When brand heritage becomes a burden

katies-102Katies’ iconic status in women’s fashion is a valuable asset for owner, Specialty Fashion Group. But a long history can sometimes be a double-edged sword. This is the story of Katies’ rebranding.

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Specialty Fashion Group gave its Katies brand a facelift last week, launching a more modern logo, colour palette and Spring/Summer collection nationally, and unveiling a new store design at the Westfield Fountain Gate shopping centre in Victoria.

The rebranding is an effort to change customers’ perception of Katies as “old and daggy” and position the iconic brand for future growth, according to SFG’s CEO Gary Perlstein. “It wasn’t a case of Katies not performing well, it was a case of how do we take the brand forward and maintain its leadership position in the market,” Perlstein told Inside Retail Weekly.

As one of Australia’s first national women’s fashion retailers, Katies has widespread brand awareness, but not always the best kind. “There’s a perception that Katies is old and daggy. Because it has been around for a while, it’s probably where the mothers and grandmothers of [today’s 30-year-old women] shopped,” Perlstein said. “We could carry on as we were, but to grow we needed to overcome that [perception].”

This means rebranding Katies to appeal to a broader demographic, Perlstein’s “ageless customer”, who could be anywhere from 30 to 50 years old.

“We thought about how we could design a product to appeal to a very broad spectrum of age groups.

“What is it about a print that makes a top timeless and classic? What about the styling ensures an older woman doesn’t feel that she’s dressed too young [and vice versa]? If you can get that right, you can broaden your target market in a non-overt way,” he said.

The new collection features cleaner lines that read as more contemporary than busy styles, and seeks a balance between fashion-forward pieces, like a printed jumpsuit, and workaday basics, like body-shaping jeans. These were all carefully made decisions to push customers’ boundaries without alienating them, according to a product designer present at the Westfield Fountain Gate store opening.  

katies-118The store itself is another way SFG aims to signal a new start for Katies. The fashion group hired London design consultancy HMKM to develop a customer-centric store that focuses on experiences rather than transactions.

For instance, at Katies’ Westfield Fountain Gate location – the first redesigned store ahead of two more planned for next year – an inspiration hub gives customers a place to browse look books, access fit guides and watch styling how-to’s on iPads.

katies-281Instore iPads also show up in fitting rooms, so customers can purchase items directly after trying them on, spruiked as an Australian first. And a professional stylist is now available to assist customers with their purchases by appointment free of charge.

More subtle details, like the scent diffused throughout the store to lift shoppers’ moods and the relaxing style of music played in the fitting room area, are also intended to make Katies a memorable shopping experience.

“You need to make it compelling to visit a store by creating something very unique and special,” Perlstein said. “The store design has to lend itself to having social interactions.

Double-edged sword

This is all part of Katies’ aim to be viewed as a modern and aspirational brand. But perception is an elusive concept, and it’s not always easy to anticipate how customers will react when a well-known brand tries something new. Consider what happened when Arnott’s changed the flavour of its Shapes biscuits earlier this year.

“[Being a heritage brand] is a two-edged sword,” Jon Bird, managing director of Labstore, a global retail and shopper marketing practice, told Inside Retail Weekly. “On the one hand, [the brand] has built up a bank of equity, which is valuable. On the other hand, that equity may have negative associations. So it is a trade-off between awareness and association.”

Bird suggests that Burberry has set the bar for rebranding success. “When Angela Ahrendts took over as CEO in 2006, Burberry was an aging British icon. Ahrendts sharpened the offer, targeted a more youthful market, embraced digital and social, and created new advertising campaigns using more contemporary figures such as Emma Watson.

“What Ahrendts also did though was to rediscover what made Burberry great in the first place – English heritage and the classic trench coat – and show that product and that history in a way that made it relevant and desirable today. She blew the dust off the icon.”

As Karl Lagerfeld explained in his design mantra, quoting the German poet Goethe: “Make a better future by developing elements from the past”. While it may be a stretch to reference the creative head of Chanel and a literary giant in the context of Katies’ rebranding, this is exactly what Perlstein is trying to achieve.

“We have 16 years of data on our Katies’ customers that we overlay with other demographic information and psychographic trends [to understand changing behaviour, wants and needs],” the SFG CEO said. SFG has long used data to drive brand strategy, building a team of data analysts a decade ago to gain insights from its database of eight million customers.

Acting on these insights is another matter. At the opening of Katies’ redesigned Fountain Gate store last week, most customers had positive things to say about the brand’s new look and feel. Almost all of them were existing customers, however. Whether Katies will attract new customers who previously thought of the brand as “old and daggy” remains to be seen.

But Perlstein says there’s no rush to accomplish this. “[Changing the brand perception] is all about timing and mindset,” he said. “If you try to do that overnight, you’ll alienate your customer. If you take a five to ten-year view, you can do it.”

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