Commes Des Garcons Brand
The current paper discusses how and why a particular brand functions as a cultural resource and how companies benefit from this brand functioning as a cultural resource. The brand selected for the discussion is the Japanese fashion line Comme des Garcons. The paper is divided into two parts.
The first part defines the concept of ‘cultural resource’ from the branding perspective and prepares ground for the argumentation by referring specifically to the readings from the course literature. The second part gives a short introduction of the brand Comme des Garcons and argues how and why it is a ‘cultural resource’ based on the course literature and the cultural landscape of the brand. A discussion on the benefits of the cultural branding of Comme des Garcons is included at the end of each subsection. Theoretical framework Brand Culture Brand researchers have argued for some time that there is a close link between brands and culture.
Schroeder and Salzer-Morling (2006) maintain that brand has become increasingly important in the cultural setting and that contemporary brands are influenced by basic cultural processes such as ‘historical context, ethical concerns, and consumer response’ (p. 1). Schultz and Hatch (2006) state that corporate branding is the interconnection of image, vision as well as culture and identity. Balmer (2006) also claims that the fields of culture and branding ‘are inextricably linked’ because culture helps us to understand brands while through a powerful lens of brands we can comprehend cultures.
Furthermore, Bengtsson nd Ostberg (2006) contend that a brand is a culturally constructed symbol, created by multiple ‘authors’ who fill it with symbolic content. Similarly, Uggla (2006) and Bergvall (2006) point out that brand creation is not an internal process, but rather an interaction with a network of multiple cultural levels. In his cultural branding model, Holt (2004) suggests that iconic brands functions like cultural activists, leading cultural changes and have ‘a cultural halo effect’, or a powerful myth that enhance the brand’s values (p. 10). The above brand researchers seem to suggest that brands and branding constantly appear in culture.
As such, in looking at a brand as a cultural resource, it is required to look at the cultural landscape of that brand or how the brand engages culture and how culture envelops the brand. As suggested by Schroeder and Salzer-Morling (2006) in Brand Culture, this cultural resource/landscape of a brand includes brand identity, brand communities, contradictions and paradoxes of brands, branding ethics, multilevel brand interaction, brand meaning, marketing communications, etc. The following paragraphs will look at some of these aspects of brand landscape which deem suitable for the discussion of the chosen brand – Comme des Garcons.
Brand Identity Kapferer characterizes brand identity as the brand’s ‘innermost substance’. There are several approaches to brand identity. A functionalistic perspective on identity suggests that the brand strategist should define brand identity and communicate this to consumers in order to evoke a brand image that is consistent with the brand’s identity. A number of scholars, however, criticize this conventional view on brand identity arguing that it fails to take into account consumers’ active negotiation of brand meaning.
These researchers assert that the process of defining brand identity is not the task of the brand strategist, rather is co-produced with consumers and other stakeholders. Csaba and Bengtsson (2006) believe that brand identity must be understood in the broader context of social and cultural identity. Similarly, Castells characterizes identity as the process of construction of meaning based on a set of cultural attributes, including gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, nationality, generation and age. Balmer (2006) provides a comprehensive list of different identity types that may be resent within corporate brands, for example, identity reflecting cultural values associated with nationality and lifestyle (Swedish safety of Volvo).
It can be seen then that brand identity is co-constructed by many stakeholders and that it is embedded in the social, historical and cultural context. Thus, in defining the identity of Come des Garcons brand, it is important to consider these attributes of brand identity. Contradictions and paradoxes of brands A recent debate on brand management seems to suggest that cultural brands have the ability to instill a contradictory system of values.
A key argument in Holt’s (2004) How Brands Become Icons is that brands become iconic because they perform a myth that addresses acute contradictions in the society. Brown et al. (2003) also claim that the paradoxical ‘soul’ of brands provides an opportunity for consumers to involve emotionally with the brands and thereby create the subtle connections that lead to loyalty. Drawing upon several well-known brands, Heilbrunn (2006) shows that strong brands promote an utopian model based on a series of inherent contradictions and paradoxes, which brands are able to reconcile through a narrative program.
