Why your brand needs a $3,200 harvest hare hat

Average brands tell stories about their products. Great brands make products about their story.
Harvest Hare Hat

I’m getting my mother’s thighs. This unwelcome thickening of hamstring and quad has dovetailed with the current trend in skinny jeans, which means I now walk around in pants held up by thigh rather than waistband. I could blame my mom. Or her mom. But mostly I blame Anthropologie.

When it comes to fashion, I’m a dabbler. I’ve been held in its thrall exactly once, in the fall of 1986. Armed with a summer’s worth of babysitting money and a catalog inked with circled SKUs, I rotary-dialed J. Crew’s 800 number as if it were 911, praying some other XS in Duluth hadn’t just beat me to the last saffron-striped boatneck tee, robbing me of my preppy-sailor-cardigan glory. But that was 9th grade.

J.CREW 1988 Catalog
Madras shorts + bushel of produce + cable-knit sweater = fashion’s Holy Grail.

Since then, my fervor for fashion has rolled steadily downhill, falling off a cliff about seven years ago after my first child was born. (True story: I have three maternity tops from that pregnancy that are still in heavy rotation.) I shop as if being chased, eyes darting through racks — or, more often, web pages — in search of what’s washable, wearable, affordable, exchangeable. Does it go with everything I already own? Can it be pulled from a dresser drawer in a pitch-dark bedroom and still look relatively normal come daybreak? In short, I’m shopping for clothes for a blind person.

You’d be surprised how easy it is to check all those boxes, which makes me think I’m not the only woman out there shopping by Braille. Walk into any Gap or Ann Taylor, and you’ll see the safe sameness on display aimed at people just like me. T-shirts. Denim. Pencil skirts. Button-downs. The colors and patterns may change from season to season, but the overriding message is the same: We have what you need to get on with your life.

Can you guess what year this image is from? Neither can I.

Shopping at the Gap and Ann Taylor inevitably makes me feel like I’m at an appointment with a new dentist. Lots of polite nodding — yes, yes, you’re right, I really should get those X-rays taken — but mostly I’m just waiting for the whole ordeal to end. So much stuff I need, but nothing I want. What I want is to be understood.
Anthropologie seemed to be saying, You may dress like you’re blind, but we know you can see.
Which is why Anthropologie was such a revelation. They took one look at me and saw someone else altogether, a woman who’s sick of setting an alarm and packing school lunches and eating at her desk. Someone who longs for the leisurely sense of discovery she took for granted in her twenties. With every ruffled skirt and hammered earring, Anthropologie seemed to be saying, You may dress like you’re blind, but we know you can see. Antlered chandeliers. Gilded pathways. Window displays festooned with paper birds, piles of yarn and giant mushrooms. I was suddenly that high school girl again, awed by possibility, wondering who I could be.

Anthropologie butterfly window display
Seven bajillion paper butterflies say you’ll shop here.

That giddy breathlessness is precisely why Anthropologie’s $800-per-square-foot revenue is almost double the industry average. What looks like the whim of a handful of artsy trendsetters in the marketing department is actually a stage that’s been set with X-Acto knife precision by the company’s founders, the target of which is not my heartstrings but my Visa card.

The whale-tail measuring cups, bulldog cookie jars and $3,200 harvest hare hats have been planted like props on a movie set, transporting our brains from dull reality to the magic of the imaginary. Does anyone buy those cookie jars? It doesn’t actually matter. For an hour or so on a Sunday afternoon, those jars are doing the work of wrapping us in a world as carefully scripted as the ones waiting for us in our Netflix queue. The tangerine suede wedges we walk out with are the price of admission, a piece of that world to take home as a souvenir.

Harvest Hare Hat
The hat comes propped on a stand made from wood sourced by Sussex tree surgeons.

Nike learned early on how lucrative this kind of set-building can be. But instead of suede and gilt, Nike’s set is festooned in celebrity endorsements, college athletic sponsorships and an elite youth basketball league. For years, the $66 billion sports brand has been paying forward a story of hope, courage and grit. “The thing about Nike that rarely gets acknowledged is that it doesn’t sell shoes, or even athletes, as much as it buys and sells stories, narratives, fairy tales,” writes The Wall Street Journal. “They aren’t a shoe company as much as a giant abstraction — a condition of the aspirational mind.”
It’s like Toyota signing Harry Potter, then figuring out later how to get broomsticks on the assembly line.
For instance: Nike signed Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods long before the company ever produced a single bike shoe or 5-iron. It’s like Toyota signing Harry Potter, then figuring out later how to get broomsticks on the assembly line. Some might say multibillion-dollar companies can afford to take big crazy risks. But for Nike, giving customers something to believe in isn’t a risk. It’s a lockstep business formula it has profited on for decades. Lance and Tiger were stories the brand knew it could sell tickets to, in the form of $36 cycling jerseys and $399 golf clubs. Both have famously stumbled over their own egos, but not before Nike was able to cash in to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars on their stories.

Of course, all this set-building has to happen before the curtain rises. It’s not something you can just throw up somewhere in the middle of Act II. But many brands do just that, scrambling to spin a whole new story every time there’s a product to launch. Do a Google search on Chevrolet, and you’ll see this kind of brand schizophrenia in action. Is Chevy about “fitting more families and more budgets” or is it about “the best time we’ve ever had”? Is it “always practical, now more efficient” or does it “put the purr in performance”? Chevy may give us decent cars and trucks, but it has failed to give us anything to believe in or belong to.

2013 Red Chevy Malibu
Babies. Sunsets. Cowboys. Speed. Planet Earth. That’s a Chevrolet.

It’s about creating a brand people want to crawl inside and live in forever.
On the other hand, consider the brands that come up again and again in surveys of customer loyalty: Guinness, Harley-Davidson, ESPN. There are plenty of companies who can figure out how to make a decent beer, motorcycle or sports channel. It’s not about making great products. It’s not about sexy TV spots or viral videos. It’s about creating a brand people want to crawl inside and live in forever. Give people a story they can believe in, create products and marketing that feed that story, and everything else — including profits — will follow.

Story is what turns a yellow rubber wristband into a universal badge of courage and kick-assery. It’s what turns two wheels and a half-ton of metal into an American flag of freedom. And it’s what causes frazzled working mothers without the time to brush their teeth to squander 88 minutes of “dwell time” fingering shawls, coveting bed linens and squeezing their thighs into velveteen sausage casings.

Well played, Anthropologie, well played.