In the past few years, discount retail stores have been expanding marketing practices beyond traditional barriers by partnering with higher-end brands in a series of capsule collections. Target is the best-known retail giant in mastering these kinds of partnerships, having collaborated with up and coming designers like Jason Wu and Prabal Gurung, as well as established brands like Isaac Mizrahi and Missoni, the latter of which was the retailer’s most successful venture. Each of these collections not only drove sales, but also made Target stand apart from similar, low-price retailers. In contrast to the clothing sold at Wal-Mart or K-Mart, which propelled a strictly budget conscious sentiment, Target managed to feed off some of the prestige associated with fashion brands outside of its industrial scope. In doing so, Target set the tone for how products that would have otherwise been regarded as low-end, could increase their value with semiotic and cultural associations of a higher quality label.
That said, not every Target partnership has been outstandingly successful. The failure of the 2012 Target/Neiman Marcus holiday collaboration inherently proposed the idea that collaborative marketing may have a cultural capital threshold that cannot always translate to the masses, especially if the terms set by branding semiotics are not carried out in the ultimate product. This begs the question of what factors into the creation of this threshold, and how can it be strategically adhered to in successful collaborations.
This essay will use Target as a case study in attempting to hone in on the cultural capital of the most and least successful marketing partnerships, while identifying whether or not one brand theoretically benefits more than the other whenever these partnerships are established. Ultimately, this essay will demonstrate how although collaborative marketing works to the benefit of the lower-end collaborator, it will consistently perpetuate the status quo of cultural capital in the marketplace, and in some cases exacerbate that difference when the partnerships fail to produce the desired economic outcome.
The Semiotics of Branding According to Barthes
In most cases, branding comes across as a natural association of a certain meaning between a physical object and some kind of idea that the consumer finds relatable enough to want to actually purchase that object. The latter of the two heavily depends on semiotics to forge this type of association for the consumer, since products rarely have obvious labels describing their symbolic intentions. When applied to retail items, this relationship between the physical object and its implied meaning becomes more complex, since the product can be manipulated to mean a variety of things depending on who wears it and in what situation they do so. However, the essence of how clothing demonstrates this type of semiotic representation carries across all designers and retailers alike.
As discussed by Barthes, what “[people] grasp is not at all one term after the other, but the correlation which unites them: there are, therefore, the signifier, and the signified and the sign, which is the associative total of the first two terms.” (Barthes, 111) In this sense, the brand is the signifier and the clothes are the signified; combined they create a sign which can be communicated to the rest of the public, regardless of the specifics of the company from which that brand is derived. That said, in the context of this discussion, it is equally important to note that Barthes also describes that an individual’s understanding of the sign depends on there being “no latency of the concept in relation to the form.” (Barthes, 120) In application to Target’s retail products, this distinction could mean that the product must obviously signify its use and relationship to the brand. Without this obvious relationship, it can be inferred that a consumer may have difficulty relating to the product and would therefore be less willing to go through with the purchase. For example, Target can sell versions of Missoni scarves based on the fact that consumers have an expectation that the scarves will have the distinctive Missoni chevron pattern incorporated onto the physical product, thereby signifying association to the original brand and its established prestige.
Graham Allen’s take on Barthes further develops these applications of the sign, and its implications to the fashion industry especially in relation to the fashion cycle necessitating particular behavior from customers. According to Allen, fashion “passes real garments through a series of structures until it ﬁnally meets the public with a meaning, a sign.” (Allen, 40) In other words, the meaning created in fashion objects is knowingly created to communicate a particular message to their eventual purchaser. This message is most obviously communicated through the brand name of the retail objects, and with enough repetition those objects can be expected to consistently communicate a specific type of sign every time they are put out into the marketplace. Again, we can relate this notion back to Target’s well-known success with the Missoni line since.
To maintain the difference between the high-end version of Missoni products and the Target versions of the products, Target chose to maintain the Missoni chevron pattern on all of its products as a way to signify their belonging to the Missoni line. However, the products passed through “structures” to further focus those original signs to the Target shopper by way of color schemes and inclusion of products that Missoni does not produce on the higher-end retail platform. This type of uniquely forged repetition created a relevant structure that is meaningful to the Target shopper in a way that actual Missoni products may not be able to create.
