The Man Who Wrote the Book on the (Fashion) Consumer
Michael Solomon, Professor of Marketing at St. Joseph’s University, wrote the most popular textbook on consumer behavior. He’s spent his career working to better understand what drives people to buy things, and he shares some real gems in this interview.
The Fashion Consumers Extra
The Man Who Wrote the Book on the (Fashion) Consumer
Brandon: What surprising power does a designer have over the fashion consumer? Michael Solomon will tell you; he literally wrote the book on consumer insights. As a university professor, he spent his career working to better understand what drives the consumer to buy things. You’ll learn the lesson of Lulu Lemon who combined two categories to create a breakout third one, and we’ll dive into the new buying process, what Google gets that the fashion business as a general rule does not. You’ll also learn how unavoidable life changes are contributing to the biggest underserved fashion market on earth and how to tap into it. There’s a lot in this interview, so without further ado, let’s jump on in.
Brandon: So Michael, a lot of your research and writing revolves around the idea that you really are what you wear. What does that mean exactly?
Michael: Well, you know, it’s funny. Most people in the fashion business probably don’t realize the power that they wield over people. And they think they’re just making garments that are stylish or nice to look at. But that the reality is the things that we put in our bodies these days, many of the products that we use to express ourselves, have a really, really powerful impact on not only on how other people think of us but how we think about ourselves. So the old expression you are what you wear really has a lot of truth to it in the sense that when you put on certain kinds of clothing, many times there’s a lot of meanings that are associated with these. Because the clothing that you wear really helps people to categorize you.
And this is something that people… this is the way our brains work. We love to put things into categories when we have to make quick decisions. The most fundamental one we make is good or bad. You know, is that person going to be my friend or is he or she going to hurt me? And I think that’s a carryover from our caveman days when if you made the wrong decision about a stranger, you really paid for it. But today we use all kinds of cues about people as we encounter them just walking down the street. Or when we meet them to decide who they are, what roles they play in society, et cetera.
And it turns out that a lot of that same information we use about ourselves. And so I’ve seen this in my own research and anecdotally actually working in the retail business for a number of years. I was able to see probably many thousands of times that when people try on different kinds of clothing, it literally changes them. It changes their posture, it changes the way they talk, the way they represent themselves, and so on. And so, especially if you’re wearing something like, let’s say, a uniform of some kind, we know that that certainly changes the way you feel and behave towards others. But the same goes for everyday clothing and high fashion.
Brandon: I remember reading in your book, Marketers, Tear Down These Walls! about the office where you could go wearing a Hugo Boss suits during the week and then getting to the weekend and completely changing his outfit and his outlook on life. I guess that’s a perfect illustration of what you’re talking about here.
Michael: It is. Yeah. I’m sure you’ve heard the famous quotation from some guy named Shakespeare that all the world’s a stage, and that really is quite valid. A lot of sociologists endorsed that idea that we’re all playing different parts in life. And each of those parts requires not only a script (in other words, we learn about what we’re expected to do or say when we play that part) but it also requires props and costumes. And as we change those props and costumes, we tend to change the script as well.
So each of us is not just playing one role, we’re all multiple-role players. So when you go to work, you might be a serious executive. On the weekends you might be a party animal. You go home to visit your parents and suddenly you’re 10 years old again.
And you know, in each of those roles, you’re feeling differently about yourself and you’re using different kinds of clothing and other sorts of products that are linked to that role.
Brandon: Very interesting. Now you also talk about something you’re calling hybrid products, about how the disintegration of traditional consumer boundaries actually creates opportunities for fashion businesses. Can you elaborate a little bit on what that means?
Michael: Yeah, sure. I just mentioned a few minutes ago that we love to put people into categories. We also love to put products into categories. And when you think about most businesses, and certainly the fashion business, it’s organized around categories. Those categories might be resort wear or athletic wear or something like that. Uh, it might be based on seasons. And a lot of times manufacturers and retailers are trying to evaluate their offerings in terms of some category that they’ve decided they belong to.