The contradictory principles, according to the author, coexist in any brand’s discourse. Schultz and Hatch (2006) also refer to four cultural paradoxes and argue that these paradoxes or contradictions may exist in all corporate brand management process and are necessary for maintaining a strong corporate brand. The above paragraph seems to suggest that contradictions or paradoxes are important for the brand building or enhancing process. The paper will examine if any contradiction exists in Comme des Garcons brand and if so, is it beneficial.
Marketing Communications Brown (2006) argues that brands do not have emotional ownership of the brand, even though they have legal ownership. The reason is that brand cultures are co-created with consumers who often overlook or challenge the messages and meanings that managers try to convey. Also, we live in a world where consumers are wise to marketers’ tricks, and marketers, of course, are wise to that fact. This is reflected in recent anti-marketing marketing campaigns, e. g.
Comme des Garcons’s anti-concept stores. However, according o Brown, in our marketing-savvy world, no-marketing is in fact ‘the ultimate form of marketing (2006: 56). In another provocative article Torment Your Customers, Brown (2001) advocates a philosophy of anti-customer orientation through the principles of retromarketing – exclusivity, secrecy, amplification, entertainment, and tricksterism. He even suggests that a way to successful marketing is to tantalize, torment, and torture customers. There is a rich array of topics on marketing communications, including advertising or branding alliances, etc.
The focus here, however, is the way Comme des Garcons conducts its marketing communications in the over-commercialized world where it is more and more difficult to persuade consumers by a conventional marketing. Comme des Garcons About Comme des Garcons Comme des Garcons, French for “like boys”, is a Japanese fashion label. The label was started in Tokyo by Rei Kawakubo, head designer and sole owner, in 1969 and established as a company in Japan in 1973. Comme des Garcons became successful in Japan during the 1970s and a men’s line was added in 1978.
Comme des Garcons had a debut show in Paris in 1981 which created a storm of controversy for its predominant use of black and distressed fabrics. At present, Comme des Garcons has a dozen boutiques and approximately 200 vendors around the world, with flagship stores in Aoyama, Tokyo’s high fashion district, as well as Place Vendome in Paris. Each year, the company grosses in about $1. 50 million. What is the Identity behind Comme des Garcons? The literature review suggests that a brand identity can reflect a national culture.
It means that the Japanese brand Comme des Garcons can carry some characteristics of the Japanese culture or Japanese identity. Indeed, the fashion press attempts to connect Kawakubo’s design closely with Japanese culture and describes Comme des Garcons as ‘stylistically anonymous, yet innovative in a way that has appealed to women across national boundaries’. But how Japanese is Comme des Garcons apart from the ‘Made in Japan’ label or the fact that it is designed by Kawakubo, a Japanese citizen living in Tokyo? The fashion world tends to search for the ‘Japaneseness’ in Comme des Garcons based on well-established stereotypes of Japan.
As such, they look at Comme des Garcons garments and discuss it in relation to Japanese aesthetics, e. g. the austerity and somber colors of design (as defined in the Zen Buddhism), the preference for handmade goods (awaken by an appreciation for traditional crafts and an interest in the rural tradition), and the unexpected use of materials over the human body (considered to be the emphasis of Japanese fashion). On the other hand, the austerity of Comme des Garcons garments can be seen as a protest against the principles of high fashion in the 1980s. Also, tradition is not a trademark of Kawakubo’s design.
Comme des Garcons outfits have largely been coupled with a cosmopolitan setting and worn by independent, working women. Finally, it is difficult to connect the cut of Comme des Garcons to Japanese costume history. So, it can be argued that Comme des Garcons garments does not hold any explicit references to either a particular culture or a specific historical situation. Kawakubo in fact tries to remove any recognizable connotations from her clothes, focusing on minimalist design and simple themes which carry no meaning. The above paragraph disputes the fact that Comme des Garcons is a carrier of Japanese identity.
