Substance over style


I’m always looking for the Churchillian leaders of business to work with. Those who trust their ideals, passion and instinct rather than research and data. The precious few who will happily stand up and be counted rather than sit down and count the annual bonus. The truth is these folk are very few and far between. For every Sir Richard there are a hundred anonymous directors managing by collective decisions and quarterly results.

Dov Charney, until recently the patriarch of American Apparel, worked by instinct and created impact although I think it’s fair to say, was not a leader in the Churchill mould. To extend the political analogy he was more of your John Profumo type. Intelligent, charismatic but allegedly questionable in matters of the flesh. A man whose positive character traits built a disruptive category breaking global company but whose negative attributes imposed a ceiling on his ambition and ultimately put all he built at risk including by all accounts his own personal freedom.

Paula Schneider has now been tasked with taking what is already North America’s largest apparel manufacturer, albeit with flagging sales, and drive it forward in the post Charney era. She has announced that she will be taking the brand into the area of social issues, a somewhat radical shift from it’s somewhat self obsessed and shamelessly provocative past.

There is nothing that says you can’t take an existing well known brand and take it in a radically different direction but it is rare – although Lord knows Ryanair can’t hurt from it’s sudden realization that the customer isn’t a necessary evil and actually should be someone cherished.

My main advice to Ms Schneider is that if she wants American Apparel to be centered around social issues she will need to pursue this new direction with the same personality traits, commitment and energy - the passionate carefree edgy disruption - that got them this far, and make it run through every vein of the organization. People change their convictions and beliefs in life we all accept that as long the change is not just skin deep.

The point of living your beliefs is critical.  Addressing the wrongs of the past whilst preserving what made you is not as simple as employing advertising and social media agencies to create disposable content around flavour of the year millennials. What American Apparel needs is a true partner with them at the heart of their organisation to understand, preserve and protect the behaviour that made them special whilst shaving away the less desirable elements of Mr Charneys reign. They need someone strong enough to objectively challenge their corporate sensibilities moving forward and provoke them to grow their brand by being true to themselves in all they do; be that product, service, culture and communications. Featuring an LGBT YouTuber in a campaign is not an end in itself, I want to see them integrate their orgnaisation’s aspirations into supporting the rights and opportunities of that, and other, communities.  Benetton are a great example of how a company went from impactful advertising around prejudice in the early 90’s to now setting up the UNHATE Foundation thus putting their principles at the core of their organizational behavior rather just as an expressive opinion. You can’t just tell stories and shock people anymore, we’re all a much more cynical bunch who want to see you back up your shouts with actions.

It will be hugely disappointing if I see American Apparel becoming a brand that simply uses ‘disruption with conscience’ (or whatever their proposition becomes moving forward) as a printout on a wall and an image on a website.

Earlier I mentioned Ryanair as a brand currently moving about face. I also look to Burberry under Christopher Bailey and how they (de)checked themselves. By removing the accessible product and brand imagery popularized by the, shall we say, lower end of the consumer market they re-established themselves as a premium luxury brand. The irony being their behavior as a brand had not changed from premium to mass market, but they had provided the ability for the consumer to take it there. By removing that option they reclaimed the deserved perception of their brand.

Haagen Dazs for years represented quality but were one of the first brands in food and beverage to connect with sensuality. The association was only on the surface however and as such they have lost their way. As a child of the 80’s I have to mention Lucozade. From health product to energy/sports drink, although I would argue they lost their most powerful brand touch point in the form of that orange crunchy foil we all loved. Jaguar has made a significant transformation into representing modern Britishness and backed that up in their product development, proud to say The Partners played a key role in that one.

Change is, as I mentioned previously, rare. Smart brands evolve and grow they don’t change. take Virgin, Red Bull, Caterpillar and MTV (more’s the pity) as examples.  The bad ones do nothing and die, look at Kodak, Nokia, Woolworths. As an aside, cigarette brands are in the last chance saloon in that regard.

I’m confident Paula Schneider will create a successful business whatever American Apparel do, but if they stay true to their personality, lose the seediness and behave as a brand and organisation as one they will do it better.

As for Mr Charney’s future. I wait with baited breath. If he can deal with his personal issues and prove his innocence, which is a very big if, he still has a lot to offer the world and I for one would be happy to work with him. With Valentines Day and Fifty Shades of Grey upon us maybe he could channel his passions into re-inventing Mills & Boon for the hipster generation with paper crafted in downtown Portland. Who knows.


First published in The Guardian, 16 February 2015.