Fitting In with Consumers

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Fitting In with Consumers

By Peter Breen - 01/02/2020

About 20 years ago, I was helping my mother with some decades-overdue spring cleaning and made an archeological discovery in the back corner of a bedroom closet: a nearly pristine pair of white high-top Chuck Taylors, circa 1970, I’d guess.

In the 1970s, my brothers and I basically lived in “Chucks,” which were officially branded as Converse All Stars but effectively endorsed by Mr. Taylor, a semi-professional basketball player more gainfully employed as a salesperson for the Converse Rubber Shoe Company in the first half of the 20th century. You might say they were one of the first “performance shoes” on the market, since they were marketed as ideal for basketball players.

In hindsight, they weren’t even close to ideal. We had to put on two pairs of socks when playing sports, because the thin-soled Chucks offered only slightly more foot support than a b-flute corrugate shoebox would have. They served their intended purpose, but only until other shoe manufacturers began offering consumers far superior products that actually met their performance needs.

I only wore my new discovery a few times over the next couple of years (always to the horror of my wife), more as a slipper with ankle support than as a legitimate “sneaker” (to use another archaic term). Meanwhile, Nike bought the struggling Converse brand in 2003 and initiated a revival of the original Chucks – not, mind you, as a performance shoe but as retro fashion. It worked for me, personally, as my pre-teen daughter, who herself lived in a pair of black Chuck high-tops for about two years, proclaimed me “cool” for the first (and I think only) time when I next wore my vintage pair.

I was thinking about these experiences last November at the Path to Purchase Expo, where I had the pleasure of conducting a fireside chat with Michelle Lam, co-founder and CEO of True&Co., an apparel company built on the “disruptive” premise that women should be able to find bras that actually fit them comfortably – a concept that, somehow, had escaped the consumer goods industry for a few centuries. Seven years and 7 million satisfied customers after launching (with apparel giant PVH Corp. now behind it), True&Co. is living proof that “innovation” sometimes only requires brands to stop selling and marketing for a few moments and take the time to learn from consumers what they actually need.

That’s a lesson for all brand marketers. In this era of unprecedented disruption and change, you don’t necessarily have to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Consumers might still want that baby, although perhaps in cleaner, healthier water, and maybe in a more environmentally sustainable tub that can be delivered in two hours or less. The only trick (to grossly oversimplify the process needed to achieve this) is to understand exactly what they want.

Traditional brands haven’t been struggling because they’re falling behind their competitors but because “they’re running behind their customers’ expectations,” Forrester principal analyst Brendan Witcher said during his keynote at Expo. The solution for catching up? Insights-driving data gained through two-way dialogue with those customers, according to Witcher.

Understanding what today’s consumers really need will force some brands to completely transform their product offerings, for sure. But for many others, the change might not be so radical. It will just require them to spend time walking around in their consumers’ shoes – or maybe their bras.

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