Fashion designers and brand executives love talking about their “brand DNA.” It’s a shorthand, insider-y way of asserting that they not only understand what’s good about themselves, but know how to express that goodness. To use the word of the social media moment, it’s their claim to being “authentic.”
This story first appeared in the August 10, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
But to Zack Toth, brand DNA is something much more: an inheritance and a huge part of his makeup. The term was trademarked (but never enforced) by his late father, branding guru Mike Toth, who used it to describe the Toth + Co. process of helping companies find themselves and their customers.
It’s a bit of branding magic that guided the elder Toth as he re-branded Popular Club Plan as J. Crew, making it the first “lifestyle” catalogue. That was a handy bit of work that led him to Ralph Lauren, Perry Ellis and many others in the fashion flock. Shortly after Toth died in 2014, of tonsil and throat cancer, Tommy Hilfiger credited him with “developing and giving birth to the image of the Tommy Hilfiger brand.”
That counts as something more than high praise in the fashion world.
Now the son is at the helm of his father’s company. And after a nail-biting stretch when he succeeded in re-signing all the firm’s clients — a roster that includes Wrangler, Hickey Freeman, Sperry and Belk — he just brought on another new brand, Bass.
The extroverted younger Toth has bushy dark hair and readily goes deep one instant and laughs the next, but just can’t stop himself from selling all the time. That might be because while he’s grabbed hold of the wheel, the 32-year-old has to prove every day that he can steer the branding agency that helped define the last generation of megabrands through the era of social media.
Toth’s solution for the future is based on the process his father created and it begins with helping brands find themselves.
That starts with a “come to Jesus” meeting with the stakeholders for a guided discussion on the brand, its mission, the timetable for change and so on. The idea is to help the people who run fashion brands understand their core identity so they
can use it as a beacon of sorts, guiding their marketing efforts.
“Companies come to us for something to change, they don’t want more of the same,” Toth said. “The reason they’re coming to us is because they have a business need or objective that they’re trying to achieve.”
While a flashy campaign shot by the photographer of the moment and the hot model will look good, Toth argued that leaves a brand flat-footed when it comes to moving forward.
“When trends change, where’s your business? Where’s your brand? Have you built any deeper meaning beyond product or campaign?” he said. “That’s the crux of the brand DNA process. We just take the time to listen and then reveal our client and their brand beyond marketing communications to the culture piece and the experience of it through the product and through the brick-and-mortar and through the online.”
While the brands of yesteryear (and some of the lumbering giants today) fought tooth-and-nail to keep control of every facet of the brand, Toth is using his father’s process to help navigate a new, more dispersed world.
“With authenticity, in today’s world, there’s a release of control, so having a strong understanding of DNA can only help you,” Toth said. “It changes, but you need to understand that and be seeking that out. It comes from a confidence of knowing truly where you come from and an appreciation for that.”
Maggie Smith, senior vice president and director of brand and marketing at Toth, added: “We’ve moved from a model that was built on mass communication to recognizing that the media world is now a mass of communicators and with that change, brands have lost control. It’s not as easy as saying: ‘Here’s your image, here’s your story, go project it.’ It’s figuring out how to tell that story in a way that consumers want to take part in and add to it.”
With the constant talk in fashion about brands and what they could and should or are doing, the notion of just what a brand actually is often gets obscured.
“Brand is not a marketing solution,” Smith said. “Brand is a business solution and it’s a set of filters to guide the decisions and actions that you take as management and leadership of the company. A brand shows up in a lot of different places. It shows up in the call center answering the call. It shows up in the chief executive officer greeting a new customer. It shows up in the way a table display is manifested in a store.”
That attention to detail shows when the Toth crew is working.
At a recent shoot in Long Beach, Calif., that was part of the firm’s effort to re-brand Wrangler, a young girl tucked her curls under a pink helmet, her foot resting on a scooter. Minutes later, she was jumping onto her father’s back in their front yard, while her mother and older brother sat on the steps of their gray and white clapboard home.
The scene of multicultural Millennials, meant to help reframe the VF Corp.-owned mass denim brand, could have been painted by a modern-day Norman Rockwell.
Aside from the model-family milieu, which was captured by photographer Thomas Hoeffgen and filmmaker Britton Caillouette, the branding firm also devised scenarios that included a strapping man pushing a stalled car and ranch hands and sun-kissed youths road-tripping to Mount Baldy. The messages to consumers: “be strong” and “be true.”
This is all intended to satisfy Wrangler’s number-one objective: “to communicate to people that there is more to the Wrangler brand and more to Wrangler product than what they are familiar with,” said Craig Errington, the Greensboro, N.C.-based company’s vice president of marketing. (Errington declined to disclose the budget for the new campaign).
Toth + Co. has proven adroit at encapsulating Wrangler’s essence. After signing on as Wrangler’s agency of record in 2001, it built the denim brand’s celebrity stable with NASCAR racer Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2004 and NFL quarterback Brett Favre in 2007.
The company has also built something of a denim niche, having picked up VF’s Riders by Lee in 2002, NYDJ in 2008 and Wrangler’s midtier and Western heritage business in 2015. Toth also worked on a project with Crafted by Lee in 2014.
What has convinced Wrangler to increase its business with Toth is the agency’s strength in connecting with consumers emotionally and combining product and lifestyle. “They understand the emotions that come with apparel,” Errington said. “They combine [product and lifestyle] without pushing one over the other.”
It’s a balance the younger Toth has been able to keep so far — for the sake of the brands he works with, his own career, the company he runs and the people he employs. But is he also trying to make his dad proud as he takes up the mantle?
“I’ve already made him proud, that’s not what’s important. What is important to me is to keep moving forward asking questions, the curiosity. The idea,” he said.