Wednesday, April 24, 2013

How Banana Republic conquered the fashion world with chutzpah and irreverence

Wild Company, The Untold Story of Banana Republic
Published by Simon & Shuster (2012)

I’m a sucker for rags to riches stories, and Wild Company, The Untold Story of Banana Republic, is as rags to riches as they get, with plenty of laughs, life lessons and anecdotes thrown in for good measure.

This is the story of a young couple, Mel and Patricia Ziegler, who almost by accident created one of the world’s most iconic fashion and lifestyle brands (Banana Republic). They did so by breaking most of the rules of business and with sheer talents, instincts and chutzpah.

In the late 1970s, Mel was a writer, Patricia an artist/illustrator, both working at the San Francisco Chronicle. Feeling unfulfilled, they quit their day jobs to try their hand at freelancing. One day, Mel took an assignment in Australia and returned from that trip sporting a British Burma jacket. Mel and Patricia both loved the jacket, as did many strangers who approached them wanting to know where they could buy one.

This was a light bulb moment, and the couple figured there was a market for British Burma jackets “and anything else we could find,” Mel writes. With no business experience or business contacts, the couple set about establishing a company offering unique lines of clothing (shirts, jackets, bags, skirts and accessories) using un-businesslike ideas and strategies. As they would soon discover, there was a large, untapped market for finely-made and stylish outdoor clothing.

The couples’ journey from impoverished creative types into successful business leaders makes for a fun and entertaining read. Their chemistry was a recipe for success: Mel focused on marketing and promotions while Patricia concentrated on the fashion and merchandise side of the business. Their retail stores out-grossed larger and more established retail players in terms of sales per square foot. Their hand-illustrated, mail-order catalogue became a must-read for millions of customers and generated response rates double and triple the industry norm. By the mid 1980s, Banana Republic had become a recognizable name in fashion with a fiercely loyal customer base.

One has to admire the courage, chutzpah and prescience of Mel and Patricia Ziegler, who redefined fashion retailing and demonstrated what is possible by applying old-fashioned creativity, gut instincts, common sense and hard work. Their ideas and strategies were cheeky, irreverent, and far ahead of their time. Here’s Mel describing one of the company’s marketing initiatives:
I believed the best way to ensure our long-term survival was to overdeliver. Go above and beyond and, most importantly, make a human connection with customers. I scribbled notes to customers and put them in the boxes. The notes, on official khaki stationary, were signed by a random minister of the Republic: sometimes Minister of Finance, others the Minister of Progress, but usually the one truest to me, the Minister of Propaganda.
Wild Company is filled with many such creative initiatives, which helped grow the Banana Republic brand. This is a story that any entrepreneur, marketing manager or business student would appreciate. The tone and style are playful and witty, but the underlying message is very inspiring and resonates loud and clear: creativity and curiosity are just as integral to the success of a business as sound financials and the bottom line.

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