Call it the physics of brand familiarity.

Time and space are the most crucial elements when it comes to creating a sense of familiarity — and even more so as the world’s of marketing and media grow more complex and cluttered, marketing experts point out.

Longevity is clearly critical in creating a lasting impression, although a savvy promotional tactic or ad still can create ephemeral awareness. At the same time, the growing number of consumers migrating to the mass market for at least some of their shopping means the ante for brands to command as much space as possible in stores is rising sharply, say observers.

The power of time and space is portrayed in the WWD100’s big winners: While their precise rankings jump around like checkers, the brand names on the board have remained much the same since WWD began the research in 1993 to identify and rank the names with which the women and teens polled are “very familiar.”

Where larger differences exist between the 2,320 women and teens polled for this year’s WWD100 — say, a differential of 20 percentage points or more —teens ages 13 to 17 most often stood apart from the other groups, as one might expect, given their own lack of longevity relative to both their survey counterparts and heritage brands.

It’s not surprising, for instance, that just 18 percent of teens were very familiar with Bulova, versus 53 percent overall. Others with which teens’ familiarity significantly trailed that of the broader group included Jantzen, found very familiar by only 15 percent of teens versus 45 percent of all those polled; Pierre Cardin, 17 percent versus 46 percent; Totes-Isotoner, 18 percent versus 45 percent, and Monet, 18 percent versus 43 percent.

While those spreads range from 25 percentage points to 35 percentage points, rating gaps between brands more familiar to teens than to the overall group were significantly smaller. The divide was greatest for American Eagle, seen as very familiar by 68 percent of teens, against 45 percent overall — a gap of 23 percentage points. Others, predictably, included names hailing from the active, contemporary and denim sectors: Abercrombie & Fitch, found very familiar by 68 percent of teens against 50 percent overall; CK Jeans, 58 percent against 42 percent; Joe Boxer, 69 percent against 54 percent; Arizona Jean Co., 67 percent against 52 percent, and Adidas, 83 percent against 71 percent.Without question, the relationship between a brand’s familiarity among consumers and its longevity is strong. In fact, research conducted for WWD by customer loyalty specialist Brand Keys found the WWD100’s top 10 brands were more likely to be cited as “very familiar” by a factor of 19 percentage points than were those ranked 90 through 100. Hanes led the top 10, followed by L’eggs, Hanes Her Way, Timex, Nike, Levi Strauss, Fruit of the Loom, Old Navy, Calvin Klein and Gap. The final 11 began with Unionbay, ranked 90, followed by Cartier, Jones New York, Izod, Rockport, Coach, Monet, Olga, CK Jeans, J. Crew and Perry Ellis.

The curve ball when pitching such long-lived, well-recognized names, said Brand Keys president Robert Passikoff, is that, though familiarity may not breed contempt, it is not as strong an indicator of a brand’s profitability as it once was. “Familiarity doesn’t necessarily breed profitability,” Passikoff said. “There was a time when it was one of the better indicators. But in the 21st century, most of the brands that exist have established a certain level of familiarity.”

A case in point: Tommy Hilfiger. The brand ranked 13 on WWD’s list of 100 best-known fashion brands — despite the most difficult fiscal year in the history of Tommy Hilfiger Corp. For the year ended March 31, the company’s sales tallied $1.89 billion, versus $1.88 billion a year earlier, resulting in an eye-opening net loss, after a charge for an accounting change, of $513 million.

Indeed, when the longevity that builds familiarity becomes a given for so many labels, it ceases to differentiate one brand from another. Evidence of this condition can be found in the similarity of familiarity levels within the WWD100, among five major demographic groups of women surveyed: those ages 18 to 64; those in households with single incomes of $75,000 and up; those in households with dual incomes of $100,000 and up; Hispanic-Americans, and the 13- to 17-year-olds. For example, poll-topping Hanes was rated very familiar by 86 percent of the respondents overall, and ranged from 80 percent (teens) to 89 percent (dual household income, $100,000 and up) in achieving that level of familiarity. For Nike, the range ran from 79 percent (women 18 to 64) to 87 percent (teens 13 to 17). And for Gap, the spread was 73 percent (single household income of $75,000 and up) to 81 percent (teens 13 to 17). This pattern repeated itself throughout much of the WWD100.Then there’s the X factor: the emotional connection a brand makes with its target customer. It’s one that can carry a brand from simply being well-known to being well-liked — and oft-purchased.

“The notoriety of a brand doesn’t give a clue to consumers’ preference, love, or esteem for it,” said Marc Gobé, president and chief executive officer at brand-image creation firm Desgrippes Gobé Group. “Enron and WorldCom are well-known and not well-liked,” he noted. “If people were asked how they feel about a brand, we’d see a different list of ratings than one based on familiarity. This is why brands such as Ralph Lauren [ranked 20th in the WWD100] and Coach [ranked 95th] don’t show up higher,” Gobé posited.

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