How Brands Disrupt Through Democratization

Larry LightSeptember 17, 20205 min

If coronavirus has shown us anything, it is that casual is the way to dress. Casual – hoodies, t-shirts, sweat pants, yoga clothes, leggings and so forth – has become the required fashion for stay-at-home, work-at-home lifestyles. The love for casual has clothing retailers shifting merchandise to satisfy the demand.

Casual wear, as opposed to traditional workday wear, connotes relaxed and suitable everyday wear for any day. Casual levels the playing field; it is personal, comfortable, nonconformity as opposed to button-down shirts, suits, wing-tips, high heels, and dresses.

Brands across the fashion spectrum are leveraging the ascendance of casual. Land’s End has trademarked a new slogan: “Let’s get comfy.” Abercrombie & Fitch is selling its cozy sweats and other dressed-down items. An Abercrombie & Fitch executive said that the brand has been selling more casual clothing as a percentage of its business. Kate Spade is selling lots of pajamas.

The Danger Of Losing Your Purpose

Yet, Gap is hurting. Gap may start selling more casual items. And this may help its bottom line. But, it is not its merchandise that is really hurting Gap. Gap lost its purpose. Gap lost its connection to the legacy of the democratization of casual clothing. Gap originated as a brand that stood for the universality of blue jean clothing. The New York Times cites Gap’s latest results as “Not as bad as expected.” Gap seems to be failing at its strongest value: the democratization of casual.

According to its website, Gap began with a simple idea: to make it easier for anyone to find a pair of jeans that fit. Jeans have always denoted casual.

Don Fisher, a real estate broker in San Francisco, wanted to put denim jeans into anyone’s and everyone’s wardrobes: he wanted to democratize the availability of blue jean fashion. Mr. Fisher saw an opportunity for blue jeans by dedicating retail space where jeans in all sizes and in all styles were available. Anyone could find a pair of jeans that fit size-wise and style-wise.

Don Fisher knew Walter Haas, Jr., the President of Levi Strauss & Co. Mr. Fisher and Mr. Haas made a deal. Levi Strauss & Co. agreed to continually supply Gap with Levi’s blue jeans so that there would never be any “out-of-stock” sizes or styles.

In its first store, Gap sold men’s Levi’s jeans and music. One year later, in 1970, Gap began to sell women’s Levi’s jeans. By 1974, Gap had its own label, so that by 1977, the store compared its jeans to Levi’s. Soon, there was Gap’s one-pocket t-shirt in a myriad of colors.

Over time, Gap lost its original connection to its heritage. Along the way, Gap trended up-market, leaving some price room between itself and its lower-priced sibling brand, Old Navy. The democratization of easy, casual fashion became the brand space for Old Navy. Gap found itself caught in a muddled middle between Old Navy and Gap’s more upscale Banana Republic brand as well as losing out to its “athleisure” brand, Athleta, for stylish, dressed-up exercise women’s wear.

Last year, in 2019, Gap celebrated its 50th anniversary. For its next 50 years, the brand-business needs to figure out a way to make the democratization of casual its relevant differentiator again in the context of this new world of dressing down. Old Navy is quirky, youthful fast fashion. Gap is casual fashion accessible to everyone at any age.

Meet The Brand Democratizers

There are several brands that have focused on democratization, helping these brands to become disrupters in their category. Brand as a democratizer is a powerful idea.

Henry Ford decided to make an affordable car for almost everyone. He said, “I will build a motorcar for the great multitude. It will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one. When I’m through everybody will be able to afford one, and everyone will have one and will be able to enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces. The horse will have disappeared from our highways, the automobile will be taken for granted and we will give a large number of men employment at wages.”

Henry Ford democratized car ownership and driving. McDonald’s democratized eating out. Target democratized stylishness. Clairol democratized hair color.

The Franklin Mint sold “collectibles” for 50 years. Offerings included die-cast airplanes and vehicles, plates, commemorative pieces, dolls, coins, sculptures, and other pieces of artwork. The brand gave people the opportunity to own affordable art. The Franklin Mint democratized owning collectible artworks.

The Wall Street Journal stated that one reason Gap has been losing sales is that Gap stores are primarily in malls. Malls are not places people wish to be these days, especially since many malls are shadows of their former selves.

But, it is the loss of its democratization of casual that is most unfortunate. Ford, Target, The Franklin Mint, McDonald’s, and Gap took categories where many people were excluded and invited them in to participate through ownership. These brands disrupted via democratization.

Today, a great example of democratization is Stitch Fix. Stitch Fix is democratizing personal shoppers. In an interview last year, with Emily Chang on Bloomberg TV, Katrina Lake, a co-founder and the CEO of Stitch Fix explained that the brand’s mission is to democratize personal shopping. The brand’s mission is to offer personal fashion shopping, once the domain of high-end shoppers at high-end stores, to the masses. Ms. Lake is passionate about the way in which anyone can receive the personalized styling help once reserved for the elite. Democratizing personal shopping is transforming the retail clothing industry.

Another example is Ulta Beauty, the retail cosmetics store. The brand’s inherent message is “beauty for all.” According to an interview in The Wall Street Journal with Ulta Beauty’s CMO, Shelley Haus, “You’ll see not just females, but males, transgender people, and differences in age, race, body-type.”

Don Fisher and his wife Doris were passionate about Gap and its possibilities for everyone. Coronavirus has upended sales. But, this could also represent a great opportunity to reclaim its heritage.

Gap’s vision about anyone and everyone walking out of a store with a pair of blue jeans in your particular style and size is even more important today. Gap might look back to its original vision and modernize it for the future, especially since we are told people are “souring on sweats.”

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Larry Light, CEO of Arcature

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