Trendy Is as Trendy Does

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by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

Apparel retailer marketing is usually pretty nutty, and these businesses are on the bleeding edge of consumer spending trends. So I’m fascinated that J. C. Penney will focus its spring advertising on bargain-priced items from trendy designers like Kimora Lee Simmons and Nicole Miller. 

Trends are capricious, by definition, and they’re also exclusionary (for something to be trendy, something else must not be) and impermanent (if it’s not current, then it’s not a trend…it’s history). In fashion apparel, these qualities are at hyper-speed, with the volume turned all the way up to 11. It’s a killer market that comes with the near-certain guarantee that even the winners will ultimately lose one day, and likely fail as big as they once succeeded.

So why would Penney elect to base its advertising (and thus its branding, as far as this dim bulb can figure) on a small selection of avowedly trendy merchandise?

I suspect that the intention is to break through the clutter. Trendy clothes, especially from a brand name like Penney, might prompt that cognitive dissonance that we otherwise refer to as buzz. Consumers might think about Penney, and do so in a different way. Combined with the budget-pricing, it might tell would-be luxury buyers (or wanna-bes) that they can get famously trendy stuff for less at Penney.

This strategy presumes that anybody needs the stuff. Which they don’t.

The uber-trend that will matter for the foreseeable future is that consumers don’t think they have money to spend. Many actually don’t have it. Sure, people have loads of wants — fantasies and wish lists thrived in the last Great Depression — but their purchase decisions are dictated in large part by necessities, not desires. The challenge is to invent ways that translate products and services — however luxurious, trendy, or otherwise unnecessary — into those necessary purchases. 

I don’t think Penney is going to accomplish it by offering exorbitantly-priced brand names with less-rapacious price-tags. A rip-off is a rip-off or, more fairly to the company, a want isn’t a need.

What could Penney do differently, and really deliver a compelling, need-prompting brand strategy? It would have to involve its operational departments far beyond the purview of marketing and its seemingly forever-replenished kitty:

  • New Employment Structure: Why not come up with novel programs to employ more people (less hours/more services?), thereby inviting the community into the store to help it and themselves succeed? Where’s the "work here/buy here" program that encourages families to shop at Penney and invite neighbors to do so, too, thereby receiving discounts and/or other benefits?
  • Trend Subscriptions: If trendy clothing is designed to appear dated after a season, why couldn’t parents subscribe to a clothing program that got teens into the lates fashion and then, at the end of a period, involved some return/exchange for the next season’s fashion (and some community donation/give-back)? Let consumers amoritize clothing erxpense (or other expenditures) over time via something other than an onorous credit card balance
  • Turn Stores into Community Centers: Why not apply a radical new approach to the role of stores in the communities they serve, and open them to meetings, art exhibits, musical events, etc.? Each event would be a draw to would-be shoppers, and they could see that a side-effect of their patronage would be fed back into their cities and towns.

Perhaps the strategy would be to skip the latest trends of fashion, and redefine the Penney brand in terms that were tangible, real, and sustainable? It wouldn’t be sexy, but it might very well be profitable?

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