This type of expectation for a “newer” version of something that already carries a type of significance, is what Allen attributes to allowing fashion “to speed up consumption, to lock people (women in the main) into an annual system which can generate consumption through a vocabulary of interchangeable, layered and repeatable functions.” After all, it isn’t as though a completely new fashion item is introduced to the marketplace every season– shirts, pants, dresses, skirts and the like remain as they are— but rather, every seasonal collection produces a varied form of an already existing, already signified object. This assertion is why large companies like Target can partner with new designers every season with the promise of providing consumers with something they (technically) do not already own, therefore driving consumption for the latest in fashion.
Furthermore, it must be noted that the portrayal of fashion in a semiotic sense results in a varied perspective, as demonstrated in Barthes’ chains of combinations and equivalences. In this sense, fashion items can be combined with a myriad of imagery to equate a type of sentiment for the consumer, or rather allow “the various levels or codes of the fashion system, …[to] work by turning signiﬁeds into signiﬁers for new signiﬁeds.”
From the retail branding perspective, when this constant updating of the chain of significance reaches a consumer, it becomes responsible for adding a new factor into the retailer’s existing product brand. In Target’s case, the seasonal partnerships with high-end brands lead consumers to expect higher-quality products from Target, and allow them to equate better quality with the retailer as opposed to its competition.
Target’s Cultural Capital Conundrum According to Bourdieu
Despite the many cases of well-executed branding semiotics Target has put in place throughout its various partnerships, the economic capital of branding begs the question of why consumers value these products in the first place. While it is true that fashion semiotics inherently drive a consumerist mentality; there is nothing that directly forces consumers to want to put more value on one type of brand over another. As a whole, the field of marketing is largely based on turning semiotic meaning into tangible capital, and branding serves as a way to transition these immaterial sentiments into actual profits for a particular company or companies. In the case of retail collaborations like those of Target, combinatorial branding bridges the differences between the two independent companies in order to create a unique form of cultural capital associated with the resulting product.
Pierre Bourdieu provides an extensive context as to how value can be derived from things that are seemingly invaluable and intangible by noting, “priceless things have their price and the extreme difficulty of converting certain practices … into money is only due to the fact that this conversion is refused in the very intention that produces them.” (Bourdieu, 2) In simpler terms, Bourdieu is saying that the embodiment of certain behaviors leads to economic value, so the semiotics of a particular product and the impression it has on the consumer will create a value system that transcends tangibility.
Bourdieu goes on to break down this type of capital into cultural, economic, and social capital; of which social capital seems to be most appropriate to discuss in relation to Target’s retail practices. According to Bourdieu, social capital functions in accordance to people’s desire to belong to a certain group. Once admitted to the group, the group will then grant its members “the backing of collectivity- owned capital, a ‘credential’ which entitles them to credit, in the various senses of the word.” (Bourdieu, 9) Pairing this notion with the previously discussed benefits of ever-evolving fashion signifiers it is possible to apply social capital to types of brands. Some brands, like Missoni, have a well-established prestige surrounding their products, while other brands, like Target, are less highly regarded in the scope of fashion. Despite this, people who are interested in using fashion as a means of social capital will strive to gain membership into a more highly regarded group of – for lack of a better word – fashionistas. That said, they may not necessarily be able to economically afford purchasing products from those brands, and therefore membership would be unattainable.
When applied to Target’s retail branding strategies, it could be said that Target derives success from providing these types of consumers with higher-valued credentials under created and attainable circumstances. While the average woman may not be able to spend hundreds of dollars on one Missoni scarf, she can spend less than a fraction of that on a Missoni for Target scarf. Additionally, by purchasing this scarf as opposed to a non-branded scarf or another non-label article of clothing, the consumer can claim membership into a subcategory of the group in which she (or he) strives to be included, because she would be demonstrating to the outside world that she knows the value of the significance of the established brand.
