How lifestyle brands are rising to the digital disruption challenge

Technology has made brands rethink the consumer journey. Many have embraced unlikely collaborations and launched new sub-brands and collections to stay ahead of the game.

Technology has transformed all industries, from music to manufacturing. The US lifestyle market is unrecognisable. Reality stars can build $1bn make-up companies on their phones through social media, while venerable department stores struggle to make their business add up in this new world.

We no longer live in a brand-led world – if we ever did. Instead, the consumer has more power than ever. Marketers must embrace discomfort and try new approaches or risk becoming irrelevant.

To rise to this challenge, some established brands are reaffirming their commitment to causes, while others are partnering with start-ups to offer new services. Alongside them are a host of new companies offering services or products that would have been unsustainable just a decade ago.

The lifestyle sector has a lot to lose if it doesn’t lean into this new way of life. It has been forced to change dramatically to stay afloat in today’s economy.

Here’s how US lifestyle brands are attempting to navigate the ever-changing digital landscape.

Foot Locker bets big on sneaker culture with GOAT

GOAT: Foot Locker’s investment is already paying off

You’ll struggle to find a more loyal fan base than the one holding up sneaker culture. In the US, the power of its aftermarket is borderline scary.

GOAT can be credited as one of the first brands to successfully wrangle that beast. Eddy Lu and Daishin Sugano, like most of America’s tech entrepreneurs, hatched a plan to authenticate second-hand sneakers from their college dorm room. The "Greatest Of All Time" mobile app was born in 2015 and, essentially, acts as a halfway house for the secondary shoe market: people selling send the products to a GOAT facility where they’re authenticated and then rerouted to the buyer.

It didn’t take long for news of this platform to reach the sleeping giants and legacy sneaker sellers. Foot Locker made what appears to have been a wise investment in the GOAT Group earlier this year. It bet $100m on the company that houses the app and fellow secondary-market shoe company Flight Club.

Early indicators show that Foot Locker’s biggest financial investment is already paying off, as it continues to build a bridge between its brand and customer interaction. Just weeks after the ink was dry, GOAT announced the launch of an app localised to China.

It was bolstered with a WeChat mini-programme – or sub-application – to serve the local market, while echoing the US model to create a more transparent shopping experience. 

GOAT has also opened a new facility in Hong Kong to better serve the Asia market.

"The sneaker community has grown tremendously in China, especially with the rise of basketball and hip hop culture. So it’s no surprise the demand for sneakers has grown, as well," GOAT Group co-founder and chief executive, Eddy Lu, says.

"We know that there is a huge need to ensure authentic sneakers in the global sneaker industry, and we believe China is the perfect market to begin our global expansion."

Can Reebok’s diversity and inclusion break fashion’s gender stereotypes? 

Between the launch of its new membership programme, a creative agency shake-up in which it named Deutsch its agency of record, the release of daring new work and even some PR-tear-inducing headlines about Beyoncé, it has been a busy year for Reebok.

The brand has made strides to redefine its voice through bold campaigns which, as a bonus, demonstrate diversity in an authentic way.

The entrance of Matt Blonder, Reebok’s digital chief – who added the global head of marketing and brand management role to his remit in June following the sudden departure of Melanie Boulden – placed the brand in a more intriguing position.

He is looking to drive Reebok’s agenda with powerful creative and use data to crack the customer journey, which it has done via celebrity partnerships, empowering female-driven campaigns and a call to live authentically.

Its latest drive, "Sport the unexpected", which was launched by Venables Bell & Partners and now handled by Deutsch, features quirky and weirdly hypnotic creative.

But Blonder’s true passion has the potential to take Reebok to another level. The diversity, inclusion and equality space is a major focus for the marketer and, for the past couple of years, Blonder has challenged his team to think about how to sell and position the brand in a genderless world.

It’s a difficult question to answer, due in large part to the technical limitations of the way the retail industry works. Unfortunately, things like the retail buying structure have pigeonholed the industry into marketing to sexes.

Blonder, himself, doesn’t shop by gender. He bought four pairs of shoes recently – two of which were "women’s".

"The notion of gender, as it applies to product, is becoming relatively antiquated," he told Campaign recently. "It’s amazing how rooted we are in this idea of male and female, and it’s going to take a Herculean effort on the part of the industry to upend that.

"This is not the future of shopping, it’s not the future of self-identification and it needs to be solved. I think you’ll begin to see a blurring of the lines and an eventual erasure of that line, relatively soon."

America’s cities are brands’ biggest playgrounds

Adidas: transported super-fans to an imagined 2048

There’s no shortage of immersive events in the US. Many brands are doubling down on experiential to win consumers over, as the fight for digital space shows no sign of abating.

Adidas is just one of those experimenting in the giant playground known as New York City. The sportswear company recently teamed up with agency Jam3 and street-buzz website Hypebeast to celebrate the drop of its newest sneaker range.

Over the summer, Adidas used a digital and experiential strategy to transform a SoHo newsstand into the entrance to a speakeasy event space. It lured super-fans to an undisclosed location, via cryptic social media messages, and transported them to the year 2048 to celebrate the (by then) 50 years of the Ozweego sneaker.

