Joe keeps it fresh

In just five years, the Loblaw clothing brand has morphed from the grocery aisle to a major stand-alone fashion label.
Fall_2011_Runway_Look_1

As if the idea of selling sweaters amongst the lettuce wasn’t plucky enough, Joe Fresh is holding its own against other retail apparel giants like Zara, H&M and even Walmart, showing strong growth and aggressively expanding its freestanding store concept in Canada and, this month, the U.S.
Modelled on a popular U.K. grocery concept Asda (now a subsidiary of Walmart), which created a highly successful clothing line called George after designer George Davies, Joe Fresh Style began in 2006 to differentiate its parent company, Loblaw, from its competitors and is now in over 300 stores. With his success developing the Alfred Sung label and the Club Monaco retail fashion concept, the latter of which was bought by Polo Ralph Lauren, Joe Mimran was the natural choice to lead the brand. As CD, apparel, home and entertainment, Loblaw, Mimran oversees all Joe Fresh designs, and as he puts it, there was a big advantage – and a bit more credibility given the brand’s grocery store genesis – in his being so closely allied to the concept: “People love to latch onto a person responsible for a brand,” Mimran says. “It’s from a real place. It’s not manufactured.”
Though price is a key differentiator, it’s not a deal breaker in the highly competitive world of fashion retail, where fashion seekers scurry from H&M to Holts in a heartbeat. What makes the brand work, and excel, is that conscious attempt to make it accessible. The democratization of fashion has long been a theme of Mimran’s, and the fact that Joe Fresh resonated with the brand’s target audience of moms and newly working men and women from the get-go, and increasingly with the fashion set, speaks to its power. Today, it holds sway with these audiences, becoming so synonymous with being fashionable that the “style” part of the brand’s name was dropped last year.
Though Joe Fresh was a success from the start, there were obvious challenges with selling clothing in the grocery aisle. “We quickly realized we couldn’t merchandise like a grocery store,” says Craig Hutchison, SVP marketing and PR, Joe Fresh, home and entertainment, Loblaw. Once consumer response justified the spend, they incorporated the store-within-a-store concept to include separate cash desks, change rooms
and lighting.
Cementing Joe Fresh as a major fashion brand has come about largely as a result of extensive PR efforts. How many Canadian brands can boast that Flare editor-in-chief Lisa Tant sported a Joe Fresh outfit on a recent TV appearance? The very one that brazenly started staging shows at Toronto Fashion Week a mere year into its existence, something Mimran says opening price point brands weren’t doing at the time. Flip through any Canadian fashion magazine this fall and you’ll likely find multiple mentions of Joe Fresh Beauty and fashion. “We’ve had over a billion PR hits in our five-year existence,” says Hutchison.
True to the fresh ethic, new product arrives at the stores every four weeks, meaning PR efforts are ongoing and, one would imagine, equally fresh for editors. To handle the load, the PR team expanded early this year, recruiting from MAC Cosmetics and Holt Renfrew.
A consistent marketing style from day one has further cemented the brand’s appeal. Joe Fresh TV spots are known for their original music, sourced by the brand’s former AOR Bensimon Byrne. “A fashion brand needs to be tied to music,” Hutchison says. “We wanted to have our own sound and style.”
“To think of our commercials and our imaging as a food-store originated brand, it’s really remarkable that we could take it and elevate it to that extent,” says Mimran.
After cutting ties with Bensimon this spring, the brand created its own in-house creative team, something Hutchison says has allowed it to be more focused in a details-driven industry.
The team relaunched Joefresh.com as a fully interactive website in late August and went in a slightly different direction with its “Classic Comeback” fall campaign featuring slow-mo moving portraits to David Bowie’s “Oh! You Pretty Things.”
With the stand-alone concept – freestanding stores not connected to Loblaw grocery banners – showing incremental growth to the Loblaw biz, the idea that started in 2010 with the opening of the downtown Vancouver store has exploded in the last year with a string of similar openings across Canada, and more to come. Targeting a younger fashionista market, the goal is to put new store concepts in high-fashion locations, says Hutchison.
The much-anticipated Queen Street West store that launched this month in downtown Toronto is a variation on the theme, but no less ambitious. A multi-level concept with a Loblaws on the second level, and for the first time, Joe Fresh on the ground floor as the anchor, the store will be in the thick of competition with H&M and Zara nearby, as well as a new Winners a few stores over. It was a deliberate move. “We’re going in where the competition is the strongest and proving ourselves,” says Hutchison.
That same scrappiness applies to the U.S. expansion, which kicked off this summer with a pop-up shop in the Hamptons and will culminate this month with the opening of a Fifth Avenue store and more NYC and U.S. locations this year. A flagship is also set to open on Fifth Avenue in the spring of 2012.
A gutsy move in questionable economic times – and entirely in keeping with Joe Fresh’s perpetual zip – the growth into the States is necessary, Mimran says. “Momentum is everything. You’ve just got to keep moving forward.”
Taking on new challenges to express the brand is critical, he says, especially since the successful brands today tend to be international.
Adapting to a different market may not be easy, but Hutchison says the U.S. media has responded well to previews in spite of zero brand awareness.  But it’s not just dropping a store in and hoping it works, says Mimran. “It is about becoming part of the fibre of that city and the energy of that city…[and] creating a real spirit. It’s not just a business,” he says. “It’s not just a machine. And it’s so hard to do.”
He adds, “Fashion is a brutal industry. It’s fast and constant.”

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