CONSUMER RAPPORT: THAT ‘CRITICAL’ LINK

Byline: Dianne M. Pogoda

NEW YORK — If the first step in building a brand is specifically defining the ultimate consumer, the next is to figure out how to gear the product to that user. And, marketing experts concur, the way to do that is talk to her.
Sounds simple, right? But communicating with the consumer is still an area in which the apparel industry is a decade behind other fields, like packaged goods or the service sector.
Adelle B. Kirk, manager of consumer marketing at Kurt Salmon Associates, said this second step in brand building is critical.
“It’s the one step that can make or break a company — and it’s the step that the apparel industry still doesn’t get,” she said.
“You know who you’re aiming for, now figure out what are her needs, and how you can make the most of the opportunity to meet those needs,” said Kirk, who emphasized that determining “use occasions” is a key element in brand development.
“There’s a lot of talk today about lifestyle marketing, but it’s really ‘use occasions.’ Apparel makers must determine the kind of clothes [their ultimate consumer] wears, and for what occasions. Then they can refine the product to meet those occasions.”
Kirk advised apparel makers to “treat the consumer as another employee. Make her part of your product development, merchandising, line planning.”
She suggested focus groups, surveys and ongoing consumer panels.
“Some companies have a steady panel of consumers on retainer,” she explained. “They pay these people something like $100 a year, and they go to them with ideas, new products, new fabrics, and get their opinions. They use these consumers as a sounding board, and essentially treat them like part of the staff.
“And this can’t be a one-shot deal, it must be an ongoing process.”
Kirk said other industries have elevated consumer research to an art. Soft drink marketers, for example, do extensive analysis about their customers, determining virtually all their preferences — even if they do not appear initially to relate to their specific product. Some of these might include the types of cars they drive to the places they go on vacation.
“The marketers can then use this data to project future trends,” Kirk explained.
Allen Ellinger, a partner in the consulting firm Marketing Management Group, concurred that assessing the customer’s lifestyle is the key way to hone the product. He is also an advocate of the focus group as a research tool.
“Many companies seem to design from a pedestal,” he said. “They’re insular. What they need to do is go where their ultimate customer is, to observe that lifestyle firsthand.
“They also need to know how, when and why their customers shop, whether they are traditional or contemporary, what sports they play, how they spend their leisure time.”
Ellinger pointed out that any industry with rabid competition for a more or less similar product — whether it’s sport utility vehicles or jeans — should conduct elaborate consumer research.
“The makers must figure out how to differentiate their product from all the rest and how to market to the customer that best fits their profile. For instance, how is a $110 Diesel jean different from a $65 Guess jean or a $45 Gap jean? The consumer is increasingly smart — she realizes that 14-ounce denim is 14-ounce denim. What else is different? The price? Fit? Color of the denim? Other materials used? Basically, it’s the name on the label and the marketing to what that consumer wants to be.”
The most successful marketers, Ellinger said, cater to that desire.
“From athletic companies, like Nike and Reebok, that are marketing to players and wannabe players, to the classic case of the Marlboro Man, they understand who their customer wants to be. Of course, the best at this is Ralph Lauren, because he has delivered a consistent image for 25 years. That’s what sets him apart — the consistent message.”
Smaller companies can take a lesson from the biggest marketing successes, adapting strategies to match their size and budget requirements.
Herb Frichner, an adjunct associate professor of fashion buying and merchandising at the Fashion Institute of Technology, here, noted that after the consumer is defined, it’s time to develop and determine how to implement a marketing plan, based on the demographics and psychographics of that customer.
Frichner, who is also principal of the outerwear firm Panache Fashions, outlined three steps:
Observation. “Take a look at stores, at the street, at your competitors. See what’s out there,” he said.
Experiment. “This is where you do research, in terms of your fabrics, trims, cut, materials.”
Survey. “Determine the practicality of the item. Does it fit well? Does it drape? Is it colorfast? Does it wear well? Most people are looking for value for their dollars, at all price points. People want value and quality, and they want to be able to wear the garment.”
Then, he suggested, a maker should ask himself if the product he has made is viable — will it satisfy this consumer?
“For most smaller makers, the key is to be narrowly focused,” he said. “The biggest players can afford to cover the waterfront because they have a lot of real estate in the stores. But smaller brands must remain focused. Otherwise, they have no reason to be.”

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