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Forget Ads, What's Your Brand?

Ochen Kaylan

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(Ochen Kaylan)
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Almost every Saturday, 15-year-old Emily Erickson is at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn. Most of its 500 stores don't interest her, except Hollister, a clothing store for teens. Hollister is odd. It's dark, with music so loud you can't hear yourself shop. The air is filled with a deep citrus scent that stays on your clothes for hours. But Emily loves it and keeps coming back. Hollister's "brand" invites her to become part of a particular tribe, and to show her allegiance by wearing its clothes. It's part of the way that branding has taken over from traditional advertising. We hear from brand designer Joe Duffy about the concept of "brand" for clothes, kids and even countries.


by Ochen Kaylen

It's Saturday, which means that Emily Erickson is at the Mall of America, the most visited shopping mall in the world.

There are more than 500 stores here, most of which Emily just ignores. Except one: "My favorite store is Hollister," she says. "It's very beachy-like. And when you go in, the music is pretty loud. It's actually kind of dark in there. There's just like a few lights on."

Hollister's really different from most stores. From the outside, you can't see into the store at all. What you see instead sort of looks like a front porch of a cabana on the beach: deck chairs, surfboards. And there's strong, bitter citrus smell. She likes the smell. We enter the dark store.

"Yeah, it is actually pretty dark," Emily admits. "But I think it's fine. I think the first time I was in here, I thought it was really different. I was like I can't even see anything. But you get used to it. They have lights on the clothes, so it's fine."

You might think that this store is doing everything wrong. The music is so loud that you can't talk; it's so dark you can't see where you're going; and the smell is so strong that you end up smelling it on your clothes for hours. You might think this would drive customers away. But not so. Hollister does about $1.4 billion in annual sales for its parent company Abercrombie and Fitch. Today, this store full of kids, all of whom look about Emily's age.

"They're doing really well. It's amazing," says Joe Duffy, whom I've brought here to Hollister.

In the design world, Duffy is a pretty big name. His company, Duffy and Partners, has done high-profile branding work for Coca Cola, Starbucks, Aveda and Jim Beam. He even branded the Bahamas. The country. I want him to help me understand why Hollister appeals to Emily.

"It's setting the mood, and it's about expressing the brand's personality. The fact that it is individualistic, having a good time, not just buying and selling," he says.

And that's exactly what Emily's about: hanging out with friends, enjoying life, maybe being a little independent. So Emily and Hollister have found each other. It's not just about cute clothes. It's about being part of group, your tribe, the people who care about the things that you care about, who think about the things you think about. Duffy says this has been part of a massive change in marketing. It's becoming easier and easier to ignore and even avoid ads, so they have to speak to you in other ways.

"Marketers today are putting a much larger percentage of their marketing dollars into the store environment where people can really feel the brand and don't look upon it as a interruption into the lives when they're watching a television show," he says.

I asked Duffy to take me behind the curtain into his studio where he and his designers build these brands. Everyone's in an open cubicle. There are no offices.

At any time, there are about a dozen branding projects going on here. One of Duffy's designers, Ken Sekuri, is working on the packaging of some new beauty products. He first thinks about the package itself: the shape of a bottle or shape of a box.

And then there's the materials. "A label or sticker," he wonders. "Could it be wrapped? Could it be in a cloth bag? What kind of handle? A silk string or paper string? Does it have a bead?" Sekuri muses aloud.

Whether there's a bead on the handle of the bag that holds the box of the tube of the face cream: there's someone at a desk figuring it out, and figuring out how you'd react to it. In some ways this is nice. I care about the things I consume, and I want those things to be as well thought out as possible. But at the same time, it's creepy to think that people are huddled in cubicles figuring out my psychological profile. But Duffy says advertising doesn't rely as much on manipulation anymore.

"Today, you can go on-line and find out anything. How they're made, what they're track record is vis-à-vis the environment," he says.

"Or even if your toaster is a good as it claims to be," I add.

"Absolutely. "You can't dupe the consumer any more. It was more manipulative when you could," Duffy says.

And while it's probably always a good idea to remain skeptical when an advertiser tells you he's not manipulating you, I do know that one of the big industry buzz words right now is "authenticity."

Marketers want to get you keep you in their tribe. That also means anticipating what you'll desire in the future. What that means for Emily is that even though she doesn't spend a lot of money right now, Duffy says she will, in time.

"I guarantee that even though Emily is only 15, and doesn't have a car, there's a car in her portfolio. Marketers know that," he says.

I gave her a call, and it turns out he's right.

"I kind of like the Hummer because it's really big, and I'd like to drive a big car. Every time I see one I say, 'Oh, it's a Hummer,'" Emily admits. And she says she wants her Hummer to be black.

What sparked her interest in a black Hummer?

"I think I saw a commercial for it and it had a really cool commercial."

So there you go, building the Hummer tribe, one 15-year-old at a time.

More stories from our Sustainability series


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