A hidden door in the newsstand refrigerator led people to a large open room, where an imagining of SoHo decades from now was projected on to the walls. They then received a special collectible Adidas Ozweego magazine, some of which contained "golden tickets" that could be exchanged for new sneakers before they went on sale to the general public.

Meanwhile, clothing and outdoor recreation brand L.L.Bean is taking Boston by storm, literally.

L.L.Bean: used hydrophobic tech to create a hopscotch grid

L.L.Bean has long sold a lifestyle over clothing, and it continues to do so in unexpected ways. Recently, the brand worked with its Maine neighbour, The VIA Agency, to tap into hydrophobic technology. The team used the tech to create a hopscotch grid in Boston’s Seaport Courtyard and outside the brand’s flagship store and headquarters in Freeport, Maine. The hook was that the grid only appears when it rains.

This move was part of L.L.Bean’s "Be an outsider" campaign and is a reminder of the opportunities experiential provides, as technology advances.

Columbia taps unlikely collaborations to reel in new generation

Columbia: developed SH/FT in collaboration with Zedd

Juggernaut clothing brands have learnt that they need more than just a fun piece of creative and power-celeb endorsement to break through.

Many have been forced to upgrade their gear, embrace unlikely collaborations and launch entire new sub-brands and collections.

Take Columbia Sportswear, for example. It created a new footwear line specifically for younger consumers, marking the first time in more than 80 years that the company has decided to proactively target this demographic in the shoe category.

The urban collection, SH/FT, was developed for city-dwelling Gen Z and millennials, who take time away from their screens to recharge in parks, the woods or in the mountains.

"We know style matters to these consumers," Ethan Pochman, vice-president of global brand marketing at Columbia, says. "They’re not going to go out in something that doesn’t represent who they are."

Pochman says that Columbia decided to combine its decades of knowledge around athletic fit, function and comfort with a fresh, hip look for SH/ FT. The sneakers are part of a global launch in markets such as the US, Canada, Europe, China and Japan, in partnership with the DJ and producer Zedd – a far cry from Columbia’s traditional trail-runner ambassadors.

Rent the Runway: A brand built by word of mouth, now powered by bespoke tech

Maureen Sullivan, chief operating officer at designer-dress and accessories rental service Rent the Runway, recently said 94% of its customers throughout the brand’s almost 10-year history have come organically, and were driven by genuine recommendations.

She explains: "It’s this moment when you’re at a wedding wearing this amazing dress and someone says, ‘You look great – I love that dress’. And all she needed to say was ‘thanks’. She didn’t need to be an infomercial for Rent the Runway to a stranger at a loud wedding, but she was, over and over and over again. Thank god for that. Given how capitalintensive our business model is, there really wasn’t money to spend on marketing in the early days."

The founders were not looking to become one of the US’s largest dry cleaning services but the market forced their hand. They now have a 250,000ft2 dry cleaning facility in New Jersey and are immersed in a game of how quickly they can send clothes out, get them back and fly them out the door again. There was no off-the-shelf technology to service such a demand so they had to create it.

Word of mouth continues to be the brand’s key driver and is amplified – with much success – via its customer review community.

Agency helps brands find new revenue and teaches them how to better serve clients

42 Birds: eco-conscious brand was created by an agency

42 Birds has all the hallmarks of a start-up launched by free spirits who live and breathe nature, but the eco-conscious cork yoga-equipment company is actually the brainchild of Decoded – an independent creative, media and tech agency on a mission to reinvent the in-house system. 

Decoded’s first client was Dollar Shave Club and the team is no stranger to the direct-to-consumer (DTC) space now, having worked with others such as BarkBox and Honey. Decoded’s co-founders – chief executive Matt Rednor and chief innovation officer Addie Conner – have since added huge brands to the roster, including Visa, T-Mobile and HP.

"The in-house model is flawed on both sides, at the moment," Rednor says.

"Start-ups are a completely different beast from working with the big brands," he continues. "They’re a little more ahead and advanced in the work that they do, based on the fact that they’ve been measuring their goals, they can use the digital platforms much more nimbly and they’ve been testing and learning and experimenting a lot more."

However, he says that start-ups have a habit of stalling once they have saturated their desired platforms because they don’t truly understand, or appreciate, brand building in the same way Goliaths do. Big brands have a much better handle on long-term marketing strategy but they’re too slow, and haven’t adapted to be quick like DTC companies have, Rednor believes.

Rednor adds: "As a response to that, we wanted to learn about this world and become experts in it. So, we felt like the best way to do this was to put our money where our mouth is and to experiment on our own and take the risks we needed to do by controlling the full end to end."

Decoded established 42 Birds in order to learn everything about Amazon and other online marketplace giants. Then came a lot of passion for a product that seemed to answer an industry problem – basically, a reverse start-up in that sense.

Sales for the products continue, as does Decoded’s ability to manage DTC clients looking for long-term strategic brand building.

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