‘Fashion’ Brand Purpose: VF-Supreme’s Class on Doing It Right

With any big money liquidity event like a multi-billion dollar acquisition, innumerable pundits and consumers gather round cheering, jeering, questioning, and predicting. Accordingly, VF Corporation’s acquisition of Supreme was par for the course.

“Is it going to lose its luster?”
“How can it scale and maintain its caché?”
“Will the new corporate bosses rain down on current management?”
“How will the synergies increase profit margins?”
“What’s the China opportunity?”

And on and on and on….and on…around questions no one really knows the answers to, but which make for good cooler, Zoom, and IG comments fodder.

And analyst calls.

Inspired by a Hypebeast article on the deal, I listened to VF’s acquisition announcement and was struck by Chairman Steve Rendle’s response to an analyst question regarding Supreme being a ‘luxury-esque’-priced brand:

“How we look at Supreme…is not as a luxury brand, but rather an activity-based brand. [It’s] anchored in East Coast skate culture…the center of everything they do is intense focus on authentic, high quality products at a fair price.”

As someone who counsels brands on defining their purpose, I thought the answer was super smart because of what it did well and what it smartly avoided — a short masterclass in brand marketing:

WHAT IT DID WELL

  • Aligned the brand’s core offering with creating products for a specific activity
  • Explained the brand’s consistent, hyper focus on a consumer group (e.g., “Tribe”) with a defined lifestyle associated with that activity
  • Articulated the value prop succinctly in plainspoken terms

WHAT IT SMARTLY AVOIDED

  • Confusing Purpose (what a brand is at its core) with purpose-associated marketing (supporting a cause)
  • Using “Brand Pyramids” with various Visions, Missions, Pillars and other ‘levels’ that require extensive explanation and are a hard ‘get’
  • Employing “Yogababble” usually ascribable to one or both of these points plus a desire to sound lofty and avoid scrutiny

So I ask various ‘fashion’ brands — whether luxury or affordable — three questions:

  1. Does your brand have a sharp point that brings focus to everything it does?
  2. Has your brand defined its audience around an activity and culture beyond demographics?
  3. Can this Purpose be articulated in a few sentences and understood quickly without color commentary?

If not, there’s likely work to be done.

Frankly, from what I can tell and in my experience, few ‘fashion’ brands and others outside category can answer ‘yes’ to all three. And some of those who can, have strayed perilously far away from their core in search of new horizons, revenue, (and social media likes). As with empires and civilizations that extend beyond reason in pursuit of glory and wealth, inevitably the core starts to rot, and decline follows suit.

_______

IMPORTANT NOTES:

-To be clear, I think it’s terrific when brands support causes and social issues, especially if they have a natural alignment. However, a brand’s Purpose and purpose-associated marketing should not be conflated unless, of course, the brand legitimately exists to service this higher social good. I think better brands (Nike, for instance) are super clear on this distinction and manage all product and brand actions accordingly. Some are lucky in that there is some degree of natural alignment. Nike’s purported “Make everyone a better athlete” works well, because it is inarguably better for people to exercise and be healthy for individuals, communities, nations, etc.

-In his speech introducing “Think Different” to employees, Steve Jobs discussed the idea that great brands don’t simply market products by comparing specs, but rather by associations. He cites Nike’s ads not talking about the merits of their shoes, but by aligning the brand with great athletes and athletics — the ostensible wearers of great shoes. Following this model, Jobs/Wieden aligned Apple with iconoclastic thinkers, living and dead. As such, Jobs was in fact declaring who Apple is for — its tribe — even saying that those “crazy ones” who were no longer alive and lived before computing (Gandhi, Edison, MLK, etc.) would have used a Mac. The thought that “Those who are crazy enough to change the world are the ones who do” reflects why this tribe is important and aspirational. That’s why it was genius…and has confused marketers who think they must have lofty and cause-related purpose statements.

-I have used/built Brand Pyramids and Houses. I regret doing so not because they were wrong, but because they were so complex as to not be useful over time.

-Rendle’s articulation of the Brand Purpose likely reflects how Supreme thinks of the brand. In other words, I’m giving him credit for crisply articulating something Supreme likely already had — which just shows how simple and powerful it is. It’s easily transmissible.

-I put ‘fashion’ in quotes in the title, in part because in his CFDA speech from 2018, Jebbia claimed that he doesn’t think of Supreme as a fashion brand or himself as a designer.

Marketing and Brand Consulting for Lifestyle, Fashion & Luxury. Father of tween daughters. Music Passionate. Mediocre Guitarist. Brooklyn, NY / Los Altos, CA.

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