Furthermore, by outwardly communicating the knowledge of the importance of a particular brand, the consumer is demonstrating how “social capital is never completely independent of [cultural and economic capital] because the exchanges instituting mutual acknowledgement presuppose the reacknowlegement of a minimum of objective homogeneity.” (Bourdieu, 11) Given Target’s dependence on high-end brands having already established themselves according to cultural and economic standards as being better regarded than Target itself, Target is not independently creating the consumer’s desire to belong to a more valuable social group by way of their purchases. Target therefore requires the difference between its products and high-end products to continue to exist in order to be able to foster an appeal to its customers. Without the pre-existing difference between Missoni and Target, or Target and a myriad of other upscale brands, Target would not be able to sell the partnered versions of products by branding them as being better than regular low priced products.
It may seem intuitive to believe that Target is doing itself a disservice by depending on the prestige of others, rather than improving its own prestige. However, this is not the case since the creation of a group of consumers who have aspirations that are more expensive than what they can realistically afford, can actually strengthen the divides between various forms of retail social capital. This divide thereby solidifies both Target’s and the higher-end brands’ consumer bases.
As mentioned by Bourdieu, social capital lends itself to being “endlessly reproduced…through the exchange (of gifts, words…etc.), which presupposes and produces mutual knowledge and recognition.” (Bourdieu, 9) In terms of Target’s partnerships, groups of consumers recognize the value in the brands – the high-end consumers will value authenticity, while low-end consumers will value the association to authenticity, which establishes a greater social relationship between products, thereby adding to the social capital of each brand.
Ultimately, the establishment of this relationship is what translates into sales and brand empowerment on both ends of the retail spectrum. Bourdieu describes social capital as being able to accrue “from a relationship is that much greater to the extent that the person who is the object of it is richly endowed with capital…the possessors of an inherited social capital, symbolized by a great name, are able to transform all circumstantial relationships into lasting connections.” (Bourdieu, 9) When applied to retail entities, this assertion highlights why the relationships between Target and its high-end partners works so well; the highly regarded brands, like Missoni, do not have to sacrifice their established reputations or the physical properties of their products, but are still able to self-promote their names through the popularity of the possessors of “inherited social capital” from the sales of Target versions of their products.
In summation, both Target and its partners benefit from propelling consumer desire for belonging to either an unattainable group, or maintaining membership of an existing group. Target customers will inherit social capital from wearing affordable versions of expensive brands, while customers of those expensive brands will maintain social capital by wearing the products that originated the Target customers’ desire to belong to unattainable social membership.
Defining the Success of Social Capital in Practice
As mentioned throughout this discussion, Target’s partnership with Missoni has been an outstanding success story in terms of demonstrating how marketing can work across established brands to benefit multiple companies at once. Customers lined up outside of stores in the early hours of the morning, products were sold out nationwide, Target’s website crashed and some of the most popular items were later sold on eBay to collectors for more than their original value.
This type of success is widely attributable to consumers’ semiotic understanding of the Missoni brand, as well as its established social capital incorporation. To fully understand the implementation and success of these intangible concepts to the larger brands, it is necessary to directly apply them to physical objects. In the case of the Target Missoni partnership, there is no better example than the Target version of the Missoni scarf, which visibly incorporates the original brand’s style into its pattern and overall properties.
In the 1950s, Milan-based fashion designers Rosita and Ottavio Missoni created a line of ready-to-wear knitwear that soon became well known for its colorful zigzags design. The thinly shaped prints would often incorporate as many as 40 colors into one cohesive garment design, and eventually came to represent the entire Missoni brand. The original Missoni patterns typically used thin chevron lines of threads in various color combinations to create an eye-catching outcome; the Target versions of these scarves tweaked the pattern to be recognizable enough without completely replicating the high-end versions.
