Emily Tan
Jul 23, 2015

Tidying up: Shoppers shun clutter, embrace authenticity

After decades of consumerism, shoppers are finally starting to say ‘enough’. Here’s what brands can do about it.

Grana sells to consumers who just want a few basic well-made items at reasonable prices
Grana sells to consumers who just want a few basic well-made items at reasonable prices

Out of the blue, Marie Kondo’s slim illustrated volume, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, became a global best-seller last year. Thousands posted images of ‘Kondo-ed’ drawers, desks and homes on social media as the world tidied up and tossed out clutter.

At its heart, Kondo’s philosophy is startlingly simple: go through every item you own and ask yourself, “Is this useful?” and “Does it spark joy?” If the answer to both is ‘no’, then thank it for its service and discard it.

“It’s an example of ‘referential authenticity’ because it refers to, and even honours, some previous place, person, event and idea,” says Jim Gilmore, co-author of Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want. And therein lies the secret to Kondo’s success. While minimalism and de-cluttering are not new concepts, Kondo’s method allows for sentimentality and the personalisation of all of one’s belongings via curation.

How are brands, so many of which are founded on the joys of mass-consumption, to sell to consumers who want less? The key word, says Preeti Varma, associate director of cultural intelligence for the brand consultancy Flamingo, is ‘curated’.

“People are too busy now, and they’re looking for something simple and trustworthy,” she explains. “Simplicity does not mean simple. It’s not stupid or un-complex. It’s complex but easy to use; tech today, led by Apple, is very symptomatic of that.”

Shops, brands and restaurants that wish to appeal to these consumers therefore should focus on curation: to restrict choice but to perfect the products and services provided. “They want a voice they trust to say, you can stop searching, we’ve found the best for you,” says Varma.

Brands that do this well include Moleskine, Muji, Uniqlo and J.Crew-owned Madewell. These brands couple their products with lovingly detailed stories around origin and design that feed the need for consumers to find authenticity and Kondo’s “spark of joy” in even the most mundane of items.

Muji, for example, has a microsite dedicated entirely to its new 90-degree-angled sock. The sock, enthuses the site, was inspired by socks knitted by Czech Grandma Ružena. On discovering the socks 2006, Muji found them more comfortable than regular ones (120-degree). The brand reinvented its sock-making process, perfected the elastication, re-enforced the heel and, voilà, new hosiery was born.

This level of thought has helped make Muji one of Japan’s success stories in a long tradition of brands specialising in curation and mastery. The brand recently launched in Sydney, Singapore, Malaysia and has designs on India. Last December, the firm reported a pretax profit growth of over 10 per cent to US$166 million for the first nine months, reported  the Nikkei Asian Review.

In Brand Royalty: How the World’s Top 100 Brands Thrive & Survive, author Matt Haig describes Muji’s business strategy as one that takes money from marketing and invests it in production and quality control. In place of the TVC, the brand instead focused on communicating the care it places it in its products via content marketing.

This is what customers today really want, says Luke Grana, founder of online fashion store, Grana: “To know they’re paying for quality and not for advertising.”

Inspired by the low price yet high quality of locally made cotton t-shirts he bought in Peru, Grana began researching the fashion industry. “I did some work-experience at major retailers, including Zara, just selling products on the floor. I was continuously annoyed with the poor quality. The mark-up was tremendous,” Grana says. “So my reason for starting Grana is to create a brand that has real meaning, that gives high quality at an affordable price-point.”

Grana’s store specialises in fabric first — Peruvian cotton, Huzhou silk, and Japanese denim. These are made into classic cuts that form the basis of most wardrobes. These pieces that customers repurchase over and over are known by the industry term ‘replenishment pieces’.

The decision to launch a store made entirely of these items of clothing was a personal one, explains Grana. “I found I don’t wear 80 per cent of my wardrobe, but I keep going back to the basics time and again.”

This approach ties in with the current consumer preference for investment pieces. Campaign Asia-Pacific teamed up with research firm YouGov to poll more than 7,000 consumers in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, Thailand and China. This research found that when shopping for clothes, half of Asian shoppers look for “something I love, that will last and I will wear again and again”, and indicated they are willing to pay a little more for these items.

Grana’s personal story coupled with the details of fabric sourcing and product design form the heart of the brand’s values. For marketing it relies on social media, a blog, and working with fashion bloggers, such as Geneva Vanderzeil of A Pair & A Spare, to showcase their products. “We also collaborate with these bloggers and get feedback on products from them.”

Grana’s approach has paid off and expansion has been rapid. In three years the online startup store that started in Sydney has launched in Hong Kong and the US.

These brands also tie in with growing consumer concerns about sustainability and sourcing. YouGov’s research found that 49 per cent of consumers surveyed felt knowing where an item was made is “not a must” but a “nice to know”. Making it a brand-opportunity for differentiation.

“People are becoming more careful about how they shop,” observed Varma. “The Rana Complex disaster in Bangladesh and talk show hosts such as Jon Stewart and John Oliver have all made ethical sourcing for clothing more important.”

All this, says Gilmore is part of authenticity, which in the context of business and commerce is purchasing on the basis of conforming to self-image. So brands looking to tap into the trend should ask themselves, how do their customers wish to see themselves when they choose to purchase your product?

Our view: Space is precious and consumers are asking each brand if it has earned its place on their shelf.


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