This week a woman named Federica Marchionni was eased out of her position as CEO of Lands’ End after only 19 months on the job.
This illustrates (fairly predictably) what can happen when a brand tries to be something it’s not.
Ultimately, brand-building success is driven by meeting customers’ needs, not by trying to teach them to want something different. And loyal customers have this peculiar habit of resisting (resenting) signs that they’re being taken for granted.
In the case of Lands’ End, since its 1963 founding by Gary Comer as a sailing supplies business, it developed a heritage as a casual sportswear business that was eventually bought by Sears (and spun off in 2014). Mr. Comer was fond of saying “Take care of the customers, take care of the employees and profits will take care of themselves.”
But Lands’ End had recently been stumbling, so Ms. Marchionni, with a background at high-style retailers Dolce & Gabbana and Ferrari, was brought in and offered an experienced, glamorous executive who could help reshape Lands’ End “into a meaningful, global lifestyle brand”.
That’s when the trouble started.
New lines were immediately introduced, meaning loafers were sold alongside stiletto heels. Ms. Marchionni dropped low-profitability catalog shoppers and hired prominent fashion photographers to shoot elegant catalogs at exotic locations. She insisted on working out of New York City rather than the corporate headquarters in Dodgeville, WI, and was often seen hobnobbing with celebrities.
All of this alienated not only customers but employees, who were used to casual access to top management in Dodgeville and who would be critical in execution of plans. And unfortunately sales lagged spending, creating a lot of red ink. Ultimately the board decided it was time for another change.
While there are success stories about brands repositioning to catch a younger/new demographic (think Old Spice or Target), this is not the first time a brand has suffered from trying to fly too close to the sun.
JCPenney famously failed recently; going farther back, the breeding ground (figuratively) of nerds, Radio Shack, tried and aggressively failed to get more hip by calling itself ‘The Shack’. And even staid Dolly Madison snack cakes invented a character called the ‘Snackin’ Dude with a Snackin’ attitude’ to try to become somewhat more hip. Another whiff.
Back to Lands’ End, the acting CEO (COO James Gooch) spends all of his non-traveling time in Dodgeville and is odds-on favorite for the permanent role.
We’ll see how the company and customers respond to an expected return to tradition. On the other hand, Mr. Gooch was recently CEO of the S.S. Radio Shack. Hmm…
Conclusion #1- – ignore loyal customers at your own peril.
Conclusion #2 – – just because a brand isn’t hip, doesn’t mean it isn’t great