Still, the connotation with Japanese culture proves to be beneficial for the brand. First of all, the social and historical context in the early 1980s, when Comme des Garcons was launched at the international level in Paris, played a role. At the time, Japan was gaining influence on the world political stage as an increasingly economic superpower, challenging the global dominance of the West, and particularly the USA. International trend-setters then started to look to Japan for new styles for Western consumers. This was an important factor for Tokyo to be placed on the list of international fashion capitals.
Moreover, Japanese designers can stir an interest in the media and make international hit with qualities apparently found in the actual designer garments, since quality is something closely related to Japan. What are the contradictions and paradoxes expressed by Comme des Garcons? The literature reviewed suggests that cultural brands can infuse a contradictory system of values. There are several paradoxes in Comme des Garcons brand. First and foremost, this paradox was expressed in Kawakubo’s readiness to challenge the conventions of high fashion.
When she first showed her Comme des Garcons collections in Paris in 1981, fashion critics considered it to be an enormous provocation and called her ‘Hiroshima Chic’. The clothes looked like rags, covered rather than showed up the bodies, and were difficult to put on. The style was characterized by off-black oversized garments, asymmetrical cuts and crumpled fabrics and was described “as a slap in the face of the exclusive luxury” that high fashion ought to promote. Also, Kawakubo turned some of Western ideas of femininity upside-down.
It is not the brand name she has selected ‘Like Boy’, simply because she liked the sound of it, rather the colors and the cuts of the outfits. For more than a century the division of black and white, on the one hand, and colors, on the other hand, framed the distinction of masculinity and femininity, until Kawakubo came in with her dark color collections for women. Baggy Comme des Garcons clothes were neither obvious for men nor for women, distorted rather than enhanced the female form and avoided exhibiting body as sexual. The paradoxes prove to be beneficial to Comme des Garcons brand.
Before the first fashion show in Paris in 1981, Comme des Garcons had already existed in Tokyo for over ten years without getting any attention from the international press. Kawakubo made a breakthrough in Paris, at a time when her designs created a scandal of a kind that in international fashion is ‘half way to success’. Yes, despite the confusion and distaste experienced by the world of high fashion, Comme des Garcons became an unavoidable hit, as the result of its objection of high fashion’s underlying assumptions in relation to femininity and luxury. What is Cultural about Comme des Garcons’ Marketing Communications?
Comme des Garcons was among the first famous designer brands to follow the guerrilla store concept. Guerrilla or anti-concept stores are temporary sales points open for a short period of time, generally between a few days to one year. They spend a minimal amount of resources on interior design and are often located away from mainstream fashion centres, yet they still look amazingly trendy. They also spend little on advertising which consists mainly of word of mouth. The venture may be seen as a protest against the aggressive commercialism and extravagant architecture of Prada flagship stores and the likes.
Guerrilla stores also reflect the changes in the fashion marketing. Nowadays, young people are turning in different direction to look for a more authentic experience. Big brands mean less and less to them. They also prefer to take the cues from their friends than from established channels like fashion magazines and mass advertising. In this context, guerrilla store concept is an effective way to reach out to the target groups which tend to be relatively young and relatively well-educated people with an interest in design and aesthetics.
Comme des Garcons’ marketing tactic is a smart business, allowing the company to test a new market at low risk, to channel avant-garde pieces from the runaway at low costs and to reduce inventory by selling off the clothes from past seasons. But the bigger benefit is that Comme des Garcons has devoted followers, a brand subculture, and this cult can only exist because the brand is somewhat apart from the mainstream fashion. Conclusion This paper has attempted to decode the identity, the contradictory system of values as well as the marketing tactics of the Comme des Garcons brand.
The brand has enjoyed a number of benefits in acting as a cultural resource. However, it is worth noting that not all brand cultures benefit the company in ways that are tangible or financial. The world has experienced one of the worst financial crises ever, and even some of the iconic brands, such as Citibank and General Motors, have been on the edge of bankruptcy. This tells us that having an iconic status is not enough. Brand management is a complex process and perhaps a cultural branding model is a solution for building and advancing a brand.