And so if you make resort wear and you’re branded as a resort wear manufacturer, then you’re going to look very closely at what other companies that have been put into the same category are doing and calibrate your success or failure based on that. But that really is not necessarily the most productive way to look at things, especially today.
I talk in the book quite a bit about (actually the subtitle of the book is) Liberating the Postmodern Consumer. And what I mean by the term postmodern is largely rejecting traditional categories. And when we look at consumers today, we see that they’re, in many cases, no longer willing to be hemmed in by categories, either in terms of how they describe themselves or how they look at products. And so, ironically, I do believe that a lot of the opportunities really lie in the boundaries between different categories. And one example I talk about it in the book, I’ll share with you here because I think it answers your question is that we had two traditional categories, especially for women, that are called athletic wear and then leisure wear.
And, as I’m sure most of your listeners know, for a number of years now, now those two categories have been, you know, they’re not necessarily in the dumps, but they’re very stable. They’re not really growing. And then a few years ago, a few smart people decided to kind of look between the boundaries and create a combination of those two categories, kind of marry attributes of both of them. And now we have this brand new category that we call athleisure. I’m not sure if it was invented by Lulu Lemon, but that’s the brand that I usually think of when I think of athleisure. That’s a hugely successful brand new category. And what it is, really, is a hybrid product that’s marrying attributes of leisure wear and athletic wear. But in a way that’s much more in sync with what young women are looking for today.
So I think that’s a really good example of looking for these boundaries. I guess another one I would mention that’s not clothing, but it is related to accessories that I’ve done some work on is wearables. So, we have a question today, a burning question: What is a watch? Is a watch a piece of jewelry or is it a computer that keeps track of your heart rate and stuff like that? And today the answer is both.
We have this brand new category of wearable computing, Apple watches, fitbits, what have you, and there’s still a lot of ambiguity about that. Retailers don’t quite know how to display this stuff. Should you put it in the jewelry section of the store? should you put it in the tech section of the store? The fitness section? But, clearly, that’s another example of an opportunity that is revealed when you get out of your little box and look around you and say, how can I expand my traditional definition of my business?
Brandon: On a related point, then, you argue that marketers think vertically and the consumers think horizontally. What does that mean exactly?
Michael: Well, when I say vertically, we talk in marketing about verticals. So, a vertical would be your traditional industry. What vertical are you in? And this is something that I’ve talked to many managers about. It’s been a crusade for me because, in many cases, when you’re taking, when you’re creating your competitive strategy and you’re thinking about the path forward, you’re benchmarking yourself to others within your vertical, strictly defined. And we have trade shows around, let’s say, sportswear or home hardware products, whatever it is. But that is a really restricting kind of definition from the consumer point of view. When I say that consumers think horizontally, let’s take it from the fashion perspective. If you’re a manufacturer, let’s say you’re selling prom dresses, but the consumer, that young girl, is not buying a prom dress, she’s buying a prom experience, and that includes the dress.
But it also includes a number of other products and other categories, you know. And some of them are quite obvious like shoes and accessories and so on, but also, fragrances and perhaps, many other different products. So again, as I said earlier, each of us has a role to play and we’re thinking about the props and costumes that go with a role.
Another example is that you might sell a couch, but the consumer is buying a living room and your couch, it’s not in isolation. It’s not evaluated in isolation. Do I like that couch, do I like the color? But rather does that couch harmonize with other ideas I have about the carpeting and the end tables and on and on. So you’re making a big mistake when you just think about your direct competitors because again, from the consumer’s perspective, what you’re selling is an important prop or an important costume item.
But it’s part of a bigger work in progress to the extent that you can present your product in coordination with other things and that opens, again, lots of opportunities. For example, for cross promotions where different brands and different categories might come together in the same way that some luxury leather companies, for example, have partnered with automotive to create an upscale version of a car in which the upholstery has a certain leather. Two totally unrelated categories, but in the consumer’s mind, they both can own luxury. So again, there’s lots of opportunities.
