Product discovery: Nike, Balmain, and Kim Kardashian-West

The motto “the customer is always right” has long circulated hospitality and retail, popularised in the early nineteenth century by retailers like Harry Gordon Selfridge. Consumer sway over brands has only increased in the age of social media, as people are able to mobilise opposition to the actions of brands they follow. In recent weeks, three big names have bowed to consumer pressure to change their products: Kim Kardashian-West backtracked on naming her shapewear brand Kimono after accusations of cultural appropriation, Nike recalled its 4th July trainers after consumers pointed out they were using a flag flown during slavery, and Balmain reached an agreement with Laura Biagiotti Group to change their logo. Which all begs the question: why didn’t they think of these issues before releasing the product and brand changes?

Big brand logos
Laura v Pierre

Consumers are increasingly conscious of the impact they have on the world. This is especially prevalent with millennial consumers, as discussed in our blog on ethical consumerism and the power of millennial pound, which concluded that big brands need to adapt to serve the changing demands of an increasingly powerful demographic. While some brands clearly understand this power (see: Nike’s Kapernick campaign), the very same brands also fail to properly research their products (see: Nike’s 4th July trainers).

Increasingly, the relationship between fashion brands and their consumers is reciprocal. Consumers clearly value the stances taken by big brands, and are happy to be identified by association with the brand; but they are not afraid to make their opinions heard when brands don’t meet their expectations, hence the pre-eminence of accounts like Diet Prada. And brands clearly understand the importance of listening to the reaction of their target market, and that not all publicity is good publicity. So why do these brands leave it until after products are launched, rather than using proper product discovery techniques to ensure they are delivering what their customers want?

There are two possible explanations: one, that brands are mobilising controversial issues to generate publicity; or two, that despite all the resources available to multimillion-dollar brands, they are failing to invest in systematic product discovery. Both approaches are short-term strategies: for the first approach, the roller-coaster ride of Benetton should serve as a morality tale; for the second, see every major corporate failure where consumer preference has been ignored.

Not so long ago, it appeared that brands were invincible and immune from criticism. But in the #metoo and TimesUp era, this simply is no longer the case. Consumers now have the confidence and the means to publicise mis-steps, whether the copyright infringements by big retailers, as has happened on multiple occasions with Zara, or the inappropriate behaviour of industry leaders, with Dolce & Gabbana’s years of inappropriate and racist conduct finally affecting them when their China launch show was cancelled following Stefano Gabbana’s remarks about the country.

It is time that the big names in fashion take note of the power of consumer opinion, and apply this to all areas of their strategy. It is one thing taking a controversial stance which appeals to a targeted demographic, it is quite another to neglect audience and product research when launching new products or product lines. While it will always be important to listen to consumer complaints, it is far better to preempt these complaints prior to a launch. Only then will brands be able to claim that they have both user and social issues at their heart. If you wish to build and retain customer loyalty, you cannot claim to support people with one campaign, only to alienate them in the next.


Josephine Kemp

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Martin Tripp Associates is a London-based executive search consultancy. While we are best-known for our work across the mediainformationtechnologycommunications and entertainment sectors, we have also worked with some of the world’s biggest brands on challenging senior positions. Feel free to contact us to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog.