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The business of hype: why so many fashion brands are now doing “product drops”

By Marjorie van Elven


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Retail |IN DEPTH

16 seconds. That’s how long it took for Rimowa’s suitcase collection in collaboration with streetwear brand Supreme to sell out, despite its starting price of 1600 US dollars. Both labels announced the collaboration by simply posting a picture of the product on social media, alongside its release date -- a mere three days ahead.

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Supreme®/RIMOWA. 04/14/2018

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This sales tactic, which consists of releasing a limited-edition product or collection in small quantities at select retail locations, without much advance warning, is what we have come to know as a “drop”. The basic idea is to create a sense of urgency and the illusion of scarcity among consumers. Yes, illusion: after all, the products are not necessarily expensive or difficult to make.

Supreme is perhaps the king of this retail strategy. Founded as a small skate shop in New York in the 1990s, the company is currently estimated to be worth one billion US dollars. As a result, other players in the fashion industry are dipping their toes into the drop model as well: Gucci, Adidas, Nike, Louis Vuitton, Alexander Wang and Opening Ceremony are just a few examples of brands experimenting with this tactic. 2017 was named by The New York Times as “the year of the drop”, and the trend is showing no signs of slowing down in 2018.

Burberry is the latest brand to jump on the bandwagon. The British label famous for its signature tartan print announced a series of monthly drops this week: on the 17th of each month, starting today, new products will be unveiled on the company’s Instagram and WeChat profiles. Each release will vary in scale and availability, and customers will only have 24 hours to buy the items. According to a company statement, Burberry’s goal is to “excite customers with new deliveries and frequent communication”. Unsurprisingly, the first Burberry product to be “dropped” is a sweatshirt.

When heritage brands such as Burberry decide to follow a retail strategy made popular by streetwear labels with a young customer base, several questions arise: why have product drops become so popular? Is it a sustainable sales tactic in the long run? Will it work for the likes of Burberry as much as it does for the likes of Supreme? FashionUnited spoke with a group of fashion scholars and experts to better understand the phenomenon.

Fast fashion + social media = drop culture

When it comes to the reasons that led to drops’ rise in popularity, all experts were unanimous: drops are the retail response to our high-speed times and reduced attention spans. “We are living in an ‘on demand’ society where we expect instant gratification, constant novelty and brands to cater to our demands with urgency and immediacy. Pair that with a growing desire of exclusivity and access to something unique and we have the ideal scenario for such a trend to occur,” explains Ana Roncha, Course Leader of the Master’s degree in Strategic Fashion Marketing at the London College of Fashion. Nick Paget, Senior Menswear Editor at trend forecasting company WGSN, agrees: “drop culture is centered around our shortened attention spans and getting the next selfie with the most current items.” Danilo Venturi, Director of Italian fashion school Polimoda, expressed the same idea: “the new generations do not have a sense of history and geography, everything happens here and now, and this outlook is reflected in their approach to buying.”

Although streetwear and sneaker brands are often credited with starting the trend, Roncha argues fast fashion companies like H&M, Zara and Primark are the actual forefathers of drop culture. “There is a closer match to that market [streetwear], yes, but in my perspective the need and underlying premises actually started with the concept of fast fashion. That’s what made us all used to frequent product deliveries. It created a sense of urgency to buy, to go in store every week and buy straight away as the product might not be there the week after.” Streetwear brands just added a pinch of secrecy and further exclusivity to the formula.

Another point with which all experts agree is that social media is central to drop culture. “Brands are struggling to get coverage on traditional media these days, so they have to do things to stand out on social media and cut through all the noise. How do you make sure you’re heard in this new, buzzy world?,” said Alison Levy Bringé, Chief Marketing Officer at data analytics firm Launchmetrics. “Fashion weeks give brands an average of 800 percent more exposure than they get the rest of the year. In my opinion, drops are a way to reproduce the same excitement.” It works: Rimowa’s announcement of its collaboration with Supreme had 4 times more impact than their regular posts about other products, as measured by Launchmetrics.

Not only do sudden product drops generate more social media buzz, they also help brands to form an engaged community. “Customers need to be aware of launch dates and times, they need to be part of an exclusive crowd that is well informed ahead of the launch,'' notes Roncha. “It’s like a cult gang. Young consumers want to feel like they’re part of a group or movement. It’s a means of expression,” adds Bringé.

