Consumers are fickle during the best of times, but during a pandemic? Their purchases appear to be random at best. So how do some brands arrive on top, even achieving the coveted cult status at a time when unemployment, stress and unpredictability is at an all-time high? 

“Some of the key elements a brand has to have to make it during a pandemic are: Great communication and understanding of their customers and the general population’s feelings and thoughts on that particular moment in time and space, a perfect understanding of their brand and their products, a sharp marketing team that can grasp the opportunities and thinks ahead,” says Joe Flanagan, founder of a blog called 90s Fashion World. 

An air of self-care 

It’s not easy, but some brands have been successful in capturing an audience at this moment, and managing to continue to gain their devotion throughout the year. For example, there was the nap dress from Hill House, which became one of the hottest items to snag in 2020. The dress actually launched in 2018, selling out a 6-month supply in just one day. The company increased its inventory by a factor of 10, but still couldn’t keep up with demand. The nap dress is a simple house dress, but it's on-trend. Shoppers saw it as an ideal option to be comfortable without popping on sweats. 

The sellers, "realized that even being at home, women want to feel pretty — but the concept of feeling pretty for oneself is completely different from the one of feeling pretty for an audience,” Flanagan says. The dress was the epitome of a self-pampering product. “It was romantic, it spoke of a historic long-gone era and had a cottagecore feel to it,” Flanagan says. “It was bound to become viral.”

Viral appeal and DTC

One key ingredient to a breakout brand is snagging the right influencers, says Olatokunbo Owokoniran, owner of Black & Posh, a luxury online clothing boutique based in Chicago. Black Moon Cosmetics, a brand providing vegan, cruelty-free makeup that launched in 2015, tapped into sponsoring popular Instagram influencers to amplify their messaging. And it paid off. Everytime Black Moon Cosmetics restocks, they sell out nearly instantly. “All of their sales are generated from social media buzz,” Owokoniran says. 

Many brands that have achieved recent fandom didn’t rely on brick-and-mortar shoppers, and they already had a strong online presence when the pandemic began, says Rachel Cribby, a fashion expert with Next Luxury. Last year saw a mass exodus from most previously dominant fashion brands, but there were a select few that seemed to successfully sustain or even quicken their momentum, Cribby says. Two familiar athleisure brands come to mind: Nike and Adidas. 

“Though both of these brands admittedly already had a cult status before the pandemic, they have managed to gain even more loyal followers during this time,” Cribby says. They advertised via social media influencers, they sold the majority of their products through online shopping, and both of these techniques were flawless before 2020. 

Connect with your customer 

But there are many brands that have mastered social media marketing and online sales. The differentiating factor is the personification of the brand, and making it resonate with customers’ lives, says New York-based fashion designer Hadley Pollet.

“We think it’s because people are looking for stable, meaningful brands that are uplifting and driving positive change in society,” Pollet says. A successful brand enables customers to see themselves in the product - not the other way around. To do this, Pollet has live shopping events. “The idea that people can connect with the designer for an hour, hear our story and the inspiration behind the design and products during a time when people are desperate for connection, has been amazing.”

The brands that will retain cult status now and when the pandemic subsides will be those that understand that their role in society is paramount now. This means trying to make the world a better place for everyone they touch, from the customers to the factory owners to the artisans — and taking it a step further with green operations, compassion and integrity, Pollet says. 

“We have stuck to that during the pandemic, and we think the stability of the brand combined with the brand’s purpose of economic empowerment for women is creating the growth in our customer base. The pandemic has given a hard blow to women around the world — if we can offer light and economic support, we will do it forevermore.” 

Read the room

Vuori is another brand that reigned supreme in 2020 and beyond, thanks to its social media presence, attention to social changes, and ability to provide comfort at a time when everything is uncomfortable. This relatively new athleisure brand touts its products as ethical and sustainable (with an “investment in happiness” guarantee). Sales of Vuori’s joggers (and sweats in general) soared this year, and the brand has turned to TV ads to further boost performance. Los Angeles-based style expert and on-air host Jennifer Chan says comfort was key in 2020, and Vuori mastered the art of chic performance wear, perfect for a year spent at home. 

Brands need to tune in to what their consumers want and read the room. Keicia Shanta, a San Antonio-based fashion content creator and stylist, believes people will follow brands that are making strides to tackle social issues that are important to them. She says, “Consumers became more conscious of the brands they shop from and the actual contributions these brands make.”

About the Data:

Thinknum tracks companies using the information they post online, jobs, social and web traffic, product sales, and app ratings, and creates data sets that measure factors like hiring, revenue, and foot traffic. Data sets may not be fully comprehensive (they only account for what is available on the web), but they can be used to gauge performance factors like staffing and sales.

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