Making a mark in the casual industry
Staff Staff -- Casual Living, May 1, 2010
Debate continues about the value of brands and licensed products within the casual industry.
"Consumers do not know brands in outdoor furnishings," was a quick and common response from retailers. When asked what value a brand brings or if it is a factor in selling outdoor furnishings, a reply of "no value" repeated.
"There are casual lines that are asked for by name," said Tami Newton, managing director, Palm Springs Rattan & Garden Classics. "But, sometimes the names are mispronounced by folks asking for 'Tropicana' or 'Floyd Landers' (furniture)."
If brand is defined solely as a name, there are few brands that command instant recognition within the minds of consumers searching for outdoor living products. However, is branding only a name?
Today, growth in the leisure marketplace includes several companies entering the category with a well-known brand name in place. But they, too, are finding that it is not about the mark alone.
"I would not say that (the Broyhill brand) has had a specific role in the decision to buy," said John Hunt, senior vice president Home Division for Foremost Groups, manufacturer of Furniture Brands International's Broyhill and Lane outdoor lines. "Bottom line, retailers bought the programs mostly because of the tremendous style, comfort and overall value that we brought to the market. The fact that we also offered some of the biggest brands in indoor to outdoor was then a plus."
When brands within the casual industry are seen as holding minimal value, it isn't due to a lack of effort on the part of manufacturers. All are experienced marketers and know the value of branding. Among the licensed brands entering the casual industry over the past few years are recognizable names ranging from Disney Lifestyle Brands, La-Z-Boy and Woolrich to celebrities Jane Seymour, Kathy Ireland and Cindy Crawford.
The missing component may be the lack of a singular definition of the branding concept. The fact is the scope of branding exceeds a symbol or a slogan. Although far from the recognition level of soft drinks or blue jeans, branding is alive and well within the casual marketplace. It just requires a closer look.
Brand, by definition
"We think of a brand as a set of beliefs that someone holds," said Hal Hunnicutt, VP, marketing for Glen Raven Custom Fabrics, owner of the Sunbrella brand. "With the recognition of a mark, customers don't have to evaluate all the options each time. They know what they are going to get."
With a 50-year history behind the Sunbrella name, Glen Raven also recognizes that it takes time to create an association between a single trademark and the product it represents.
"Pride Family Brands has over 30 years of history in building its brands," said Rory Rehmert, VP of Sales and Marketing. "Building a brand is a process and the process culminates with consumers now recognizing our name. We want it to equate to all that we are, not only our visible promotions, but everything from recognition of our dedication to original patented designs to our innovative manufacturing processes."Along with time, successful brand building requires clear definition and purpose.
"Brands have to decide who they want to be to the customer," said Arnie Capitanelli III, owner of Customer Advocate Programs and author of Retail Street Fight. "A brand defines beliefs, beliefs drive the behavior and behavior elevates (recognition of) the brand."
Once the definition is established, a strong foundation is created upon which the brand can build.
Although a relatively recent entry into the outdoor furnishings category, Biltmore House has a long history of products connected to outdoor experiences. This connection created a comfortable fit between the branding philosophy of Biltmore Estate For Your Home and its outdoor products.
"From our philosophical brand, we know that people associate Biltmore with quality and craftsmanship," said Tim Rosebrock, VP and general manager of Biltmore's Licensed Products Division. "Subsequently, a trust factor must be created with that identity."
No brand building is successful without ever-present consistency.
"We are constantly making improvements to our product line, but we don't change colors or styles simply to follow trends," said Jodi Burson, marketing manager for The Big Green Egg. "When you see a Big Green Egg, it is immediately recognizable and there is no doubt in anyone's mind that this is the real deal."
When asked about a secret to its brand positioning, Shuford Mills' leaders echoed that same strategy. "Consistency in good product, customer service and quality," said Natalie Scott, VP Shuford Mills, casual furniture sales and marketing. "Shuford Mills has been committed since the onset of the Outdura brand to providing the casual furniture industry with cutting-edge patterns, fashion-forward colors and innovative product."
Capitanelli added a note of caution because today's retailers have so little to differentiate between products. "If a brand is not well defined, the product or retailer is going into battle with weak weapons," he said. "Manufacturers or retailers have to decide who they want to be to the customer and, ultimately, create an 'experience' associated with the brand."
For many in the outdoor furnishings industry, a total branding philosophy embodies recognizable experiences.
"Outdoor furniture is mostly a non-branded world," according to a Tommy Bahama Home company spokesperson. "Our retailers are able to merchandise the Tommy Bahama Collection with other lifestyle products to tell a story that conveys the brand message: Life is one long weekend."
Creating a connection with a specific experience can be a powerful tool for any brand. "We believe the way for retailers to take greater advantage of our Biltmore brand is to provide consumers with a total experience with a name they know and trust," Rosebrock said.
Experiences created throughout the marketing process also serve to define a brand. "We take great pride in our internal processes that support a quality product," Scott said. "Once the Outdura product is in the marketplace, servicing our customers is equally as important as the product we introduce."
Defining experiences for a brand may be created after the sale.
For example, after buying a Big Green Egg "a pleasant side effect is the lifestyle changes that EGG owners often experience," Burson said. "We have had tremendous response to promoting our brand awareness through sports marketing and with fish and game cooking segments on several television shows." "These events tie in nicely with the relaxed/adventurous outdoor lifestyle enjoyed by so many of our customers."
Danger in redefining
If a brand is defined through beliefs, consistency and experiences, loyalty is the all-important outcome.
Even retail giant Wal-Mart was forced to recognize the value of brand loyalty. When it removed branded products from its shelves in an attempt to streamline, "it became clear it wasn't losing on a single item sale, but entire shopping excursions by people seeking specific brands," said Jason Notte of The Street.com. Although aware of brand loyalty, the mass category often is a contributor to successful brands losing sight of what defines them and placing brand loyalty in jeopardy.
"It is dangerous when companies change or redefine their brands," Hunnicutt said. "That means they are changing the promise that is expected. When the consumer becomes confused, it can destroy the reputation in the mark."
Keeping the brand promise at the forefront provides confidence throughout the wholesale and ultimately retail channels. "Brand is not a component as much as the value that is delivered," said Tim Newton, managing director, Leader's Casual Furniture.
"Our customers are loyal because we never let them down by offering inferior products," Burnson said. "Our goal is not to be the cheapest product on the market at the sacrifice of quality."
Likewise, Shuford Mills' executives "made a conscientious decision not to make an inferior product that would not hold true to what the Outdura name means," Scott said. "That alone has allowed us to keep our brand's value."
Although often dubious to the value of branding, retailers on the front lines relate to what a recognizable brand could mean, and welcome any assistance. In turn, manufacturers know that a partnership is required for true branding success.
"We believe that our brand and the outdoor segment are a successful combination and feel that we have yet to scratch the surface," said Rosebrock of Biltmore Estate for Your Home. "Anyone in branding, however, needs to help the retailers in marketing."
This assistance is seen as especially important in today's multi-level marketplace. Tommy Bahama Home views its "target retailer as those that understand their brand and the lifestyle it represents. From there, the retailer is able to leverage the equity of the brand."
Teaming with retailers to make sure the brand experiences and consistent stories are grounded in the defined beliefs requires commitment. This is a commitment everyone in the casual industry should be willing to make, and many are making.
When brand is dismissed, but a customer or retailer knows who to call when asked for a product with original designs or for a piece or material to match a specific lifestyle fit, they are recognizing the product of branding practices. These efforts also require a focus on the creation of a greater understanding of the scope of branding and, ultimately, the potential of the casual industry as a whole to make its mark.