By  on November 16, 2005

NEW YORK — Celebrity mojo apparently isn't working much magic for fashion brands.

When 250 women and 250 men, ages 18 to 59, chosen from the country's nine census regions, were asked by marketing consultant Brand Keys to rate 50 fashion brands based on whether they represent the values those polled seek in apparel products, only five of the names fell on the high end of the first-time continuum. They were Chanel, Ralph Lauren, Isaac Mizrahi, Victoria's Secret and Donald Trump, earmarked by the respondents as human brands, or those most imbued with the qualities people desire in their apparel, such as style, color and comfort.

The culprit is fashion's current tendency to lean too heavily on associations with celebrities in hopes of achieving a halo effect. The presence of only 10 percent of the 50 fashion names in the top tier of values, said Brand Keys president Robert Passikoff, "mostly reflects that fashion brands don't do a good job of marketing themselves. They [tend to] borrow on the equity of a celebrity face to build clothing values."

While some U.S. consumers might enjoy associating themselves with the aura of a well-known name, Passikoff said, apparel brands can't rely on star power to build a healthy, let alone loyal, base of customers. Celebrities tend to move quickly in and out of favor, much as fashion itself, leaving brands hitched to the stars more exposed to swift reversals of fortune.

"There are probably only a handful of stars who could carry off a sustained effort to market a particular brand or their own [self-named] venture," said Kenneth Hirst, president and creative director of Hirst Pacific Ltd., whose firm has designed the bottles for the Jennifer Lopez and Celine Dion fragrances.

In addition, today's savvy shopper is less likely to expect a greater sense of style, or better quality, comfort or value in an article of clothing simply because it bears the stamp of someone famous.

Those observations are born out by data from NPD Fashionworld, which found the style and color of clothing were the biggest influences on apparel purchases in 2004, cited by a combined 62 percent of people polled by the market researcher, while the need to replace worn or ill-fitting items was the primary reason for seeking out new clothing in the first place.In contrast, NPD found that in 2004 celebrities influenced the apparel purchases of about 9 percent of Americans — compared with the 62 percent moved by style and color, and the 44 percent persuaded by comfort, but still a threefold increase from the 3 percent who said stars held sway in 2001.

Notable exceptions, Passikoff said, include Nicole Kidman and Donald Trump. Chanel's presence as a brand in the human category "translates to a case of borrowed equity [from Nicole Kidman] that works," he said. Trump, now associated with men's suits, as well as real estate and reality TV, symbolizes a sense of "excess" that strikes a chord with people who have a similar mind-set.

The three remaining categories on the Brand Keys Commodity-to-Human Brand Continuum further reflect the extent to which the 50 fashion brands evaluated resonate with Americans. The designation for those rated second highest was 21st-century brands, followed by labels and commodities. Seventeen brands, or 34 percent, were considered 21st century; 12, or 24 percent, were viewed as labels, and 16, or 32 percent, were seen as commodities.

For Passikoff, there were two surprises in the numbers: the dearth of brands appropriated to the human ranks and the fact that as many as 17 brands were seen as 21st-century monikers, those, he said, that have "meaningful values," but still are not able to meet as many consumer expectations as the human brands.

Brands rated by consumers as 21st century were Abercrombie & Fitch, Giorgio Armani, Brooks Bros., Burberry, Christian Dior, Ferragamo, J. Crew, Louis Vuitton, Lucky, New Balance, Nike, The North Face, Prada, Polo, Sean John, Skechers and Versace.

Names categorized as labels, those whose associations with qualities people value in fashion goods are fading, included Anne Klein, Bill Blass, Calvin Klein, Dockers, Donna Karan, Eddie Bauer, Fendi, Gucci, Hugo Boss, Lacoste, Kate Spade and Tommy Hilfiger.

And brands designated as commodities, those whose primary attraction was their price, were Adidas, Champion, Ellesse, Fila, Gap, Guess, INC, J.C. Penney, Lands' End, Lee, Levi's, London Fog, Old Navy, Reebok, Sears and Wrangler."Most of the time, the higher the brand value, the better the sales," Passikoff said. Brands people believe are most imbued with the values they're seeking in a product are six times more likely to be recommended by one person to another and six times more likely to be given the benefit of the doubt if something goes wrong, Brand Keys research has found.

A desire on the part of brand marketers to avoid being too provocative in uncertain times may partly explain why 16 of 50 fashion names were categorized by consumers as commodities, said Mike Cucka, a partner in marketing consultant Group 1066.

"When you're in a challenging environment, where so many decisions are made [based] on price, you don't want to risk alienating people," Cucka observed. Breaking the rules — the offer of something extra — is one way brands might alter consumers' perception of them as commodities, he suggested, citing banks' offer of free checking and ATM withdrawals.

Underpinning such a play is an appeal to people that is based on reason, said Peter Levine, director of visual strategies at brand-image consultant desgrippes gobé group. "Lots of brands say the best way is to sell your gut [instinct], but a good rational component, like added value, is never a bad thing," Levine contended.

In all, 1,200 U.S.- and U.K.-based brands, in 60 categories including airlines, banks, beverages, consumer electronics and fast food, as well as fashion, were rated during the third quarter in the Brand Keys Commodity-to-Human Brand Continuum. Among the 60 categories studied, fashion brands, as well as beverages and banks, were most often considered either commodities or labels, while consumer electronics were most commonly accorded the status of human or 21st-century brands.

"It is problematic for brands to be perceived as commodities and, to a lesser extent, as labels," Passikoff said. "Commodity brands need to develop some values quickly unless they just want to be price-driven. Commodities are in danger of becoming the Acmes of the 21st century — and when you're a fashion brand, you ought to do something else."

HOW PEOPLE PERCEIVE 50 FASHION BRANDS
(From Price-Driven Commodities to Human Brands Valued for Product Qualities)
Commodity
Label
21st-Century Brand
Human Brand
AdidasAnne KleinAbercrombie & FitchChanel
Champion Bill Blass Giorgio ArmaniDonald Trump
EllesseCalvin KleinBrooks Bros.Isaac Mizrahi
Fila DockersBurberryRalph Lauren
GapDonna KaranChristian Dior Victoria's Secret
GuessEddie Bauer Ferragamo 
INCFendi J. Crew 
J.C. PenneyGucci Louis Vuitton 
Lands' End Hugo BossLucky 
Lee LacosteNew Balance 
Levi'sKate SpadeNike 
London FogTommy HilfigerThe North Face 
Old Navy  Prada 
Reebok  Polo 
Sears Sean John 
Wrangler Skechers 
  Versace 
Totals: 16 (32%) 12 (24%)17 (34%) 5 (10%)
Source: Brand Keys Commodity-to-Brand Continuum, third quarter, 2005

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