The Month in Brand Innovation

1. Ho-Ho Meets Ho-Hum: Big Brands in Holiday Mode 

For most consumer-facing brands, the holiday season is a key sales period when competition for attention is at its peak. In big-brand, volume categories like beverages and cosmetics, high promotional activity is a year-round reality, but the end of year period is a particularly critical one.

With more brands prepared to spend more to get ahead, the stakes are high and space is scarce. Most respond by paying for prime positioning. Other promotional strategies like bundled gifts and contests seem to have become less popular over recent years.

So what are the innovation strategies big brands are using to differentiate themselves over the holiday period?

Among large-format retailers, a trend is to compete for attention with advertising spend towards and lavish campaigns built on specific holiday themes. This is particularly popular in Britain, where characters are used not only as storytelling devices in media, but increasingly as in-store drawcards via bespoke merchandising and product ranges. Marks & Spencer’s 2017 activation around Paddington Bear combines the power of seasonal storytelling with the drawcard of a blockbuster movie. John Lewis, on the other hand, avoided licensing by creating its own character, Moz the Monster, with its own spin-off product lines. Both campaigns have close links with charity organisations.

In the cosmetics sector, Kiehl’s is well known for its support of social causes and for using artist collaborations to enhance products, giftboxes and window displays. For 2017, the brand appeared to hedge its bets, initiating charity projects with the obscure illustrator Kate Moross and, at the other extreme, Mickey Mouse.

As at Kiehl’s, a platform found widely throughout the cosmetics business is the use of advent calendars. Like subscription box services, these contain sampler packs to combine products from a wide range of applications and brands.

At grocery level, Evian is one of the pioneers of limited edition art packaging as a tactic to achieve differentiation as well as foster collector interest. This year’s effort with Chiara Ferragni seemed a step down from its prior collaborations with titans of the fashion industry.

Perrier was even weaker, collaborating in the Americas with a street artist famous for his work with yarn on aluminium and PET packaging. At least they could blame their choice on a public vote…

Elsewhere, Nespresso stepped up its annual Variations series by collaborating with pop-design duo Craig & Karl on product identity and design studio Geckeler Michels for new drinking accessories. The illy Art Collection series was initiated in 1992 and has amassed an impressive roster of creative celebrities over the years. Despite celebrating 25 years, its most recent edition by Robert Wilson disappointed both for its scale and originality.

Other habitual users of art and fashion packaging over the holiday period include DiSaronno, Warsteiner and Hennessy who, this year, all applied vastly different standards to the notoriety of their collaborating partners.

In spite of my enthusiasm for collaboration as a design and marketing platform, initiatives that only innovate a product’s packaging seem to lack the impact and authenticity needed to truly connect with the market.

If visual impact and novelty are the only goals, then the tactic is fair enough – but consumers are used to more. To generate both visibility and value, large multinational brands would be well advised to use high-impact names, engaging causes and truly remarkable design.


2. Collaboration Feng Shui

There’s something oddly satisfying about collaborations that both partners seem equally invested in – so much so, that each is qualified to influence the style and story of the other.

It’s something that happens when two brands are complementary enough to share in an idea, but different enough to make their cooperation seem exotic or exciting.

Reciprocal collaborations are certainly no new phenomenon, but they deserve highlighting – especially in a month when they were more frequent than usual.

This year has seen New Era engage in several reciprocal collaborations – most notably a multi-year partnership with New Balance. It’s hard to think of a brand more versatile or symbolic of its category than the New England hatmakers.

For its most recent project, New Era has joined forces with another emblematic accessories brand in the form of Eastpak. The Eastpak Padded Pak’r backpack is, like the 59Fifty cap, a classic in the same league as Levi’s 501s or Converse All-Stars. Yet this is the first time the two brands have worked together.

The result is rock solid – not visually spectacular but loyal to each brand’s legacy and prestige. The idea to fit the backpack with a special hat-clip is a small, yet magical piece of industrial design.

A similarly elegant design appeared in a collaboration earlier in the month between wings+horns and Moscot.

Allbirds and Outdoor Voices are two brands to rise sharply throughout 2017. Both espouse a similar ethos of softer sport and their collaboration capsule was extremely effective at giving their customers the sense of belonging to a larger movement.

Other regular co-collaborators are Nike and Medicom (mentioned below). Last month it was Nike’s skateboarding division that joined forces with Medicom’s Bearbrick division, and combine coveted sneakers with even more coveted toys.


3. The New Soft Power of Plush

In the early 2000s, urban toys broke through as a new type of lifestyle accessory. Suddenly, trendy shops with no prior interest in toys became marketplaces for menageries of bizarre figures – often with equally bizarre price tags.

To outsiders, they were indiscernible: like overpriced children’s action figures salvaged from a factory fire on Mars. But to collectors and other cultural insiders, the attraction of art toys like Fat Ronald and Marlboro Boy lay in their secretiveness and subversiveness. The ability of urban toys to connect art and fashion, or synthesise popular ideas with underground ideologies makes them unique cultural totems.

Arguably, urban toy companies helped create the taste template for many of today’s most fashionable brands. The creativity and detail of these exotic vinyl figurines were precursors to more recent phenomena like sneaker collecting and the lavish box-sets produced by publishers, movie studios and the music industry. The groundwork performed by companies like Medicom and Kidrobot helped make it possible for creations like last month’s Diadora Astro Boy sneakers to be understood as luxury experiences rather than dumb gimmickry.

The mainstream popularity of urban toys may have receded in recent years, but their offbeat sensibility is making a comeback in a new format. Plush toys have been an increasingly common sight in the ranges of brands that have no business selling toys. With their ironically infantile style, plush provides brands like PUMA and Shake Shack with Instagram-friendly products that are showpieces for the most passionate consumers. Urban artists like KAWS enable Uniqlo to pitch consumers Snoopy plush as a fashion proposition.

Designer Christopher Raeburn holds popular “Off-Cut Animals” workshops that give fans and hobbyists the chance to build toys from leftover fabrics. Raeburn, like Moschino, PUMA or Kate Spade, also specialises in shaped bags – another persistent trend that shares plush toys’ traits of individualism and playfulness.

About Gavin Brown

Founder of brand innovation agency, Crescendo Brands...providing research, insights, creativity and leads to brands in need of remarkable products.