Why the lure of logos wears thin

Decide for yourself whether it is an occasion for sartorial sadness, or glee: The baby boomer in the hot-pink Lacoste polo shirt just might have become an endangered species.

Like bright-colored cotton after too many washings, brand allure in the world of apparel is fading. Even traditionally cherished or recently resurgent brand logos have lost luster - at least among many adults.

Sports-team logos are quite another story; their popularity is surging.

Those are the chief findings of the third annual Brand Keys Fashion Index, released earlier this month by a New York tracker of consumer preferences.

Don't expect a sudden swing to generic duds. A hard core of avid brand-name brandishers will always exist, say experts, including the survey's creators. Some segment of the purchasing public simply defaults to products that project a kind of "membership" - just as another segment single-mindedly chases cheap prices, and yet another takes an almost militant antilogo stance.

But a range of factors - from greater parity in product quality to the staggering breadth of brands offered at discount chains to plain old boredom with marketers' messages - have made it tough for clothiers to find, let alone stake out, the old pinnacles of mass appeal.

Of 7,500 respondents to the poll, nearly eight times as many called logos "less" or "much less" important than said they had gained in importance. Among those age 45 to 59, 74 percent said the importance of logos had declined; 40 percent of adults age 21 to 34 reported less love for logos.

"I think that you're dealing with a smarter consumer base," says Robert Passikoff, Brand Keys' president. Word of mouth - including unfiltered Internet discussion - has vastly improved consumers' capacity to pick apart the messages in $30 million ad campaigns, he says.

And unlike marketers of products in some other fields - Apple in computing, Saturn in automotive - most apparel marketers have failed to differentiate their basically interchangeable wares, or convey any special values inherent in the brand, Mr. Passikoff adds.

Indeed, only sports-team merchandise - by whatever maker - now seems to appeal to both sexes and practically every age group. A powerful territorial factor comes into play, experts say. Wearers can express their strong identification with a local team or a favorite player.

Broadly speaking, however, consumers now reject brands that purport to describe neatly who and what their buyers are, according to Marian Salzman, executive vice president and chief strategy officer of Euro RSCG Worldwide, an advertising and corporate communications company.

Ms. Salzman's firm has a term for proactive consumers - "prosumers" - and its own recent studies of that group echo Brand Keys' findings. "No matter how positive the label, prosumers are likely to reject it," Ms. Salzman writes in an e-mail. "They know they are more than that."

Smart marketers, she writes, will respond by recognizing that buyers are increasingly experimental - and by rethinking advertising messages that make sweeping assumptions or put buyers in a box.

Brands are nothing more than "stories attached to objects," says James Twitchell, a professor of English at the University of Florida who has written widely about branding as a cultural phenomenon. "Sometimes we just go through periods where we've heard the story too much," he says. "Or we're hearing the story being told by too many people."

Youths may be immune, at least for now. The appearance of a vast range of "slightly warmed-over brands" in the discount stores he visits "should mean those 'stories' are overtold," he says. But his own students don't seem to think so. "They are as decked out as they have been in the past 10 years with the inscriptions," says Mr. Twitchell.

So widely and cheaply marketed are many major brands - including up-market Italian labels once found only in boutiques - that some degree of brand association is often difficult for consumers to avoid, even if finding bargains is their primary motive. Brand association, in other words, is often what's on sale.

For brand-name marketers, another challenge is to tread a line between winning mass appeal and diluting old cachet.

"Some brands can come back - like Puma and others - and some brands will disappear. It just depends what symbol has energy, or is vital enough at the time," says Douglas Atkin, who wrote "The Culting of Brands: When Customers Become True Believers."

Brands should find at least some shoppers willing to play the game.

"I can't imagine that 'tribal symbols' as reproduced on apparel - where you are wearing your symbol on your sleeve - will ever go away," Mr. Atkin says.

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