I’m often struck when I go into a store, in the clothing section saying the men’s section and when I see. let’s say, a suit jacket, a blazer maybe on a mannequin. And what I should be seeing is an entire outfit. Why am I not? Why do I have to walk all the way across the store holding that jacket that I’ve just bought to try to find a shirt, a tie, and no less, shoes and a belt and maybe even a cologne that goes with that? So I think even from a merchandising perspective, many retailers are really missing the boat because the consumer wants to see the entire ensemble. They don’t want to see just your part of it.
Brandon: So, I suppose that fundamentally it goes back to the old idea of don’t sell your product, sell the solution?
Michael: Absolutely. Consumers aren’t looking for products, they’re looking for solutions. You sell attributes, they buy benefits. And there’s many cliches we use, that I use with my students. A marketer sells a quarter inch drill bit, but a consumer buys a quarter inch hole. It’s kind of trite, but it’s really, really important. And you know something, it’s a basic lesson that doesn’t seem to stick very well.
Brandon: Now technology has obviously changed the way in which we buy. Has this desire for the solution versus the product changed as a result of technology? Or is it more just a continuation of our fundamental buying processes?
Michael: Well, at our 30,000-foot level, there’s nothing new under the sun. We’re always looking to buy things that help us to play our roles, to help us feel good about ourselves and impress others, whatever our social objectives are. But the technology obviously is fundamentally changing the way we achieve those goals. For example, sticking with this idea of buying a look, if you look at fashion bloggers who are really driving the train right now, if you look at platforms, visually oriented platforms like Instagram, etc., that are driving a lot of trends, you’ll see that when people are posting product ideas in many cases, they’re not just posting a photo of a blouse, they’re posting a look. And again, that’s, that totality what I was talking about.
The other way the technology is really changing things, of course, is that it allows us to collect an enormous amount of feedback from our networks before we actually buy. And I talk about this quite a bit in my book, the way that consumers make decisions, search for alternatives and eventually make purchases is changing unbelievably. And yet many merchants really aren’t aware of this. And so today we talk about this process and sometimes refer to it as social shopping. Google refers to it as ZMOT ( the zero moment of truth) when the consumer actually makes a decision to buy something. Many people in the fashion business assume that when a customer walks into the store, that’s the time to start selling. And that used to be true largely. But today what you find, especially with younger consumers (and I validated this with my students many times) by the time they walk into a store, most of them have done an enormous amount of research in terms of consulting with their networks.
Looking for looks on Instagram, as I mentioned, looking for reviews, etc. So by the time they walk in the store in many cases, they’re just there to literally procure the item or maybe to compare prices because they’ve already made up their minds. And that’s because they’re able to consult, not only a few girlfriends casually at lunch, but literally hundreds or even thousands of other people. And in some cases, I’ve seen apps where you can post a picture of yourself with something you’re thinking about wearing, for that big date on Saturday night and your network votes yea or nay. So you’re really buying by committee.
Brandon: Yeah, that’s fascinating. And it’s amazing. So switching gears a little bit now, obviously in your book you talk about the misconceptions that can cost brands a lot of money. And one stat in particular jumped out for me was how baby boomers contributed 38.5% of total sales volume in the consumer packaged goods category, but that only 5% of the advertising dollars are actually targeted to adults between a 35 and 64. So the baby boomers, the generation X and the very oldest of the millennials. The perception is that this group doesn’t want to be seen as spending as they get older. Is this also true of the fashion business, and is that an opportunity?
Michael: Oh, Brandon, I have a bit of an ax to grind because I’m a baby boomer, I’ll make the confession. But having said that, it’s amazing to me what a missed opportunity this is. We all work with stereotypes, and many people have this stereotype of the older consumer who is very stuck in her ways and not interested in buying new stuff and not interested in being stylish. And that just doesn’t square with all the research that we have, not to mention everyday observation that tells us that 60 is the new 40 and 80 is the new 50, pick your numbers. But people of all ages are much more interested in this category when we look at advertising depictions.
