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Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Anatomy of a brand protest.

“Before their show, the sisters explained that a long drive from El Paso to Marfa, Texas, got them thinking they might like to explore their Mexican roots. From there, they became interested in the troubled border town of Ciudad Juárez; the hazy, dreamlike quality of the landscape there; and the maquiladora workers going to the factory in the middle of the night. And that, according to the designers, who certainly know how to romance a pitch, led to this conclusion: They’d build a collection off the idea of sleepwalking.”

Sexy! Get you some! That was February of this year as fashion brand Rodarte introduced a new fall line by designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy, obviously evoking memories of Thelma and Louise and road trips to mysterious, brooding places like Juárez, Mexico. Oh, you mean the city with an insane amount of murders?

FF >> to earlier this month and the outcry over the cosmetics line from Rodarte, one that was based on the city’s characteristics as much as its characters. Apparently many in the MAC community didn’t quite go for the ‘Sleepwalking’ theme.

The collection’s product names like Bordertown, Factory or Badlands come off more like Springsteen songs than anything. But then, context being context and suddenly those names take on a new meaning to the people living there. Imagine a line of beers named after failed American cities.

The brand has now issued a major mea culpa and pledged to donate money for programs to help the women and girls of the troubled city.

But leading up to that, opinions were mixed when you read the comments. Women from Mexico and elsewhere who love MAC and will keep using it. Other women from Mexico seem ready to boycott, calling on their fellow sisters to do the same. Not that women from Mexico have any more right to be offended, but we tend to look to the group most likely offended to gauge how upset they are. If it’s one or two, no problem! Still others threw down the Holocaust in their anger at MAC.

The Holocaust, really? On the surface, this is another story about consumer outrage and the effect a vocal minority can have on your sales. Crowd screams. Brand reacts. Crowd happy. Profits return. But it also shows how stuff ends up flying under the radar for brands.

This collection was first announced over six months ago, where nobody beyond the fashion trades thought this was anything more than another designer collection, one evoking themes of (insert dreamy landscape here). Fashion lives in a place you and I don’t. Even though the outlandish looks found on Paris runways eventually trickle down to your local Target, does flyover country really read WWD?

Fashion’s seen it all, so unless a designer planned for its models to club live seals on stage, I guarantee that any ghostlike imagery of a faraway town flew under the radar. It’s not any more complicated than that. Sex sells and so does controversy. If they could build controversy out of sleepy bordertown themes, then don’t you think they would have?

Look at how they embraced the idea openly:

“The show ended with a quartet of ethereal, unraveling, rather beautiful white dresses that alternately called to mind quinceañera parties, corpse brides, and, if you wanted to look at it through a really dark prism, the ghosts of the victims of Juárez's drug wars.”

Designers draw inspiration from everywhere, especially places they’ve visited. Play up the good, forget the bad (or at least romanticize it), that’s what we do. Hmm, maybe it is like Springsteen. Perhaps they even viewed it as a celebration of women and an adventurous time. After all, it’s not like they named the lipstick Corpse.

The point is, uproar doesn’t all of a sudden happen one day. It’s a launch that gets buried in the story of yet another fall fashion line that you won’t see for months. You might say well, the brand knew all along. The brand may have had a potential problem all along, but that’s not the same thing as being aware of it.

In product development of any sort, you get this tunnel vision as you become singularly focused on launch. Nothing else matters. It’s the orange juice package redesign that you spent months on internally, only to find out what the real reaction was when the public saw it for the first time. Surely someone at Tropicana in a focus group knew this would happen, right?

Yeah, right. Just like the thousands of other products out there now getting ready to launch.

(Tip to neergharas.)

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