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NRF 2024: How brands can become ‘cool’ again

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Claire's has expanded its store count across the U.S. and Europe, and recently expanded into Mexico.

As trends in fashion come and go over time, brands can fall out of favor with consumers, leading to the need for a reboot.

At the recent NRF 2024 show in New York City, two marketing experts detailed how their respective brands rebounded from challenging periods and became “cool” again in the eyes of consumers. Kristin Patrick, EVP and chief marketing officer at Claire’s, and Heidi Cooley, SVP and chief marketing officer at Crocs, spoke about their strategies in a discussion with Kelly McMillan, VP of merchant services at American Express.

Both Patrick and Cooley said the revival of their brands was credited to catering to the digitally-native online Z and Alpha generations who value authenticity and creative expression.

“Gen Z and Gen Alpha are both highly creative, highly entrepreneurial,” said Patrick, who joined Claire’s in March of 2021. “They have to lead the way. Marketing today is very much about letting them lead and the brand sort of taking the back seat. It's about setting a platform for them. I think the other thing about the Alphas in particular is they're so technically savvy, and they are going to be one of the first generations they were born into a world that they will never not know a world without Alexa.”

Since declaring Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2018, accessories retailer Claire’s has rebounded in a big way. The chain has expanded its store count across the U.S. and in Europe, and has launched partnerships with major retailers such as Walmart, Macy’s, and most recently Kohl’s. Claire’s also recently launched a new visual brand campaign for its most-famous service: ear piercing.

Patrick said that the new generation of Claire’s shoppers seek personalization like never before, desiring apparel and more home-retailed products to decorate bedrooms and dorms.

Crocs' signature clog first gained popularity in the mid-2000s.

“I think one of the things that we're figuring out now is super reactive to consumers and trends,” said Patrick. “And as a retailer figuring out what that product mix looks like, lining the marketing up with its kind of retail 101 in some instances. Our biggest thing to figure out is really being able to align ourselves with trends and then move out very, very quickly.”

To make Crocs “cool” again after becoming a “joke,” Cooley said that brand’s process was to make its flagship shoe relevant again, and to connect with diehard fans who never left the brand behind when other footwear trends cropped up. 

“The belief was actually to make our iconic plug relevant again, and we knew we needed to do that two ways,” said Cooley. “We had to show consumers how to wear what was one of the most polarizing shoes in the industry. And then we had this incredible, passionate, small at the time fan base that we needed to connect with culturally.”

When it comes to connecting with fans, Cooley cited an example of a Crocs fan creating a petition on requesting that the company make adult size Cars Lightning McQueen clogs, previously only available in kids’ sizes. After the petition received 30,000 signatures, Crocs responded and met fans’ needs.

“A lot of brands would've seen that and said ‘oh, that's cute.’ We saw it, we engaged. I'll tell you, we have dropped that shoe five times now, and it sells out every single time in volumes that nobody in this room could guess. And it's because we listened to our fans.”

Like Claire’s, Crocs has also taken many new initiatives to appeal to the digitally-native “Gen Zalpha.” In October 2021, the company launched a global partnership with Bitmoji, the platform for creating personalized digital avatars. More recently, Crocs, launched its virtual Crocs Jibbitz Experience, which included the brand’s first-ever 3D “Jibbitz Customizer” to provide consumers with a mix-and-match tool to create their own custom pair of Crocs with Jibbitz charms, which can then be purchased directly from the metaverse store.

“As a polarizing brand, we get to do polarizing things,” said Cooley. “And instead of the consumer saying ‘oh my gosh, Crocs should have never done that,’ it’s often, ‘oh my gosh, I can't believe Crocs just did that.’ And so we lean into that instead of away from it.”

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