As seen above, the original Missoni prints would use thinner patterns to make the otherwise busy print more subtle and wearable. Additionally, while the colors used in this print were often from various color families, the subtleness of the pattern made the colors seem more cohesive. According to Yuri Lotman’s assessment of cultural longevity, this pattern would leave a lasting, culturally semiotic impression the marketplace. As discussed by Lotman, “the texts considered most valuable are those of a maximum longevity from the point of view and according to the standard of the culture in question,” (Lotman, 215) which when translated to fashion, makes MIssoni a valuable partner for Target since its design text has an established longevity.
That said, Lotman also specifies that the hierarchy of value can also “correspond to the hierarchy of materials upon which the text are affixed and to the hierarchy of places and the means of their preservation.” (Lotman, 216) In relation to fashion items, this distinction highlights how despite Target’s inheritance of the Missoni semiotic value, the hierarchy of the products is maintained in places since the materials and design used in creating the high-end version of the scarf would still be noticeably different than the low-end versions created for the Target partnership.
For example, in the Target collection, the chevron patterns are visibly exaggerated in terms of the known qualities of the original Missoni print. The stripes are much more jarring to the eye and combine opposing color combinations that bring attention to the pattern itself, rather than to the product as a whole in order to make the semiotic association to Missoni visible to the consumer. In relation to social capital, the customer who strives to achieve membership into the group of people who can wear Missoni prints regularly, but can’t afford to purchase the original version, this print lends enough noticeable social capital to be seen as pseudo-fashion forward by others who are of the same mentality, while still keeping with in the budget of that group. On the other hand, members of the group who do wear the original Missoni prints, maintain their social capital by wearing items that do not look like the Target version and can implicitly claim to be unattainable, thereby keeping Target’s consumers constantly striving to achieve that which they cannot attain. This association of lasting cultural value, semiotics and translation to social capital are the underlying sources for why these marketing partnerships work.
As a further example, we can refer to a similar partnership between low-cost fashion retailer H&M and the esteemed fashion brand, Versace. Similar to the Target/Missoni line, H&M and Versace aimed to bring high-end fashion to consumers who were striving to possess membership into an elite group, but were financially unable to gain admittance. Like the Target line, H&M utilized exaggerations of existing Versace design concepts, which included an emphasized use of bright colors, studs, and Grecian-inspired imagery, and can be seen in a more refined manner on original Versace designs. In doing so, H&M’s products were reminiscent of the semiotics of the existing Versace brand, but were bringing attention to the inherited properties previously established by Versace, as opposed to the esteemed quality and uniqueness of the products themselves. Again, as with Missoni and Target, the success of the H&M collaboration with Versace depended on established brand longevity to create interest in the low-end consumer base. Since both the Versace name and the brand were well known, the collection had results similar to those of Target, causing consumer pandemonium.
Based on this kind of consumer demand and popularity, it is easy to see how the low-to-high-end marketing partnership trend can gain traction. However, it is still necessary to demonstrate that the transition from highly regarded products to mass-produced replicas of those products can be beneficial to both types of brands. After all, it is very possible to follow the intuition that brands coming from polar opposite ends of the price and quality spectrum would do better if they kept their identities separate from one another.
When applying these marketing trends with Randal Johnson’s discussions on the topic of the structure and functioning of the field of restricted production, the fact remains that the high-end version of the product will maintain esteem over a more widely available version of that product. Johnson asserts that the “autonomy of a field of restricted production can be measured by its power to define its own criteria for the production and evaluation of its products.” Additionally, this kind of autonomy “implies translation of all external determinations in conformity with its own principles of functioning.” (Johnson, 126)
As applied to the partnership between Target and Missoni (and any other similar marketing partnership), this reasserts the existing hierarchy between the brands since the high-end brand is not only sought after by the low-end brand for its implementation of defined brand criteria, but in doing so, also conforms to the high-end brand’s function. In other words, the success of Target’s Missoni line depended on Target agreeing to use Missoni’s existing standards for original Missoni products, as well as Target’s adherence to those visible standards. This is why the chevron pattern was exaggerated as the dominating design factor in Target’s Missoni products, rather than some lesser-known aspect of Missoni’s designs. Additionally, the function of Missoni as a fashion label lends popularity to the Target versions of the Missoni fashion items. This is why the most successful versions of these partnerships include items the higher-end brand is already known to produce.
