Brand profile: Wacoal Europe
Shaping a brand is like shaping a bra. It requires creativity, research, science and an understanding of the target audience. How has Wacoal shaped its brand to better represent women and, as a result, help shape its category? Brittany Golob reports
Fashion brand live on the runway, at the photography studio or in the atelier. But, with a decade of growth – financially and geographically – changing consumer demands, in-house science and engineering capabilities and good penetration across Asia, Europe and now, the US, Wacoal Europe is poised to live with consumers themselves. And in the process, it is helping perpetuate a change for the better in the lingerie market.
Wacoal Holdings is a success, with the largest share of the department store market in the US, a sizeable consumer base in the UK and Germany, and a number of standalone stores across core markets Japan and China. Yet, the company is comprised not just of one brand, but of a family of seven sub-brands sold around the world in
branded retail stores, department stores and online. Because of this expansive offer, Wacoal had lost its way in terms of brand differentiation.
“People absolutely loved the products Wacoal was producing, but from a brand perspective, there was some difficulty in terms of navigating their portfolio,” Laura Tan, co-founder and strategy director of London-based brand agency Notable, says. The sub-brands’ target audiences overlapped and thus the targeting was confusing. The core brand didn’t stand out enough and the corporate brand didn’t have a strong enough identity. But most importantly, Wacoal wasn’t serving its customers as best it could because its products – which offer different things to different consumers – weren’t represented well enough. Laura Simon, brand director at Wacoal Europe says its purpose was well defined, though, “We exist to design lingerie, swimwear and activewear to support women both emotionally and physically and we consider both when we are developing our ranges.”
Wacoal began working with Notable in order to reexamine its brand portfolio. Notable focused on each brand’s visual identity as well as the tools available to them when communicating with customers. “From a visual perspective, the identity that sat around the brand was very narrow. The things it was doing were quite typical of the category – an art direction-led approach,” Tan says. Clare Styles, co-founder and creative director at Notable adds, “They weren’t taking the opportunity to engage their audience as much as they should, especially in light of competition. It was important that they really thought clearly about what their brand stood for and how they could keep and maintain a positive relationship.”
Wacoal’s brands are designed for full-busted women. Its in-house Human Science Resource Center ensures all its products are engineered to perfection. Wacoal's products work for women with full busts, rather than simply producing a smaller-cup bra sized up. This approach is what has allowed Wacoal to create strong emotional connections with consumers. Simon says, “As we have been in this business for over 90 years we are constantly interacting with women all over the world. We understand the power of lingerie and how it can make a woman feel, the transformation it creates. We will continue to iterate and develop products that fit and look fabulous, giving women a choice when it comes to great lingerie.” Tan adds, “For fuller-busted or fuller-figured women, the lingerie buying process is quite an emotional one. Once they manage to find a bra that does fit them and does support them, they are willing to be quite loyal to that particular product.” But that alone is not enough to build a brand portfolio.
Two of the sub-brands had become the most indistinct: Freya, intended for younger consumers, up to 25 and Fantasie, designed for those in the age bracket above. Tan speculates this was due to Freya’s audience having grown up, and the brand ageing with its consumers. That caused Fantasie to lose a bit of its purpose and Freya to lose its core style direction.
“In the lingerie category, people want to show the young, perfect body wearing products and hope that people that aren’t that will be convinced that it will work for them. That’s not relevant anymore”
With Freya and Fantasie, Notable worked to reflect the connection Wacoal has with its consumers and, in turn, their loyalty to the products. Freya presented a challenge because of the nature of its competition. Other brands for the 18-25 age group offer either Victoria’s Secret’s sexy approach or Curvy Kate’s flirty and girly one. Freya wasn’t either. Building a lifestyle into the brand, rather than just a style of imagery, allowed Freya to develop a stronger identity. It represents the way women life their lives on the go, do interesting things and spend time with friends. In images, models are never seen in isolation and the tone is about women going out into the world and doing things – eschewing the more traditional tropes of femininity.
