The Month in Brand Innovation

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1. Storytelling Through Sport

Football is the world’s biggest game, not only in terms of reach and wealth, but also passion. In many parts of the world, it’s described as a religion. Especially here in Europe, where football is literally a way of life for millions…and has been for generations.

So it’s peculiar that the influence that ‘the beautiful game’ has on style and storytelling at European retail is so low as to be practically non-existent. Sure, you could say that the vast style universes of adidas and PUMA are elaborate evolutions of football’s rich history. But even for these totemic brands, football serves far more as a showcase than as a creative resource. In the hierarchy of sport style, Messi’s role is essentially to be a billboard. Meanwhile, exotic personalities like Kanye West function as its mavens and storytellers.

Maybe football is just too big and familiar to provide the originality and sophistication that fashion and design require. But even within the confines of the core fan market, the products on offer are simplistic – as is the variety of associated narratives and brands. Football innovation stories are heavily centred on adidas and Nike, on incremental improvements to boot and ball technology, and on how team away-strips will look next season.

Are football’s fans and followers really so one-dimensional to deserve such homogeneous treatment?

A contrast exists on the other side of the Atlantic, where four major sports fight for the affections of North American consumers. Each comprises a framework of styles, narratives and rituals that offer broader creative options, and an appeal that resonates far beyond the stadium environment. At the extreme, the cultural impact of NBA basketball is global: Michael Jordan’s shoes are coveted like jewels. In fact, nothing illustrates the gulf in sophistication between the product culture of American sports versus that of European football better than Jordan’s style empire and Cristiano Ronaldo’s preposterous underwear business:

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One factor that goes a long way towards explaining the contrast in standards is the more centralised and democratic system of American trademark and identity rights management. U.S. rightsholders offer more opportunities for manufacturers and brands to get involved, and provide designers and marketers with more resources and story-telling substance to work with.

Cultural factors also play a role, but it would be lazy to suggest that European fans differ fundamentally from their American counterparts. On the contrary, it’s the manufacturers, brands and retailers who recognise the value of getting under the skin of a sport – not only to engage with fan obsessions, but also to highlight to a broader customer base their own originality, passion and attention to detail. By engaging with the minutiae of sport culture and folklore, brands themselves become a little more legendary.

As a case in point, consider the flurry of special releases from fringe brands last month to accompany Opening Day of the 2017 Major League Baseball season. These included a collaboration capsule launched by the sport nostalgia brand ’47 and workwear label Carhartt. Their ‘Outwork x Outroot’ collection focuses solely on the working class virtues that connect baseball to its roots and fan base. Exploiting this granular aspect of the game’s identity enables them to leverage high-profile sport and frame it according to contemporary hipster values and aesthetics. Additionally, for the launch period, the collaboration confines itself to pieces that identify only with Boston and Detroit: cities with strong traditions of manual labour, and the home towns of each brand.

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The regional focus of the Carhartt x 47 x MLB partnership highlights another factor that distinguishes North America from Europe: the symbolic power sports teams (and colleges) have as markers of origin and hometown pride. It’s interesting that ’47 has recently engaged with UK football teams, and even cricket events. Perhaps they too detect that there is something missing from European scene that has more to do with supply than demand.

Meanwhile Shinola dedicated its on-going Great Americans Series to Jackie Robinson, an icon in the history of baseball and racial integration. The Detroit brand’s initiative co-opts other stalwart, made-in-USA baseball brands like New Era and Leather Head Sports for an exquisitely detailed capsule that shows reverence for the game rather than a raw desire to exploit it.

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To anyone uninterested in baseball, or insensitive to sport’s romanticism, initiatives like these may seem trivial. But an undeniable authenticity and integrity is implied when brands engage with sport to elevate their meaning rather than merely their logo.

Rather than assume that football and other sports are the exclusive domain of giant sports brands, marketers can succeed by searching deeper for kernels of meaning that intersect with their own brand narrative, and use sport’s populist appeal to articulate it.

 

 

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2. The Fashionisation of Everything

One of the biggest dilemmas of compiling this report every month is avoiding giving the impression that brand innovation is somehow a gimmick of fashion. Clothing, footwear and accessories brands tend to dominate news due to the high volume of brands involved, as well as the short renewal cycles and low innovation costs they face. Also, a long tradition of brand extension means that fashion creatives are more likely than their counterparts in other industries to turn to tools like collaboration and licensing as a reflex action.

But brand innovation is perhaps playing a more transformative role in sectors beyond fashion. Brand managers in industries like décor, food and consumer gadgets face the same pressures and opportunities as fashion designers to differentiate and personalise their offerings. The fact is that they have more ground to make up – and more to gain – by making differentiated products that appeal to individualists and connoisseurs, and energise their brand profile. To this end, brand innovation platforms greatly improve the chances of their products and brands being discovered, interpreted and remembered as remarkable.

An obvious example of this is the home entertainment sector, where each of the traditional four Ps of marketing are undergoing a revolution. Ten years ago, a typical stereo purchase was an integrated system in an anonymous black box, sold to families in an appliance store, and differentiated by brand and concealed technology. Today, consumers buy significantly more components for more environments. Products are differentiated by radical visual and functional design, and bought by individuals at a far wider range of outlets and prices.

Throughout April, eye-catching new releases included the BeoSound Shape, a music system that relies on modularity and fashion colours and proposes moving home audio equipment from furniture to walls…and from functional to decorative. The innovation is a new instalment in Bang & Olufsen’s incredible collaboration with the interior textiles brand, Kvadrat.

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Elsewhere, in addition to a sculptural concrete speaker designed by Sir David Adjaye, Master & Dynamic released interesting variants on its products for Ermenegildo Zegna and Leica. Master & Dynamic has only existed since 2014, but it is one of many young audio brands that frequently use clever associations and avant-garde design to stand out and capture imaginations. As lifestyle branding becomes more prevalent, every brand faces increasing opportunities to accessorise someone else’s brand, and accelerate the growth of attention and affinity.

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This fashionisation of products is occurring even in the unlikeliest places – from tyres to frappuccino to cannabis accessories. By paying attention to the dynamics of brand innovation in clothing and accessories, ideas emerge that can be imitated and refined to boost practically any category or objective.

About Gavin Brown

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