What Killed Brooks Brothers? (Hint: It Wasn’t COVID)

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Written by Pete Sena,
• 8 min read

Classic Marketing Mistake #1: Culture

Classic Marketing Mistake #2: Authenticity

Classic Marketing Mistake #3: Innovation

Business in the time of coronavirus is tough, no doubt. And I have a ton of empathy for companies that are giving it their all to survive. Truly, we’re all in this together.

That said, there’s one segment of the business world that I don’t have much compassion for: old-school fashion retailers. And ironically enough, they’re the ones who are loudly trying to lay the blame for their demise on COVID-19 and the rise of WFH.

When I see headlines that link coronavirus to bankruptcy for global retailers like Neiman Marcus, J. Crew, and Brooks Brothers, I can’t help but think that the real virus that’s drained the life out of these companies has been in their systems for years. Topping the list of underlying conditions is not caring about what today’s customers want and need. I mean that on a deep, core-value level. On the surface, each of those companies has tried to keep up with the times by building a robust digital presence.

But underneath that fancy outer layer lurks the truth: I blame the hubris that infects CEOs and spreads throughout their companies for turning these mega-corps into mega-corpses.

Classic Marketing Mistake #1: Culture

Case in point: Brooks Brothers. In my research for this post, I read a New York Times article from 2018 entitled, “With a Glance Backward, Brooks Brothers Looks to the Future.

In it were quotes from the chief executive officer and owner since 2002, Claudio Del Vecchio, that held clues that the brand wasn’t going to survive for much longer. The first hit on a major marketing buzzword: culture.

“I am here to reinforce a culture,” he said. “I have to make sure that we are building a company that will last after me. I don’t want to be here another 20 years. Forget about another 200 years. It’s really about trying to build a culture that will last longer than the business. That will make it very hard for the next guy to screw it up.”

What Del Vecchio is talking about is an inward-focused, historical ethos — not an inclusive, customer-facing culture. Brooks Brothers is known for being an Ivy League retailer who has outfitted presidents and business titans for more than 200 years. But times have changed, and the Consumer Price Index for suits in the last two decades (June 2000 to June 2019) has dropped by 25 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While Brooks Brothers knows that and has tried to move into the casual marketplace with its “Red Fleece” line, it still clings onto an outdated cultural norm as defining products: dress shirts, ties, and suits.

Further, brands don’t control culture, period. As change management expert Niels Pflaeging said, “Culture is like a shadow. You cannot change it, but it changes all the time. Culture is read-only.”

Instead, the synergy between brands and customers is a dynamic ecosystem, one in which the brand has to embrace cultural shifts all the time — in customer tastes, habits, and preferences — not just to survive but thrive.

To build a company that stands the test of time, it’s the brand’s essential DNA, not culture, that should be built to last. And it’s the job of the CEO to listen to the market and to its people — both buyers and employees — to set the vision and course for the future.

Classic Marketing Mistake #2: Authenticity

“We have a level of technology and performance that they can’t even dream about,” Mr. Del Vecchio said. “We are authentic, and we have the stories. We just need to do a better job with social media and the influencers.”

First off, if you have to say you’re authentic, you’re not.

And guess who’s going to sniff that out? Influencers. Your fans and followers on social media. Those key generations that retailers love — Millennials and Gen Z — who can be your biggest asset if you bring core values, passion, and purpose to the table.

Conversely, if what your brand stands for doesn’t pull through everything you do, you risk alienating the shoppers you want most. In the case of Brooks Brothers, one of its core values is “proudly made in America,” with company-owned factories in New York, Massachusetts, and North Carolina. Headlines about cost-cutting measures that include shuttering factories and putting 700 workers on unemployment undercut that value.

When you look at the Brooks Brothers website, you see a company that thinks it’s projecting an image of inclusion, with tons of imagery of diverse models. But the younger generation is smart enough to know that’s just another example of performativity in marketing.

Real inclusion is about putting the needs of a factory worker and someone who can afford a $1,000 suit on the same level. Had Brooks Brothers wanted to send a message that resonates with shoppers in their 20s, 30s, and even 40s before their P&L tanked, they could’ve considered closing down opulent stores in pricey neighborhoods years ago, like the flagship Brooks Brothers on Madison Avenue. Without hefty rents to pay, they might have been able to keep factories open, workers employed, and a “made in America” commitment that is authentic and true.

Classic Marketing Mistake #3: Innovation

“Claudio has been very disciplined and measured on how he has grown Brooks Brothers, focused on where the brand will go, upping the quality, not going for the quick sales and not opening too many stores,” Robert Burke (NY sales consultant) said. “He’s elevated Brooks Brothers without deviating from its heritage and tradition.”

When Del Vecchio bought Brooks Brothers in 2002, the company had gone through a rough period in the late 1990s when what the brand stood for — quality — was in decline. The strategy of reinvigorating the brand by improving the quality of its wares worked well, winning back disenfranchised long-time customers and bringing in new clients.

Today, Brooks Brothers apparel is still high-quality, but it’s clear that strategy alone doesn’t work — otherwise, the company wouldn’t be filing for Chapter 11. In our digital age, retail is being transformed, and fashion and creativity belong to individuals more than ever before. This makes it hard for ready-to-wear retailers like Brooks Brothers to stay in the zeitgeist. Retail is a state of mind that lives in our hearts/minds/wallets, and how a brand can maintain relevance involves not just reinvention, but full-on innovation.

And at the heart of successful innovation is intelligent deviation.

When Brooks Brothers talks about how it innovates, it’s focused on the superior quality of its fabrics and materials, sourcing and manufacturing, and engineering and design. What if Brooks Brothers took a page out of tech’s playbook, and made their methods open source, so DIYers from individuals to Etsy stores could play with their patterns and processes? Or how about selling Brooks Brothers textiles to other manufacturers, so “made in America” can become a group effort? Imagine the goodwill that could come from leading the charge to unite other brands in expanding employment opportunities in the time of coronavirus.

Del Vecchio talks about the level of technology and performance that Brooks Brothers possesses. Another option would be to turn their website into a digital marketplace that features not just their brand but also complementary brands that share their essential commitment to quality and classic style.

The point is that all companies in need of a possibility pivot can start by looking at their sawdust — byproducts that can be turned into bounty. It’s about finding smart and opportunistic ways to earn revenue by recycling, reusing, and remixing what you already own.

While I’ve been focusing on Brooks Brothers as a cautionary tale of what happens not because of COVID-19 but in spite of it, no company is immune to many of the pitfalls I’ve described. The best way to suit up to survive the pandemic and beyond is to know your audience, first and foremost. Innovate by understanding what today’s consumers want and need, and free yourself from how you traditionally define your business to instead meet customers where they are.

As you witness once-mighty brands head towards bankruptcy, what does it bring up for you?