After a Fashion: Are Consumer Brands on Their Last Legs?

Sunday, March 16, 2014
James Surowiecki, who writes “The Financial Page” in The New Yorker, kicked up a flurry of indignant online disputation a few weeks ago with an essay called “Twilight of the Brands.” To hear him tell it, the end is nigh, branding-wise: The more-powerful-than-a-locomotive consumer brands that once bestrode the American marketplace like demigods, the brands we loyally bought and implicitly trusted generation after generation, have been reduced to mere flickering shadows of their formerly colossal selves by — of all things — the Internet.

We don’t need brands anymore, Surowiecki argues, because we have information — “easy access to expert reviews, user reviews, and detailed product data in an array of categories.” And we take advantage of it, too: Eighty percent of us check out the reviews before making major purchases. (Though you have to wonder: How many of us can tell the difference between the independent reviews published by, say, Consumer Reports, and the wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing reviews published under suspiciously similar names?)

A chorus of marketing gurus and branding experts immediately arose to argue that brands that exemplify their principles, hire their consultants, buy their books and follow their advice are stronger than ever, and have nothing to fear from the Internet. But bad publicity may be the least of their problems.

Surowiecki led with the fascinating example of Lululemon Athletica, a brand of workout clothes that had been briefly and explosively successful — until customers noticed that its latest delivery of $90 yoga pants felt oddly flimsy and generated pills as fast as $5 sweaters. Also, as if that weren’t enough, you could see right through them when people bent over, which people doing yoga tend to do pretty often.

This was bad for Lululemon. You don’t need to pay $90 for a pair of flimsy, pill-prone, near-transparent yoga pants. If that’s what you want, you can find a pair for seven or eight bucks on the sale rack at a big-box store. (For $30 or $40 or $50, you can find a pair that fit, don’t pill, don’t expose your underwear, and last for years.)

Things got worse when Lululemon’s fearless leader blamed the brand’s problems on its customers. He claimed his yoga pants were just fine; it was just that they were being overstretched by fat women stuffing their oversized bottoms into pants too small for them.

Ah, yes, the old reliable tell-the-customer-she’s-too-fat strategy. It may have proved especially incendiary in this case because 12 is the largest size of yoga pants Lululemon sells, and half of all American women (depending on whom you believe) wear a size larger than 12. So, even before its chief executive started casting aspersions, his brand’s sizing had implicitly defined half the female population as too fat for its $90 exercise pants.

According to conventional wisdom, you’re not supposed to insult your customers, and you’re also not supposed to be able to see through $90 yoga pants, so the Lululemon fiasco qualified as a man-bites-dog story twice over. It was instantly everywhere, and sales suffered.

But to say that the brand was undone by bad publicity — or by easy access to reliable information, which is kind of the same thing — is to miss the point.

The brand was undone by substandard product. If it hadn’t sold yoga pants that were flimsy, pill-prone and semitransparent under stress, it might not have mattered that the pants were overpriced, that their sizing struck some as discriminatory, that their chief executive had the PR skills of a box of rocks, or that all of these facets of the story got a lot of attention.

In the olden days, when people trusted established brands to deliver consistent quality, that trust was at least plausible. Then, the companies behind the brands actually manufactured the products they sold and were therefore in a position to control the quality of those products. Back then, if you bought a wool shirt with a Woolrich label stitched into it, you knew the yarn had been spun and the fabric woven and the shirt itself cut and sewn in the Woolrich mills and factories in Woolrich, Pa., probably by some of the same people who’d been responsible for spinning and weaving and cutting and sewing the nearly identical Woolrich wool shirt you’d bought 20 years earlier. Its brand was a sort of organic composite reflection of all the shirts that had come out of those factories since before the Civil War.

Even then, of course, quality might decline for one reason or another. But at least a customer could be confident that the company behind the brand knew that it was to its advantage to maintain consistent quality, and that it could do so because it controlled its own manufacturing.

Now, when one shipment of yoga pants comes from Sri Lanka and the next comes from a factory in Bangladesh, and the one after that comes from a maquiladora somewhere in Central America, and when the fabric for those yoga pants may come from various knitting mills in still other countries, and the yarn the fabric is knitted from comes from similarly far-flung spinning mills, which acquire the man-made fiber they spin into yarn from who knows where — well, quality control becomes more complicated.

And now, instead of being a cumulative reflection of the character of all the products a company has sold over its lifespan, a brand — much like the advertised identity of a modern political candidate — is a carefully crafted mental construct built out of wishes and hopes and expectations and preferences voiced in polls and surveys and focus groups. It’s a sort of ornament the company slaps onto the product after it’s made to persuade potential customers that it’s just what they want. And we all know that.

Write to Patricia McLaughlin in care of Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, Mo. 64106, or patsy.mcl@verizon.net.