Power Lies In Changing The Brand Context

Mark Di SommaSeptember 8, 20154615 min

Recently at New Zealand Fashion Week, models walked the runway in lingerie and the crowd went wild. It was a world first. Not because the show was radical – but because the underwear was from a start-up brand named Confitex and it was specifically designed for people with incontinence.

There’s a tendency to see disruption and innovation as huge moments of significance that shake the status quo to its core. But what the success of the Confitex show proves is that a brand can challenge the whole premise of a sector simply by being present.

Sometimes the most powerful statement a brand can make is the statement that everyone has chosen up until now to leave unsaid.

The true daring of the Confitex brand, in my view, is that it took an embarrassing problem that is global, growing and that no-one wants to talk about and delivered a product to address it that is highly fashionable. It dared to go and be seen where others would never have thought of being seen. Far from hiding the product, or seeking to awkwardly normalize it, the Confitex owners did the unthinkable. They celebrated. They paraded. They literally brought incontinence out into the open. They delivered a feel-good, lifestyle focused brand to a visually-articulate audience at an event that is centered on beauty and creativity. Such a simple thing to do…

And by embracing the brand and all it stands for, the event also challenged the premise of a fashion show. By bringing what had been a medical issue onto its runway, New Zealand Fashion Week redefined what is welcome and who is welcome at a high fashion event. Through this simple act, it has signaled a level of inclusiveness that in itself is revolutionary. At a time when the fashion industry is viewed by some as irresponsible and body-denying, this event has broken the mold. It has dared to make a powerful, yet quiet, social statement of its own without resorting to gimmickry or tokenism. Given the huge investment of time and resources that go into events like this, the expectations of sponsors and the heavy media presence, I think that was a major call.

Ultimately though that’s what disruption takes. Not so much big acts – as the courage, vision and confidence to (gently) do big things. And to do them when and where they were least expected. We shouldn’t under-estimate the power of congruity in helping to make this happen. The shift in the emphasis in branding from product to lifestyle is matched by the evolution in the fashion industry from outer beauty to matching inner beauty. Confitex’s showing at New Zealand Fashion Week can be seen as an intersection of those separate shifts to create a new platform. The time was just right.

As Walker Smith has observed, “Nothing matters more than context. What consumers see, hear and think about a brand is wholly shaped by the context in which they encounter it, which in turn directly affects what they do and buy.” Changing the backdrop for a brand, for example, changes not just how buyers see the brand but their understanding of how the brand sees itself. “What can brand marketers do to put their brands in the best light when consumers are ready to buy? The answer is not simply the best possible product.…It’s about the best possible context.”

Context is not just about where you are seen, it’s about how you are seen and of course when you are seen. That in itself is a balancing act. Placing the brand in an also-ran context at any time simply adds to the noise in that environment, which does the brand itself few favors. But equally, placing a brand in a jarring environment for no reason beyond achieving that clash will only serve to confuse everyone. The brand must be seen in a context that makes sense or comes to make sense. That context must be a direct expression of a distinctive premise, and if it is not then it risks literally being out of place.

So often brand owners and managers mistake what they should be striving for when they think about brand execution. They plan for what they know and where they know. Ben Fullerton draws an important, and very neat, distinction between creating consistency and creating coherency.

Consistency, he says, is built on repetition (which is where brand managers feel most at home). Fullerton’s specific reference is to repetition in design, but I think the idea equally extends to repetition of place. We tend to always see brands in contexts that are all too familiar.

Coherency occurs when consistency of design is married with a system of meaning to create what he refers to as “the brand pattern”. Brand coherency is about keeping to the spirit of the brand, so that, even though the brand may be expressed in different ways across channels, it always feels like the brand in what it portrays and how it speaks.

By bringing incontinence to the runway, Confitex have sought to add beauty to the consideration set for shoppers, and signaled that clearly and strongly by making their presence felt at the event that epitomizes that concept. They recognized that, in doing so, they could not just defy the pre-set and pragmatic game-plays of the sector, they could also appeal to completely different emotional drivers than their huge competitors. As a brand, they have now set in play a brand pattern – beautiful answers to embarrassing problems – that they can use to challenge further pre-sets and that should define what buyers expect to see and experience in whatever context they find the Confitex brand. That’s a powerful license with which to reimagine where next.

A new context doesn’t just change how you are seen now. Even more importantly, it establishes an opportunity for a brand to be seen in new ways and new places from then on.

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