Straying from the functions established by the scarcer brand results in failed marketing strategies, which Target experienced in its partnership with Neiman Marcus for the 2012 holiday line. In the Neiman Marcus collaboration, designers simply lent their names to the items sold at both Target and Neiman Marcus, thereby confusing the two brands and their products and straying from the functions of items they were known to typically produce. High-end fashion brands like Alice + Olivia were selling bicycles, and couture designers like Oscar de la Renta and Diane von Furstenberg were lending their brand to dog food bowls and yoga mats, rather than gowns and wrap dresses. Clearly, customers who strive to be seen as members of a group who can afford to wear these labels, would want items that function the same way, rather than items that simply say the designers name with no relation to the items that signify their higher cultural importance.
The failure of this partnership clearly demonstrated that although collaborations between scarcer and mass-produced brands can be successful, the scarce, high-end brand ultimately has power over how those items will be received due to its existing social capital.
It is possible to concur that although these trendy marketing strategies can enhance the consumer appeal of both brands involved, as well as each of the brands individual semiotic identity, it is equally important to note the intricacy of this relationship. The products created out of these partnerships must adhere to consumers’ existing knowledge of what each brand is capable of producing, so that the membership pertaining to the consumers of those products is not lost to both onlookers as well as other members of the group. Additionally, this marketing partnership must be weary of establishing a visible, semiotic connection to the originating brand in order to make the partnership valuable to consumers. With these specifications in mind, it is possible to understand how regardless of where fashion originates, it is an ongoing reinvention of planned visuals that consumers use to create a personal identity, even if this identity is created unconsciously.
Works Cited and Consulted:
Allen, Graham. Roland Barthes (Routledge Critical Thinkers Series), on Semiology. New York: Routledge, 2003, 33-53.
Roland Barthes, Mythologies, “Myth Today” (excerpt from Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers, 1984, pp. 107-45).
“The Forms of Capital.” [Original version, 1983; English trans., P. Bourdieu, “The Forms of Capital,” in John G. Richardson, editor, Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986), 242-258.]
Johnson, Randal. The Field of Cultural Production, ed. (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1993), 1-25, 29-40, 75-111, 112-141
Yuri Lotman, “On the Semiotic Mechanism of Culture“. New Literary History, Vol. 9, No. 2, Soviet Semiotics and Criticism: An Anthology (Winter, 1978), pp. 211-232. The Johns Hopkins University Press
Gunnar Lind Haase Svendsen, “On the Wealth of Nations: Bourdieuconomics and Social Capital,” Theory and Society, Vol. 32, No. 5/6, (Dec., 2003), pp. 607-631.
Visuals Referenced in Order of Use:
1. Jason Wu for Target: http://le-society.blogspot.com/2012/02/fashion-alertwe-love-jason-wu-for.html
2. Missoni Scarf via ShopBop.com: http://www.shopbop.com/wave-scarf-missoni/vp/v=1/845524441954063.htm
3. Missoni for Target Scarf: http://beingzhenya.com/tag/missoni-for-target/
4. Missoni for Target Products: http://www.skimbacolifestyle.com/2011/08/missoni-for-target-home-product-pictures.html
5. Missoni scarf print: http://www.bluefly.com/Missoni-merlot-wave-knit-fringed-scarf/p/319013001/detail.fly
6. Missoni for Target sweater: http://www.ladyelizabethgrace.com/2011/09/mission-missoni.html
7. Versace for H&M: http://lolosgossip.blogspot.com/2011/11/versace-for-h-collection-today-around.html
8. Alice + Olivia for Target bicycle: http://www.poshbeauty.com/target-neiman-marcus-holiday-collection-leaks/alice-olivia-for-target-neiman-marcus-holiday-collection-bike-jpg_201426_1_jpg_400x300_crop-smart_upscale-true_q95/
9. The Devil Wears Prada, 2006. clip via YouTube.com