Now there have been a few exceptions in the last few years; there’s been a bit of a mini-fad toward using women maybe even in their seventies and eighties as fashion icons. But that has just been a little kind of ripple. For the most part, when you look at advertising, you look at all kinds of messages targeted to consumers, it’s relatively rare to find something that’s focusing on relatively older women. I even scorn saying older woman, because I don’t think that women in their 40s and 50s or even 60s are even close to being old when many of us are living in into our eighties and nineties. So, in general, there are huge opportunities. And to add to that, when we look at the slightly older cohort above that, what we think of as seniors or whatever euphemism you want to use, there’s also niches there that are very important.
One of these niches, for example, is this so-called adaptive clothing. And I know a few designers are getting into this, but most of them are ignoring it. And what that means is clothing that’s designed for people who may have some kind of physical – again, I hesitate to say disability – but some kind of physical limitation. So for example, I saw a new line of adaptive clothing the other day that basically is blouses and shirts. But instead of buttons, there’s a stripe going down where the buttons are. So that for people who might have arthritic fingers or something like that, they don’t have to mess with the buttons. When it’s put on, it looks exactly the same, but it fills a niche. You know, there’s a huge market there.
As an example for manufacturers that are looking to expand a little bit and that market we know is only going to get bigger and bigger as this generation ages. And again more generally in terms of disposable income by far the baby boomer generation has it. Keep in mind that, you’ve seen these bumper stickers, “I’m spending my child’s inheritance…”
Michael: Many of these people have paid off their mortgages. Now they’re spending it on their grandchildren. But other than that, they’re enjoying themselves. And they’re just looking for stuff to buy.
Brandon: Yeah. That’s actually a very good point. Not too long ago I did an interview with a lady who is an expert in the seniors – we call it seniors to have a name – the senior segment of the intimates business. And she basically echoed what you just said. The kids are grown. They don’t have to take care of them anymore Don’t have to pay for school. The parents are usually not around anymore and they have a lot of disposable income. And they want to find a way to spend it because you know, the kids can make their own money.
Michael: Exactly. We have what are called boomerang kids, where you keep throwing them out of the house and they keep coming back. But, back in the old days, whenever those were, it was considered inappropriate for older people to be free spirits and to express themselves aesthetically. Today I don’t think there’s that stigma at all. And people are celebrated when they continue to express their individuality through clothing choices and other things. Up until the day they die. So yeah. You’re either on the train or under it on this one. I mean, there’s just huge opportunities there.
Brandon: Very good. So, what are some of the other opportunities hidden or in plain sight in the world of fashion right now?
Michael: Well, I’ve already mentioned this idea of hybrid products and thinking – I hate the cliche “think outside the box,” but in this case it really is accurate. You know, a lot of fashion companies do tend to get put into a box. And so I think the opportunity is to do more, to collect more insights from your customers and let them tell you what they want. And we know that the crowdsourcing of product ideas, in general, is huge. Many companies have finally realized that their customers are in fact their best designers. And so many designers, of course, have a huge ego and they want to put their stamp on what they create, and I’m fine with that. But the reality is, if someone is your long-term customer, they’ve got a pretty good idea of what they like and what they don’t.
And it often strikes me that many companies like to kind of hide behind the curtain and only reveal their line when it’s totally ready. And we know from other industries, that is not the way to do it. One thing that technology has taught us is that today everything is in beta. Everything is a work in progress. And you should be open to making modifications to your products or developing new products based on input from your customers. So that’s clearly one opportunity. Another one, in addition to the older consumers that we’ve talked about it (I think it’s another one that’s pretty obvious), but what’s huge right now is sustainability, of course. When I talked to my undergraduates quite a bit about what they like and what they don’t.
