Eric Fulmer, VP Operations & Strategic Growth at Capture Integration, shares his first piece with us for 2017. Today, he explores the struggle for fashion brands to keep up with consumers and his thoughts on external experts.Eric first explored the challenges for visual content production in a multi-channel world, then closing the data “black hole” of visual content production, the need for modern production and approval workstreams, and the future of DAM.
Once upon a time, fashion designers drove the industry. They derived inspiration from their unique perspective on the world, mixing together colors, patterns and shapes from many sources to define next season’s aspirational looks. They would start planning a season a year or more in advance, in order to fully develop their concepts. The runway, in turn, became the inspiration for the mass production of apparel that was purchased in stores by consumers, who had to select from the choices made available for the current season by the “tastemaker” designers. This caste system, with designers on top and consumers on the bottom, has effectively been inverted in the past five years. The rise of ecommerce, and social media in particular, has toppled the structure of the fashion industry or, more appropriately, turned the industry inside out.
Now fashion brands are struggling to keep up with the consumers — who are becoming their own “tastemakers” as they mix consignment with Coach and find inspiration via Instagram. The new paradigm for fashion success has become Zara, where a “season” is two weeks long. In 2010, Zara surpassed Gap as the largest apparel retailer in the world. The “Zara Effect” is proving that fashion brands can, and indeed MUST, transform themselves to catch up to their customers, or follow the fate of The Limited and others into oblivion.
As with any transformation, there will be plenty of pain and plenty of carnage, as an over-crowded fashion market is forced to get lean across all aspects of the business. And as in any organization, there are really only three levers available to pull:
(We used to refer to the “Technology” bucket as “Tools” or “Systems” — but now every system or tool is innately digital, so let’s just go with the more relevant shorthand of “Technology.”)
A common problem for fashion brands struggling to accelerate their business model is a lack of appreciation for the complex relationship between people, process and technology. When a fashion brand is under siege, as so many are today, they become very reactive. They often respond to these increased threats with a “pick one” approach to the people, process, technology model. They either hire some new people with a “fresh eye,” re-jig processes for greater efficiency, or go searching for a new technology tool to address their current “hot button” pain point.
But none of these approaches can be successful in a vacuum. The “ripple effect” across all three areas is not properly understood by many stakeholders. There really is no way to make a measurable change in one of these areas without impacting the others, and anticipating those impacts is a big part of scoping the original project. A holistic approach is critical to defining and managing any change-related project within an organization. This may seem obvious, but it’s shocking how often, for example, a technology project doesn’t include components assessing and addressing the “people” impacts (hint: this goes well beyond just including a line item labeled “Training” and calling it a day). Just as important, that same technology project can be hobbled by an adherence to process assumptions built around one or more legacy technology tools, which present “false barriers” and undermine the opportunity to achieve significant change.
My advice, based on the scars acquired by seeing it done the wrong way, is to build a cross-functional team from multiple disciplines to attack a problem. It is rare to find a single individual that truly understand all three aspects of the people, process, technology terrain within the business areas impacted, and have been through a similar change process more than once. Sometimes the right people to round off the needed skill set must be found outside the organization.
The current frenzy of activity in fashion to move faster, fueled by a sense of being “behind the curve,” is a great motivator to challenge the status quo, but it can also drive poor decision making.
Today’s brands would do well to recognize their own limitations when it comes to rapid transformation. In point of fact, if the ability to transform quickly was already a cultural strength of the brand, then the brand wouldn’t be so far behind and under such pressure to change faster.
When real change is the goal, it may be better to leverage the expertise of outside resources who are unbound by the brand’s cultural limits, and can orchestrate change without derailing daily business, rather than ask already overburdened internal resources to make haphazard changes driven by fear and panic.
Clearly, it’s not easy to find knowledgeable, available and motivated resources who are “battle ready” for the challenges of transforming a brand from the inside; but the alternative is starting to look like re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.