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Brand leaders from Saks, Glossier, Crocs describe how to be cool

By Jackie Mallon


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The polarizing slip-on shoe Credits: Facebook Crocs

What is cool? Can a brand cultivate an aura of cool through strategy? These are questions that C-Suites everywhere must grapple with as the gap between heritage brands and digitally native consumers only widens. At the National Retail Federation expo this month, leaders from companies as diverse as Glossier, Crocs, Claire's, and Saks all addressed this topic independently.

The unanimous verdict was that a brand must listen to customers above CEOs to an almost obsessive degree. Closely observing what your target audience cares about, how they spend their time, and innovating on that drives brand awareness. Kristen Patrick, Executive Vice President of Claire’s, a 50-year old brand that is entering a new heyday of relevance refers to such moves as “precision cultural strikes.” Gens Z and Alpha, now referred to as Zalpha, are an entrepreneurial lot who have already had to endure the hardships of a recession, inflation, student debt, a pandemic, and a squeezed economy, but they are also leaders in both gender and career fluidity, and are technically and digitally savvy. This makes them worth listening to on any number of topics. “We got three years younger in the last three years,” said Marc Metrick, CEO of 150-year-old Saks, whose eyes are on the maturing digital native who might not yet be able to shop luxury for every purchase but who is a growing presence on the Saks e-commerce site. Saks is committed to bringing them into the store because, said Metrick, “Painting the luxury customer as exclusively a rich person is dangerous. We go after the full continuum.”

Be at the center of cultural conversations

Social media is unsurprisingly top of retailers’ minds and bringing online engagement into the store environment is behind one of its most recent innovations. Sprinklr, a social media gatherer that has partnered with Prada and Shiseido, identifies viral content featuring the brand or around relevant contemporary topics that would appeal to the brand’s audience. In this way the conversations can be amplified in the equivalent of the modern market square, in-store digital signage, albeit vetted for controversial words or opinions, so that the social currency can then drive revenue. An extra bonus for employees charged with managing the content gathered by Sprinklr, is that they are building their own social profile as well as the brand’s, a desirable commodity they can bring with them to their next job.

Ignore the naysayers

The delightfully democratic brand Crocs, founded in 2002, has weathered all manner of highs and lows - the 2008 recession, fickle fashion trends, accusations of ugliness - but Crocs can be found in stores as varied as Kith to Dick’s Sporting Goods. “We love the polarization,” said Heidi Cooley, Chief Marketing Officer of Crocs, referring to the strong adverse reactions that the foam clogs provoke. “It’s any marketer’s dream because it continues the conversation. It allows us to do polarizing things, to out-create. We lean into it. We’re bold and agile.” She added that overthinking and not trusting their instincts is what has led to missteps along the way. So tune out the negativity.

ShimmerVille immersive experience on Roblox Credits: Claires.com

Investment in the phygital

Exclusivity is no longer the essence of cool. With a similar democratic distribution model as Crocs, Claire’s sells jewelry in retailers as diverse as Galeries Lafayette and Walmart. But it's betting on metaverse foot traffic to appeal to a young curious consumer looking to hang out with peers, shop and explore an immersive environment that encourages self-expression. In November 2022 Claire’s launched ShimmerVille, a digital world on Roblox to drive community and brand love. Traditionally Claire’s was the go-to for young girls getting their ears pierced for the first time, now it is poised to become a global lifestyle brand with apparel incoming, a recently launched social media docu-series for tweens entitled Dear Claire, and a upcoming project in conjunction with Sony Pictures which is described as a cross between Gossip Girl and Riverdale.

Foster peer-to-peer connection

The era-defining leader in the direct-to-consumer space is 10-year-old Glossier, now reported to be worth 1.2 billion dollars, born from a blog entitled “Into the gloss.” Founder Emily Weiss observed how beauty brands dictated to customers what they should buy, a power dynamic she set to reverse by building a community and then creating what it said it needed. An early adopter of Instagram where it regularly posted user-generated content, creating a C-to-C channel, the brand is credited with changing how a beauty business operates. It manages to be both a cult brand and also the most-searched name on Sephora where it made its wholesale debut in 2023, while still seeing winding lines outside its stores or “experience centers.” Said CEO Kyle Leahy, “We have 51 percent brand awareness but less than 1 percent market share. We’re on year 10 of building a 100 year brand.”

Partner up

“Partnerships are our secret sauce,” said Cooley, “but we do not work with anyone who is not an authentic fan of the brand.” She said it’s common to hear someone admit they never thought they'd wear Crocs—until an unexpected collab dropped that changed their mind. Significant Crocs collaborators to date include Balenciaga, KFC, Post Malone, and Justin Bieber. Claire’s have collaborated with Hello Kitty and social media star JoJo Siwa. But not all partnerships need to be so high-profile In 2019 Crocs released its Lightning McQueen style based on the character from Pixar movie Cars in adult sizes after a Crocs fan started a change.org petition that received over 30,000 signatures. The fun red style emblazoned with a flame based on the beloved character voiced by actor Owen Wilson, previously only available for kids, sold out within hours, enjoyed an equally successful relaunch in 2023, and now goes for hundreds of dollars on resale sites like Poshmark and Depop.

Caving to public demand has never been so cool.