• Transform magazine
  • May 29, 2017

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Opinion: Masking brand appeal

Rupert Faircliff brandcap.jpg

Cycling masks are an unsexy solution to an unsexy problem. Rupert Faircliff of Brandcap asks how can cycling mask brands overcome various obstacles to create genuinely desirable products?

Across the UK and London particularly, cycling to work is more popular than ever. Yet just as the health and fitness obsession grows, air pollution is worsening. More cyclists are turning to pollution masks, but they remain in the minority. Given the risks of breathing in particulates and nitrogen dioxide, why is this the case?

In such a niche market, the purchase journey is fraught with barriers from category and brand awareness (‘Do I need a mask?’ ‘Which brand can I trust?’) through to effectiveness and design considerations (‘Does it filter everything out?’ ‘Will I look stupid?’). And let’s be honest, anti-pollution devices – masks or any other – aren’t sexy. Currently, they lack that pull factor. The choice for the few willing to buy is whether to look like highly contagious or else playing arch-villain Bane from the Batman film, Tthe Dark Knight.

What can mask brands do to help overcome this challenge?

The examples of Apple and Dyson show that a winning brand with great design is at the heart of making unattractive or neglected products appealing, especially when there’s real consumer benefit lying in wait. As most tech marketeers know, it’s not a case of functional or emotional benefits only. You need both, and a winning brand.

Moving forward, mask brands need to consider understanding the target market’s attitudes and what turns them on. Find a big idea to position the brand – something above and beyond the product. For instance, where are the brands prominently championing cleaner air? Yes, they have a vested interest in selling masks, but pollution isn’t going away any time soon. A high-profile, campaigning brand built on an optimistic vision of clean air would likely have wide resonance.

Brands should optimise the product portfolio and pricing strategy in line with customer insight and the brand idea. Some manufacturers have a huge range which is overwhelming for the uninitiated. Others have just one product, leaving consumers questioning whether that one mask can work for every situation. Somewhere between the two is an ideal balance that supports customer decision making while still enabling the brand to appeal to different use cases.

They should continue to inform the public about the problem and in the process, the brand. That means more than just a small section on the website. The issue is red hot in the media right now, so get spokespeople out there, explain the benefits of the product and ensure your name is right in the consideration mix.

Don’t ignore the purchase experience. Online message boards indicate there’s still considerable confusion about different ratings measures and the comparable efficacy of masks. And that’s from those interested enough to post messages. Help consumers navigate the options with clear signposting and storytelling.

Brands should work to build desirability. In 2014, mask brand Respro collaborated with icon Macelo Burlon and launched a premium fashion line. Great idea! But the rest of the brand’s dark and moody identity feels at odds with such a high fashion move. Such a strategy needs partners appropriate to the brand’s positioning. And the world of fashion moves on. What’s happened since? Where’s this season’s collaboration?

In a separate move, designer Zhijun Wang in Beijing has been causing online waves in recent months with his masks made from well-known sneakers such as the Yeezy. Wang says it’s a direct response to the lack of fashionable choices for face gear in his city, but he has no plans to sell them. Which mask brand will pick up the mantle?

There are plenty of challenges for those looking to build a business in this market. But, as the category gets nearer to a mass tipping point, there are also plenty of opportunities to build even stronger brands with clear appeal, easy purchase experiences, and genuinely desirable products.

Rupert Faircliff is the director of London-based brand consultancy, BrandCap.