Fashion companies are not the only ones benefiting from drop culture, however. In an age when digital influencer is a profession and many people base their sense of worth on the number of likes they get on social media, selfies featuring these “rare” fashion items are the new status symbol. “Social media carries an inherent expectation and high stake in terms of posting new and exciting content every day: wear something different, inspire and be inspired”, explains Roncha. “Showing how well informed we are about brands and having access to products that only a few have gives one a lot of credibility and status amongst his or her peers”.

It also looks like drop culture is effective even among those who do not aspire to be the next social media star. Consumers tend to trust people they know a lot more than traditional advertising, which means influencer content is still perceived by many as good old word of mouth, even though it is well known they earn a living by posting sponsored content. “Ads on TV used to be restricted to certain times. Now we’re exposed to social media all the time, we get so much more caught up in the trends because we see it in our feeds constantly,” says Bringé.

Drops are not for everyone

Just because drops have turned some retailers into money making machines, it doesn’t mean the same will happen to every brand adopting a similar strategy. “Drops only work when consumers feel they are authentic to the brand identity and values. If it feels like something imposed and it doesn’t resonate with the customers’ values, it falls flat,” explains Natascha Radclyffe-Thomas, Course Leader of the Bachelor’s in Fashion Marketing at the London College of Fashion. “Your strategy should be aligned with your target audience”, emphasizes Bringé. Nick Paget is on the same page: “what your customer should take from any collab or limited drop is that you understand them even better than they thought you did.”

That’s why Burberry’s recent announcement has raised a few eyebrows. “Luxury is intended to offer products with a longer lifespan. It values craftsmanship, heritage and time (to produce and to consume). Some luxury labels, such as Gucci, are using drops to reach a younger audience with high disposable income, but for other fashion houses where values such as tradition and craftsmanship are an intrinsic part of their brand identity, opting for drops can possibly alienate a big part of their audience,” says Roncha.

But Joanne Yulan Jong, founder of brand consultancy firm Yulan Creative and author of the book The Fashion Switch: the new rules of the fashion business, thinks reaching out for younger audiences is crucial for long-term survival. “Luxury brands are having to move to this model to stay in the customers’ line of vision. It seems strange for them to do this, but it's an investment that will reap benefits further down the line.” Whether Riccardo Tisci was right in his decision to turn a British heritage brand into this direction, it remains to be seen.

One should also remember that, although drops are popular among millennials and generation Z, there is a considerable number of shoppers who still value convenience over novelty, even among younger generations. “Let’s remember that a trend always denotes a counter-trend,” adds Danilo Venturi. “We’re also seeing a growing number of retailers who prefer to slow down and offer an experience.”

Consumers who value sustainability aren’t likely to be excited about this model, either. Paget suggests: “a lot depends on how deeply your customers adopt a more sustainable attitude. Do they want to hold on to artisanal pieces for seasons to come, which will probably get better with age and wear, or does the novelty of the new win out, with the drop of each new and hyped capsule collection tempting them to buy more and dispatch what they already own?”

Venturi, from Polimoda, is even more emphatic: “there are better ways to define your identity than with a new cell phone every year and a new dress every week – and, for the industry, there are more reasonable ways of generating profit. We must begin a dialogue about a new link between craftsmanship and technology. Let’s drop the drops!”

The future of drop culture

Will we, though? The million dollar question is whether product drops will continue to be successful in the long run, or the fabricated newness and scarcity will, too, get old -- ironically enough. For Venturi, there’s no doubt about it: “sooner or later, consumers get tired of everything: this is the driver of change and fashion is about change.”

Roncha is not so sure about that. She thinks this sales tactic will not go away anytime soon. “It will evolve, as everything does”. Radclyffe-Thomas, her colleague at the London College of Fashion, gives some examples of how drop culture will change: “one way the drops are changing is how consumers themselves are strategizing to be successful getting hold of the goods, so you see people paying others to line up for them outside stores, or even using bots online to make sure they’re not left empty-handed. Maybe that will become the new status symbol? Being 'too cool to queue?'”

Regardless of what happens to drop culture, one thing is certain: brands will continue to be challenged to find new ways to grab consumers’ attention and keep their customers excited.

Images: Supreme Facebook; Balenciaga pop-up, courtesy of Selfridges; Off-White for DoubleF, courtesy of DoubleF.

drop culture