No Brand Is Safe from the Vicissitudes of Consumers (and the Web)

September 5, 2019

By Matthew Schwartz

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The news earlier this month that Barneys had filed for bankruptcy sparked one of my most cherished memories.

I was nine years old when, soon after getting home from school, my mom took my older brother and me to Barneys — the original store location, on 17th street and Seventh Avenue in Chelsea — to get each of us a suit for my brother's Bar Mitzvah.

My dad, who worked in midtown, left work a little early to meet all of us there, which added to the air of excitement.

It was one of my first trips into Manhattan (from the burbs), and my first dress suit, navy blue, complemented with an orange-dotted bowtie (don't ask, it was the early '70s).

It was also the first time being waited on by a professional tailor who, checking my shoulders for excess fabric, measuring the length of the cuffs and telling my watchful parents that he would take "a little off the leg," made me feel like a real grownup.

A growth spurt soon after my brother's Bar Mitzvah made short work of the suit. But it was a special suit, purchased on what I will always consider a special day.

Yet neither personal sentiment, nor its close cousin, nostalgia, are nearly enough to save Barneys from a decidedly uncertain future.

Ditto for Dean & DeLuca. A series of financial missteps throughout the last few years has put the iconic grocer brand in jeopardy, with little confidence that it will survive.

Barneys, which dates back to 1923, was long considered an emporium for men's couture, while Dean & DeLuca, which opened in 1977, was the go-to place for foodies and non-foodies alike to purchase exotic fruits, meats, and vegetables (not to mention that jar of intoxicating and rare French mustard that generic grocers didn't carry).

It's a double whammy — and a potential harbinger for other household-name brands/retailers grappling with an ever-changing consumer landscape and the centrifugal force of digital media.

With the ongoing Amazon-ization of shopping, consumers are less and less inclined to lift their fingers off the keyboard and take themselves to brick-and-mortar stores.

Call it the death of the shopping aesthetic. And the culprit, naturally, is the web.

As Ginia Bellafante, who writes for the New York Times, put it in an article regarding the demise of Dean & DeLuca and Barneys, the internet "has reshaped desire; influencer culture has diminished the hunger for the exceptional. Those who can afford nearly anything so often are moved not by what no one else has but what Instagram suggests everybody else wants."

C'est la vie.

Sure, gen Z, or people born between the early 1990s and early 2000s, may have a developed a penchant for shopping in physical stores and shunning the web, but legacy retailers can't afford to wait for what may or may not be a renaissance in brick-and-mortar stores.

To thrive in a digital age, CMOs in charge of even the most recognized brands can't take anything for granted.

Inertia be damned, marketers need to help break down business silos and nurture relationships with finance and product-development executives, among others. Marketers need to spark some uncomfortable conversations throughout the enterprise about how the company stacks up in the marketplace — and against direct competitors.

Marketers also need a better antenna for external realities and consumer trends that could affect purchasing patterns not necessarily for the brand itself but the market sector in which it operates.

It's an extremely fine line, but marketers must be able to speak truth to power when meeting with C-level executives — many of whom live in a bubble of their own creation — and educate them on legitimate threats the company faces from both economic and cultural forces.

Marketers must also reimagine polling groups and ask the type of questions that will provide a better sense for where customers reside in the "BOPIS" (buy online, pickup in-store) compendium and what people mean — precisely — when they talk about having a great "customer experience." Theoretical questions do marketing executives no favors.

Perhaps most important, marketers need to get into the field more frequently and take the pulse of their customers and/or prospects in real time — something that many brand managers are surprisingly reluctant to do — and in their own element.

The ad industry, of course, has seen many storied brands go by the boards, such as J. Walter Thompson" and "Y&R," as Madison Avenue seeks more efficiencies among its various subsidiaries. My guess is there's more to come, as other ad-agency brands once considered mainstays in the business vanish.

Whether it's legacy ad agencies, men's apparel stores or swanky supermarkets, no brand is safe from the accelerating changes in consumer behavior, which was fickle enough long before the web came along and tossed a monkey wrench into everything.

The old marketing playbooks, say, from 2010, no longer apply. If brand managers fail to disrupt their own company — and cede market share and mind share to competitors and scrappy startups — they only have themselves to blame.


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