And that’s always the first thing come out of their mouths. They say, “I look for a company like Patagonia that is really not creating excessive waste and recycling and all that kind of stuff.”
Some of the opportunities have to do with our changing meaning of ownership. I guess the best success story right now is Rent the Runway, which is a hugely successful company. They’ve recognized that today’s consumer doesn’t really value ownership the way they used to. And that’s true for homes. It’s true for cars; it’s true for many things. And clothing is definitely one of those. So I think there’s huge opportunities in the entire rental market and so not in the necessarily in the design itself. But how do you distribute these products to customers, and how can you do that sustainably?
Brandon: I’m curious, by the way, I was reading an article earlier today specifically about sustainability and how sustainability is important with the generation Z-ers, I guess, and the millennials. But they wouldn’t buy a product solely on the basis of sustainability if it wasn’t a good product at whatever the fair price is for that particular market. Would you agree with that or disagree?
Michael: Well, I think I would agree. To some extent, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. People say they want something sustainable. Are they willing to pay a premium? That’s the big question. But the reality is that it’s awfully tough to be in business these days. That’s why I’m glad I’m a professor. But they almost assume the other things that you’ve mentioned, they’re assuming, yes, good quality at a fair price. If you’re involved in creating or selling the product, you see lots of differences between your offering and your competitors. But it’s often frustrating when you ask consumers what are the differences among brand A, B, and C? And they say, well, not too much. They’re all pretty nice. And so they’re assuming you’re going to be at parity in terms of the quality of what you’re offering and the price. And then whoever’s most sustainable is going to get their business.
Brandon: Fair enough. We’re running a little bit short on time here. But, I wanted to ask you one more question. Fundamentally, what are the biggest attributes of a successful fashion brand in this market?
Michael: I think we’ve talked about most of them. I mean, one of them clearly is sustainability at this point. But another is when we look at how the influence market is changing and we look at the decline in the influence of the traditional arbiters of fashion, like Vogue and Cosmopolitan and other magazines, etc. And we see the rise of these fashion bloggers who often are 20 years old or even younger, women who are basically creating brands for themselves. The ability of a brand to really attach itself to an evolving lifestyle, to attach itself to this more horizontal perspective that I was talking about. That’s where they really become successful. And this is not anything new by the way. If you look at, say, Levi Strauss, that’s a company that I’ve actually had the opportunity to work for in the past.
Levis Strauss is success. Yeah, sure. They make a high-quality durable product, but really their success is built around the narrative. It’s built around the brand story. And like we were saying earlier consumers don’t buy a jean because it has rivets. In other words, they don’t buy the attributes, they buy the benefits. And when they’re buying Levi’s, especially if they’re overseas and they see Levi’s as a quintessentially American brand, they are buying the story.
And key customers are always buying a story. That’s why branding is so important and that a brand has to tell a really compelling story. So the brands that are only there to offer you a garment that maybe has a color that looks good on you, in the short term that’s going to work. But what people really want is they want a narrative, whether it’s a Levi Strauss narrative or a Lilly Pulitzer narrative or what have you. Calvin Klein, of course, is a genius at that. Ralph Lauren is genius at that. He’s probably the best because he even invented himself. As many of your listeners probably know, even his name was changed. His original name was Ralph Lifshitz. He’s from Brooklyn or the Bronx, I believe. But the narrative that he’s created is this American, walking on the Hamptons with the sheepdog kind of thing. That’s really what people are buying when they buy his products.
Brandon: That is a fascinating insight and a great way to end the interview. Thank you very much for being with us. Now, how can people learn more about you and your book?
Michael: Probably the best way is just to go to my website, which is www.michaelsolomon.com. I’ve got lots of information and other resources up there, some to do with fashion psychology and others to do more generally with marketing and consumer behavior.
Brandon: Very good. Thank you very much.
Michael: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you for having me.