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What Fashion Brands Can Teach the Rest of Us

Daryl Weber


Fashion brands usually get a bad rap. In the marketing world, they’re often seen as “not strategic” and purely about image and style. After all, they don’t have much of a “unique selling proposition” or any kind of “functional claim” to stand on. In place of traditional marketing levers they favor alienesque models, sultry photography, and outlandish scenarios. “Sure,” they say, “why not have a chicken in that ad?”

But maybe fashion brands know something the rest of us marketers don’t.

Fashion and luxury brands focus on the mood, feel, vibe and overall personality of their brands, far more than many other kinds of brands. They do this instinctively. They know what feels right for the brand and what doesn’t. They have to, because it’s all they have. It seems other marketers get distracted by their products’ claims and the emotional benefits they try to tout, so much so that they lose sight of the fact that consumers don’t care. Remember, consumers aren’t thinking much about your brand, and they’ll rarely work to piece together a message that’s not blatantly obvious.

But, consumers’ unconscious mind is forming an opinion of your brand whenever they see something from it. Whether they pay attention to it or not, the unconscious sneakily picks up on things, and creates a sense for whether your brand is good or bad. Evolution programmed this into us - we couldn’t waste the mental energy and time to consciously think about everything we encountered in our environment. We had to just know it, and act fast. That’s a snake - move away. That’s possible food - move towards it.

Our brain still does this with brands. It tags everything we perceive and encounter with a positive or negative hue, and it does this mostly unconsciously. It’s not just the conscious messages that sway it one way or the other, it’s the underlying feel of the brand that guides us. Do we like the brand or not? Does it feel like something for me, or not? We don’t think about it too much, we just have an inkling, and more often than not, we act on that feeling.  

Fashion brands know this. They know they have to feel right. They can’t consciously woo you with rational claims or even direct emotional messages. They have to create an image and lifestyle and personality that you want to be a part of. So they make that their focus. They clearly articulate and define what their particular mood and style will be, and how it’s different from the competition. This is their strategy, whether they realize it or not.

And it’s a powerful strategy. Think of the power of luxury brands like Gucci or Burberry or Prada. Even more middle of the road brands like J. Crew or Kate Spade have built strong brand feelings and personalities, without much of a conscious message at all. They don’t try to own an emotion or tell you what emotion to feel, they just exude it in everything they do.

Imagine passing a billboard while driving. You maybe give it a quick glance, barely processing the message of the ad. If asked about it afterwards, you’d probably have a hard time repeating the exact headline, if you can remember it at all. But research suggests that your unconscious will likely have picked up on the tone and style of the ad (in what psychologists call “implicit learning”), and that the feel imparted by that tone will remain in your memory (in what’s called “implicit memory”).

So rather than the conscious message that most marketers focus their time and energy on, it may be the other more subtle elements of the communication that really matter. This is called meta-communication. It’s the feeling imparted from the style, fonts, colors, models, facial expressions, lighting, production value, etc. used in any kind of ad. It’s more about the way you communicate, rather than what is said. Meta-communication is always happening (even a blank page communicates something), and may actually be a more powerful influence on consumer behavior than the conscious messaging we work so hard on.

Our unconscious has far more pull on our decisions and actions than we realize. Our brains are lazy, and want to go with what just feels right, without spending too much time or energy deliberating. As a lot of psychological research has shown, it seems the conscious mind simply finds a rational justification for what the unconscious has already decided. It makes you wonder who is really in control, doesn’t it?

I’m not saying brands should not say anything and start making wacky ads with models draped over boats holding their products. But, I do think we can take this lesson from fashion and luxury brands: sometimes, how you say it matters more than what you say.