We're now in an age in which "brand is king" says Stacy Baker, author of a new report on the state of the apparel branding industry. That said, what does the concept of a good branding strategy mean to today's consumer and how can this help you sidestep today's market hurdles?

Fashion has always had its challenges beyond the everyday issues all brands face. Apparel experts say that in 2005 and beyond the top issues for this industry shift to logistics, sourcing in a global marketplace, rising oil costs, the lifting of quotas, savvier shoppers, counterfeiting and more.

Making this more daunting is the blurring of the distinction between the brands, the manufacturers and the retailers - most of us can't tell who is the maker or the seller. The result in apparel manufacturing is similar to what we've seen in retail: a widening gap between the "haves" and "have nots."

That's not even mentioning the creative challenges. One of the biggest differences between today and, say, ten years ago is the versatility of the consumer, says Kristine Oustrup, managing partner of StyleVision, a consumer and lifestyle trend group based in Nice, France.

Because fashion is at everyone's fingertips and the style choices nearly endless, people are bolder about creating their own looks, mixing and matching designers and expressing who they are.

The result has been a shift toward the unpredictability of fashion. Even fashion pundits who make a living predicting trends are saying the only thing you can count on in terms of overriding trends is that there really isn't an overriding trend.

"There are so many choices that you could choose any look and be fashionable - there are a thousand possibilities depending on your mood and personality," says Oustrup. "It is now about self-expression; take the women of 'Sex and the City,' a mismatch patchwork style that works."

While women used to rely on the traditional hierarchy of fashion direction that was based on the designer forecasting trends, then communicating these down the chain to customers, it has now evolved with more input from the consumer and therefore much less predictability for those actually creating the garments.

To overcome these obstacles, apparel companies must invest more in technology, customer service, quality and innovation to make it easy for consumers to acquire the product, while generating greater brand presence, distinctive design and an improved shopping experience.

Brand is king
This sounds like a tall order, but the good news is that we have entered an age in which "brand is king" and if you're creating a strategy, your operations and marketing backing should be fit for such royalty. If it is, consumers will buy.

"Given the fundamental nature of most products on the market today, retailers will need to emulate companies like Target, who manage to carve a product leadership branding statement out of a mix of low-end private label and commodity product," says Paula Rosenblum, research director for Aberdeen Group.

Additionally, most brands will face increased pressure to lower prices and costs, particularly from the big guys like Wal-Mart, who will continue to put price pressures and mandates on its partners.

In the same regard, all brands will face the pressure of competing with their own retail customers, and will struggle to maintain relevancy. Their goal? To remain focused on the customer, rather than the price.

A good branding strategy
That said, what does the concept of "a good branding strategy" mean to today's consumer and how can this help you sidestep today's market hurdles?

"It's an icon that's supposed to help you make a purchase according to your consideration set," says Dan Hill, PhD, president of Sensory Logic Inc, a scientific consumer insights firm that specialises in gauging both verbal and non-verbal subconscious reactions to advertising, retail environments and product design, packaging and presentations.

"Our approach is that people's decision-making process isn't rational. You make emotionally based purchases then look for a rational way to justify spending.

"It gets you to the point where you choose a brand because of the emotional connection that gets established and then you go to the rational arguments on price points or awards or some other logical reason."

Although apparel companies are working harder than ever to meet the challenges of today's comprehensive and multifaceted marketplace, globalisation has impacted brand strategy in a positive way.

While some argue that it has forced brands to create a multinational format for store layouts, etc, with little recognition for local nuances, others say that it has levelled the playing field for all brands.

"In this the information age, everyone is subject to the same imagery on their computers, their TVs and in magazines, so everyone regardless of ethnicity is idealising the same images," says Sass Brown, a fashion designer.

"This is challenging brands to continuously have something fresh and new and special to keep their customers coming back."

Finally, in an economy that's slowing or stagnant, how do top fashion brands infuse themselves with excitement in a consumer's eyes?

According to Robert Passikoff, president, Brand Keys, New York, they don't. Most brands try to spark excitement with flashy photography but ultimately this stuff shows up on catwalks, hits the style pages and fades out of most consumers' memories.

Low loyalty
"Loyalty is very low," he says. "The studies we do annually for WWD show that brand and logo makes less of an important contribution to their decision, so apparel companies are faced with the fact most people are saying brand doesn't matter."

In the past, style ruled decision-making and retail buyers used to make choices about what they would expose consumers to, then purchase knocked-off versions of catwalk styles. At that time, there was a legitimate difference in buying one over another in terms of quality.

Today, however, because the difference is imperceptible to people not working in the fashion industry, these immeasurable quality differences get meshed with similar print messaging and one brand blurs into another.

"Most brands don't have a sense about what customer values are or how they are looking at the category," Passikoff says. "It's unbelievable because brands have been tooling along the same way, but they need to be able to understand their customer in order to know how to excite them."

According to a recent survey of 7,500 US adults - the 2003 Brand Keys Fashion Index - the strongest apparel brands are Ralph Lauren, Nike, Armani, Donna Karen, Chanel, Brooks Brothers, J Crew, LL Bean, and Burberry.

Why? These brands not only know their customers but also create a sense of need and value in their lives. "They are the ones actually managing their brands beyond nicely shot fashion photographs," Passikoff says. "Apparel branding must be something more than pretty fashion photography."

Lifestyle messages
The ones who have branded properly and have created the kind of marketing programs that resonate with value are the most likely to succeed. Unfortunately most brands, experts say, just give lip service to lifestyle messages.

"In order to form a bond with people you need to resonate with their values, which is why we do the study," says Passikoff. "The fact is that when we go through a list of 60 different names that consumers come up with, you find that most of the major sporting leagues show up on the list because people would rather wear a Major League Baseball jacket over some other because its values resonate with them." 

This means that people have real feelings and associations with a particular team, while few consumers feel that level of loyalty, passion or connection with a fashion brand.

For further details of ABOUT Style's new report, 'The Global Branding Report: 2005 edition,' please click here.