ON co-branding and brand mirrors in retail

When is a brand a brand and when is a brand just another label? The consumer seldom thinks about the difference between a label and a brand. We know that the brand has its own personality and a reason to exist as well as values that it wants to be associated with. It can also stand on its own and communicate with the consumer. Brand owners invest in their brand’s image awareness and personality in order to increase the value of their brands.


A label or as sometimes called, “private brand” is mostly there for the sake of order, organization and identification. So, a label is more of a team player that pulls its weight in a community, something the more egocentric brand would never do. But you always find a retail brand behind a label for the simple reason that the brand needs to get a bigger profit margin on the products offered. But again, the consumer is rarely aware of this difference. Then we have the difference between brands, but this is an entirely different discussion that we will have another time.

Fooled by the presence if brand

Let’s start at the Liqueur Store in Tribeca, New York. I was in NY doing production work for Swedish fashion retailer and was taking a walk after a long meeting with the client. Suddenly I passed a cool store that I hadn’t seen before. It looked like a bar or a boutique or something else…It was The Liqueur Store. What caught my attention was a pair of cordovan Alden shoes and Red Wing boots in the window. I went in and liked what I saw.

It was cramped with clothes and shoes and the people in there seemed to like what they were doing. While looking around, however, I began to get confused. There were a lot of shirts, pants and sweaters from JCrew. This made me think that it was one of those temporary outlets. But later that day I found out that I was wrong. I remember leaving the place wondering why Alden and Red Wing allowed this store to sell their great shoes and boots there. Later that evening over dinner with my colleagues, I told them about this store and how confused I was about the assortment mix. Incidentally, at the time JCrew was just another dying retailer that no one under 60 visited. John, the New Yorker at the table, started laughing and told me that the cool Liqueur Store was actually just another JCrew store. Now I understood what Drexler and Todd Snyder wanted with this store so the next day I went back.

By offering cool, quality brands mixed with JCrew pieces in a new environment, they wanted to attract new types of clients and hopefully arouse their interest in some of the JCrew labeled products too. Right then and there, I decided that the right terminology for this was “brand mirror”. It had been done before, quite successfully in a different way by all the finer department stores. At Sach’s or Barney’s you could find pieces that were co-branded with their retail brand. And I remember that in Stockholm, as long as NK was a department store you would always be right in buying an NK shirt. Everyone knew it was a quality piece.

Co-branding and brand mirrors

Co-branding can be expressed in a different way. As a retailer you can buy a brand and ask them to print that the pieces are made for you. People will like that because they would feel that you are trusted by a brand that they like. In order for this to be effective it is crucial for the brand to have value.

However, it could also be done like Comme de Garcon did on a black down jacket. In my eyes this was a more blunt and impactful way. I remember it vividly because it happened to me while unpacking a shipment from Comme des Garcon in our guerilla store in Stockholm. Not knowing what they had sent, I opened a box and found a black down jacket. As it wasn’t a typical CDG piece, so I examined it more closely and found it had three labels, each of them a well-known brand – CDG, Watanabe and Montclear.

My first reaction was, who did what on this jacket? Who was responsible for it? Why three brands on one piece? What likely happened was that the three brands decided to make a jacket to reach an extended target group, from one to three.

While unpacking sneakers from CDG and Fred Perry I got the message that the impact of well-known brands collaborating on the same piece and gaining from the togetherness was not a bad idea. Using brand mirrors is what Drexler did with JCrew. You bring well-known brands to your target and pair them with your labels. The effect is that you open up for new target groups as well as boosting new interest around your brand.

JCrew, I imagine also bought a few Chimala sweatshirts that cost an arm and a leg. They got the Indy Boot from Alden and some Henry’s tweed jackets. This was very effective as it quickly moved new targets toward JCrew. No ad campaign could have done it faster than these products. In my opinion there were two problems with this. One was the price gap between the external brands and the JCrew labels. Secondly was a growing ambition by the in-house design department to deliver more expensive goods under the JCrew label. This led to a diminishing price gap between the brands and the label but after some time there was a negative reaction to the too expensive Jcrew labels. Despite a quality improvement it was still JCrew and no Italian Cashmere in the world could win that argument.

I Believe, that if you want to use “brand mirrors” it will work long term if you use brands that share the same ambition, quality and price level. So, if you take the “unknown” brands like the fantastic, young indigo people at Buaisou, Tajika scissors, Noble maple syrup and you accompany them with Commes des Garcons, you will have a fantastic effect that will benefit all your brands. So, the conclusion is that “birds of a feather stick together”. You need to be a brand yourself in order to use brand mirrors over time. If you are a label, you should stick to co-branding.


Ian Shrager and Steve Rubell did it with Studio 54. They attracted the right people and created a line outside of labels that was happy to share the air with the more famous brands. If you as a label were lucky enough to be part of one night there, you could use it to your advantage in positioning yourself among other labels even for a short time. After that it won’t be long before your fellow labels loose interest in your stories of your five minutes of fame from Studio 54.