Saturday, December 12, 2009

Why Brand the Man?

A couple weeks ago, IFCSF Advisory Board Member and Global Brand Consultant Bertrand Pellegrin spoke before a receptive audience of fashion students and enthusiasts at the Academy of Art University to discuss his new book: Branding the Man: Why Men are the Next Frontier in Fashion. San Francisco Chronicle columnist and fashionable man-about-town Aaron Britt led a lively discussion about the uniqueness of a man’s shopping experience and how retailers need to wake up and tap into this very powerful and discerning consumer.

When Pellegrin was asked why he felt the need to research and report on men and their shopping habits he said “I saw that the marketplace wasn’t growing to meet their needs. I didn’t feel the retailer was really able to communicate with that customer in the right way. I think they were missing out on an opportunity.” Pellegrin went on to say that marketing to the male shopper involves more than just the product assortment – it’s in the way they communicate and how they make him feel in the store. For example, a shop like Best Buy attracts men not only because of its technological gadgets, but he can feel like smart about products while he’s there and even teach something to his female counterpart.

On the other side of the spectrum, Britt and Pellegrin discussed the stagnation of most men’s sections in major department stores. Pellegrin said, “The boutique has a distinct advantage over department stores…the men’s department has not changed since our father or grandfather’s generation.” Britt brought up the prime example of the Macy’s Men Store on Stockton, which I admit, has become a real shopping destination for my semi-retired father on his visits here, but then that kind of makes their point, doesn’t it? The men lamented that in many of these old-school stores, the salesman isn’t even someone you’d feel inclined to trust with your fashion sense, given they’re often wearing an ill-fitting suit or dirty shoes.

Both agreed that men like to share knowledge, and shopping is more than just about the stuff – they crave an experience or community, and they like to know more about what they’re buying. “There’s never enough signage in a store that explains the product,” Pellegrin said, “… if you notice even in J.Crew, they’re putting more information on the product in their catalogs, perhaps on the heritage or manufacturing. I think people do want to know, what are the telltale signs of quality. Think about Mollusk - it’s a surf shop and really struck me as a fantastic men’s environment. It felt like a really cool place to hang out…there was no pressure to buy, the place is very organic and it just feels very real. There were a lot of little stories attached to things.”

A discussion about men’s fashion wouldn’t be complete without mentioning San Francisco’s Wilkes Bashford, on the brink of closing during this discussion (and later rescued by Mitchells/Richards/Marshs) Britt wondered what kind of strategy they’d need to follow to attract new customers and stay open. Pellegrin said, “Wilkes is a brilliant man and a personal friend of mine. I think he was the vanguard of people who brought new designers over to the U.S. over 40 years ago. He’s the first to bring Armani to the U.S…The problem is he hadn’t diversified his offering enough, and his price points are still all equally high. He hadn’t grown his customer base. We all know Willie Brown is Wilke’s most famous customer, but we all know Willie Brown doesn’t need any more suits.” Ah, the harsh reality of old age and what many classic brands are facing as their core customer base grows older, and they haven’t successfully attracted a new generation. “He still has tremendous clout and is recognized all over the world. There’s still an opportunity to renew and refresh how the brand is positioned in this market. People aren’t buying Brioni suits right now but there will be interest again.” Let’s hope.

In conclusion, Pellegrin offered retailers the idea of creating learning events around their products – for instance, brew your own beer while getting styling tips. Even better, learn the difference between a shirt that’s been custom-made for you in comparison to an off the rack piece. Finally, there’s nothing more important to a man than how he’s perceived by his peers especially when it comes to his sexuality – understand this piece of the puzzle and use this to design your tactics.

For more about Pellegrin and how to order his book, click here.

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