Reflected glory

Mass-market mobile phone and sportswear brands have enjoyed great success by linking with upmarket designer labels, but these collaborations must be built on a genuine synergy between partners and provide real innovation for consumers, says Maeve Hosea

Consumers increasingly expect to access luxury at the price point that suits them, so brands need to know how to deliver it. Wearing or living with designer items used to be the preserve of the rich and famous, yet now such experiences are available to the masses via the increasing trend for limited editions and brand collaborations.

Even sectors that are apparently function-driven, such as technology and sportswear, are following this trend. ‘Brands partnering fashion labels is a growing strategy, where brands borrow some of the lifestyle image, glamour and ‘luxury’ from the fashion label, while the fashion label reaches the masses and ups revenue,’ says brand consultancy Staufenberger Smith & Butte partner Patrick Syms.

Sands might be shifting in the territory of ‘mass luxury’, but the look and feel of a product continues to be a crucial signal of its luxury credentials, particularly in the mobile phone sector. ‘It is a combination of factors around the form, materials, size of screen versus buttons,’ says Samsung UK chief marketing officer Anthony Marsella of its recent collaboration with fashion designer Giorgio Armani. ‘[The phone] has Armani’s touch in the design. It is a luxury phone but we are selling lots. There will be tens of thousands on the market – it is luxury, but it is attainable.’ The Armani collaboration brings a ‘desirable’ design element to Samsung’s phone to help differentiate it in the crowded marketplace and create an emotional attachment. While technology is evolving fast, design will nevertheless drive consumer’s purchasing decisions in the future.

Mobile brand LG is undertaking a similar collaboration, in this case with fashion house Prada. This saw the first commercially-available touch-screen phone launched in spring 2007, followed by a new silver model this spring. ‘Having already launched the style-statement Chocolate phone, we can say we are prominent in fashion and design, and this was highlighted with the cachet of the co-design with Prada. It is now a case of not dropping the baton,’ says LG UK sales and marketing director John Barton.

Such partnerships are successful when two brands come together and create a new experience. A collaboration needs to be unexpected and have an element of surprise, such as Motorola’s first collaboration with Dolce & Gabbana in 2005. ‘The Razr phone was stylish to start with. Even before D&G’s input, it was a product bought for [its] design,’ says Motorola design director for Europe, Middle East and Africa Ignacio Germade. ‘But the reputation of D&G as being quite “out there” gave us the permission to go a little bit more over the top and create, for example, a gold phone. It allowed us to push our brand in a fashion context that we couldn’t have done before.’

Portland Design managing director Ibrahim Ibrahim sees benefits in the strategy if projects are executed in the right way. ‘Mass luxury tends to be limited edition, slightly rare or customised. With the D&G phone you are buying into the first rung of the D&G luxury ladder. From Motorola’s point of view, it creates a halo effect. It creates the message that Motorola is involved with fashion, always looking ahead, always moving forward,’ he says.

Mass luxury strategies are also putting sportswear brands more ‘front of mind’ for consumers. The long-running Stella McCartney collaboration with Adidas saw department store Selfridges devoting concession space to the co-brand as part of its major McCartney promotion this February. Alexander McQueen and Puma have also linked up, with a footwear collection that combines a fashion aesthetic, high-quality materials and sport-inspired product silhouettes. ‘Sport and fashion are complementary elements in the context of this collaboration,’ says a Puma spokeswoman. ‘Puma sport fashion collections target discerning consumers with a refined and sophisticated taste, and we aim to surprise them with our design and product innovations.’

The desirability of co-branded products relies upon synergy between the two brands, the fit between values and the ability of the products to satisfy a consumer need. ‘Often sportswear brands miss a trick with clothing, because they don’t see things in the same directional way as fashion people,’ says Nick Gray, managing director of retail marketing consultancy Live and Breathe. ‘It can be an extremely successful strategy for both parties – as we see with the Stella McCartney collaboration with Adidas, which brings the designer’s name into common parlance.’

This spring sees the launch of a co-branded project between surfwear brand O’Neill and fashion designer Luella Bartley comprising 30 pieces, from swimwear to casual, shoes and accessories. ‘Consumers are very demanding these days and key for them is to be independent and original. [This project] is a good way to be distinctive in the women’s surf market,’ says an O’Neill spokeswoman.

It’s only natural, then, that by partnering with fashion, these telecoms and sports brands seek to exploit and learn from an industry that has always been about meeting people’s desires, not just their needs.

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