective marketing campaigns. “They need to spend more time understanding what the consumer values,” Passikoff emphasized. “People are so much smarter than they were 15 years ago.”

10 FAVORITE APPAREL BRANDS BYGENDER
Which Labels and Logos Are More Important Than a Few YearsAgo?
WOMEN
MEN

WOMEN & MEN

BRAND
SHARE
BRAND
SHARE
BRAND
SHARE
1. Nike
25%
1. Brooks Bros.
26%
1. Nike
24%
2. J. Crew
25%
2. Nike
23%
2. Giorgio Armani
22%
3. Giorgio Armani
22%
3. Giorgio Armani
23%
3. Ralph Lauren
18%
4. Calvin Klein
19%
4. NHL licensedwear
21%
4. J. Crew
12%
5. Perry Ellis
18%
5. Ralph Lauren
19%
5. Gap
10%
6. Donna Karan
16%
6. L.L. Bean
18%
6. Adidas
10%
7. Versace
16%
7. Adidas
18%
7. NHL licensedwear
10%
8. Chanel
16%
8. NFL licensedwear
16%
8. Versace
10%
9. Louis Vuitton
15%
9. MLB licensedwear
16%
9. Levi’s
9%
10. Gap
10%
10. NBA licensedwear
15%
10. MLB licensedwear
8%
Note: Respondents IDENTIFIED their own favoritesrather than selecting from a list.
Source: Brand Keys Fashion Index

Americans are investing more emotion in sports teams than fashion brands: 55 percent of men and 36 percent of women like to wear items licensed by their favorite team — far more than those who prefer a favorite fashion label.
10 FAVORITE APPAREL BRANDS BYAGE
Which Labels and Logos Are More Important Than a Few YearsAgo?
21-34 YEARS OLD
35-44 YEARS OLD

45-59 YEARS OLD

BRAND
SHARE
BRAND
SHARE
BRAND
SHARE
1. Nike
23%
1. Nike
30%
1. Adidas
22%
2. Giorgio Armani
27%
2. Reebok
30%
2. Brooks Bros.
22%
3. Polo
27%
3. Calivn Klein
28%
3. NHL licensedwear
21%
4. Ralph Lauren
25%
4. NFL licensedwear
23%
4. MLB licensedwear
21%
5. Calivn Klein
24%
5. J.Crew
23%
5. Polo
20%
6. NBA Licensedwear
23%
6. Louis Vuitton
22%
6. Ralph Lauren
20%
7. NFL Licensedwear
23%
7. DKNY
22%
7. Giorgio Armani
20%
8. Gap
20%
8. Giorgio Armani
22%
8. Gap
19%
9. DKNY
19%
9. NFL licensedwear
20%
9. Chanel
18%
10. J.Crew
19%
10. Brooks Bros.
20%
10. Nike
18%
Note: Respondents identified their own favoritesrather than selecting from a list.
Source: Brand Keys Fashion Index

Young adults, ages 21 to 34, added the most new names to their top 10: NFL licensedwear, Gap and J. Crew.

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