The Kiss of Vagueness

Why Brands Must Stand for Something

It’s one of the most ancient of paradoxes, puzzled over for thousands of years even though driven by a deceptively simple question: Where do you draw the line? When is a man bald, for instance, when only one hair remains on his head or 100? Or 10,000, for that matter? Known as the Sorites paradox, at its most basic, it deals with the phenomena of vagueness and is equally applicable to the imperceptible process of aging, for one can just as easily muse over the question: When does someone become old?

It’s certainly not the kind of thing Greek philosophers debated, but I’d argue in our consumption-driven age, when demographic-based branding dominates the conventional marketing wisdom, the Sorites paradox presents a useful and novel way to think about brand relevance. For there’s no greater risk for a brand than vagueness, and there’s no harder thing to determine than when it actually happens. Yet it does again and again in the marketplace; brands that once stood for something, brands that embodied edginess, youth and vitality, end up in a mushy, amorphous place, standing for nothing at all.

The Kiss of Vagueness

Consider the life cycle of retail brands, in particular the creeping irrelevancy that threatens so many brands born when Boomers were young. For Coach, its brand story began in 1968; Starbucks, 1971; Victoria’s Secret, 1977; and Nike, 1978. Yet despite gaining cultural traction when Boomers were essentially teenagers — today’s Millennials, one could say — each of these brands has managed to retain relevance and brand appeal within two seemingly incompatible demographic groups. All four brands ranked in the top 7 by brand appeal among both Boomers and Millennials, in a recent survey. That’s quite the balancing act, especially as Boomers pass imperceptibly into a new stage of life.

Not all brands born when Boomers were teenagers have been so lucky. Case in point: The Gap. It doesn’t even break into the top 10 for brand appeal for either generation. Founded in 1969, the same year the Beatles released Abbey Road, this specialty brand once stood for and defined mall shopping culture. And then within a few decades, it stood for everything that was wrong with it. The Gap had ended up in the vague middle. It lost its edge as seemingly small changes — loosening the fit of its jeans, for instance — pushed it across some invisible line, succumbing to the Sorites paradox. The Gap was growing old with its original customer base, yet was failing to address the needs, wants and desires of the next generation of shoppers. It was a nearly fatal mistake that took years to recover from, yet the story of The Gap’s rise and fall stands as an object lesson for specialty retail brands. Ann Taylor is another example. When the retailer started skewing older in the 1990s it somehow crossed some imperceptible line and became associated with an aging demographic. It took an entire new brand — Ann Taylor Loft, opened in 1996 — to get young women to walk into its doors again.

The question today, especially for fresh, upstart brands like H&M, Pink and Forever 21 is how to navigate a target market’s slow maturity into adulthood? How to stay loyal to the customers that created your brand in the first place and still appeal to the next generation? A good place to start is to rethink what fashion and brand appeal actually is and how it fits into consumer identity.

Fashion will always drive sales for specialty retailers, especially when we expand our ideas of what a “specialty” retailer is and what “fashion” really is, for specialty retailers aren’t just clothing brands. Apple, arguably, is a specialty brand. And fashion is not just the latest Prada line in Milan — it’s the next iPhone. It’s also the decline of mall culture and the rise of outdoor lifestyle centers; the end of aerobics and the triumph of yoga as more than a sport — as evidenced in the meteoric rise of a brand like Lululemon, which now sells nearly $1 billion in high-end athletic wear to fit and style-conscious women of all generations.

The Kiss of Vagueness

As people age, our research has shown, they don’t become less concerned about fashion; it’s just less relevant to how they structure and create personal identity. They still want to try the latest flavored coffee and embrace the latest lifestyle trends. Even though Boomers need brands less and less to tell the world who they are, they still want brands to do things for them. They favor brands that empower them to communicate with family and friends in an informed way. And for female Boomers, staying fresh and relevant in a world where people are living longer is a real emotional need.

Every aging specialty brand in America today faces the same seemingly impossible choice: Grow old with Boomers or start chasing the latest demographic boom, as 80 million Millennials come into peak buying power. The temptation to try and appeal to both generations in the same way is too great. Dozens of retailers are vulnerable to the Sorites paradox and will stumble as The Gap and Ann Taylor did. Don’t plant a flag in the vanilla middle; stand for something, as there’s no fate worse than vagueness for a brand.

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