“I think Freya in the past had become a little bit too static and not plugged into what was happening, culturally and trend-wise,” Styles says. Thus Notable developed patterns that can change with new trends and seasons and a colour palette designed to evolve so that Freya would not date asit had in the past.
That left Fantasie with a stronger identity. Less demarcated by age group, now Freya had a ‘young and active’ tone, Fantasie could capitalise on the professional/mum market. Visually, that lent itself to a “full-day approach” in which models are shown at different points of a busy day to set the tone for a modern and vibrant life.
For Elomi, though, getting the brand right meant tapping into a deep emotional connection consumers share. Elomi is designed for full-figured and full-busted women and has loyal consumers, but didn’t have much in the way of standout on shelf or in identity. It also gave Wacoal an opportunity to do something different in a restrictive category. “In the lingerie category,” Styles says. “People want to show the young, perfect body wearing products and hope that people that aren’t that will be convinced that it will work for them. That’s not relevant anymore and people don’t really respond to that type of marketing.”
Wacoal is committed to women and the idea of female beauty. In describing its work at the Human Science Resources Center, it says, “We will contribute to society by helping women to express their beauty.” In pursuit of that goal, it crafts lingerie for women affected by cancer or breast removal surgery, for women of all shapes and sizes, and at all points in the day – its sleep lingerie brand was the result of customer research. The brand writes about its product design process, “A lot of care is taken to ensure that when a pattern for a new product is created it offers not only design but also a comfortable fit. This is what Wacoal believes is the secret for creating products that are loved by its customers.” And its CSR objectives are linked back to building trust, empathy and human rights for women around the world.
In Elomi, these values come to life vividly. The feminine touch is light, but apparent in the visual identity and the tone of voice is punchy, yet personal. Imagery offers a relatable perspective on beauty. One of the key focal points for Elomi was communicating Wacoal’s design and fit values. Notable used copy like, ‘We create for you,’ and ‘Our product, your story,’ to achieve this.
“What we’ve done is built on where they’ve been before, but really let the personality shine through,” Styles says of the incorporation of materials, design and product science into the branding. “The brand had grown organically. It was a bit too invisible. People who used the product knew that product and knew where to find it. But for everyone else, it didn’t have that visibility in market to be a recognised brand.” Since the rebrand, Elomi now has a visual identity that as Styles says, “Celebrates its target audience and let’s them be proud of wearing Elomi products.”
The portfolio is now comprised of well-differentiated brands with their own visual identities and consumer bases. Yet, they are united with the Wacoal Europe corporate brand by a single ideal, “Being on behalf of women.” That ethos runs through Wacoal’s activities, its products and its approach to the science of lingerie development. “The new branding will offer clear differentiation within our portfolio and allow us to give clear space in between our ranges. Each brand has a clear Tone of voice and look and feel that should also direct communications and communication choices in a way that speaks to the women we want to attract,” Simon says.
The brand expresses this ethos by bringing to life a contemporary, feminine, approachable feeling that allows it to stand out from competitors. Victoria’s Secret, one of the biggest lingerie brands in the world, has a wide spectrum of products, but a narrow view on what women should look like. Newer players like American Eagle’s aerie are trying to promote a different perspective on beauty, one that isn’t defined by the ‘perfect’ shape. French brands still play to an uber-feminine, classic style. Wacoal’s rebrand has allowed it to take part in that conversation.
It offers consumers a family of brands that can cater to a family of women. From the teenage years to the more luxury Wacoal product line, there is something for every woman seeking a large cup bra. Styles says, “The lingerie market is quite traditional and it has been very one dimensional. Now, there’s a lot of new players trying to shake that up. I think Wacoal is really taking very seriously the role they play in female society, in the same way that it did when it was originally set up.”
The new brand is still rolling out, but the category is shifting constantly, too. It’s a category shaped for women and around women, but may one day be shaped by the very women it serves.