When it comes to making it in fashion, branding is a hugely important piece of the puzzle.
Rony Zeidan, the founder of boutique luxury branding agency RO New York, has years of experience branding and rebranding major fashion, beauty and lifestyle companies, so we chatted with him recently to pick his brain about what it takes to successfully create a brand, the future of the branding industry and much more. Keep reading to see our interview and get some insight into working in the branding industry from an experienced professional.
1. How did you get started working in the fashion industry?
"My first intro to fashion was with my first internship. That was at Donna Karan here in New York. That sort of gave me an overarching idea of what fashion was all about. When you're not in it, you think it's all glam and glitter and amazing, but when you're in it, it's a real business with real deliverables."
2. What made you decide you wanted to work in branding?
"The reason why I got into branding was because of my background overall having started at Donna Karan and then working at eLuxury.com in San Francisco. It kind of gave me a taste of what the dotcom world could be. After that, I worked at Ralph Lauren at Polo.com as art director and then moved into an agency. Ultimately, I went to L'Oréal where I was the vice president global creative of fragrances. The mix of experiences at that point was actually quite a blessing in disguise because I got to tap into many different elements of design, of advertising, of packaging, of e-commerce and digital and all of that. Bit by bit, I started realizing that I actually had a strong handle on the 360 point of view, which goes back to this idea of branding. Branding 15 years ago was all about the logo identity, and nowadays it's really the essence and the core for every marketing activity that needs to happen. Brands have a lot of control on their appearance. I think a lot of brands have had to reflect back on what their brand stands for and how it can be communicated in all the different mediums while keeping a solid point of view across the different platforms. That's where RO New York sort of came about."
3. What inspired you to open your own agency?
"After over three years of being in-house at L'Oréal and working on the fragrance launches and cosmetic lines design at Ralph Lauren, I realized that ... I couldn't really see any next big step afterward. I started really thinking about what the next step would be. I couldn't imagine another company I wanted to work for, and that by itself led me to start thinking about the idea of opening up my own studio. The timing was actually perfect because at the time, unfortunately, L'Oréal was looking to downsize a lot of the creative departments internally, and there was a discussion about outsourcing a lot of the work, so I seized the opportunity, we printed out a deal, and I managed to open my studio with the Ralph Lauren fragrances as my first account."
4. What makes for a successful rebranding of a luxury company?
"A rebrand comes in many different components. When you first start a rebrand, we look at the voice of the brand. I always start with the point of view. What does the brand have to say? How do we write the story, how do we craft it? Words are extremely important to me as a creator, as a brand builder. From there, I start looking all the different touchpoints that a brand has. How is the logo? How is the presence online? How's the presence on social media? What's being said about the brand? What are the positives and negatives? Then ultimately, a rebrand happens at a stage where there's a business need. For me, branding is really tied into business. I'm extremely intrigued with understanding where the business wants to go, what their vision is for the following 10 years, and the rebrand starts leading the way for that. A successful rebrand is when the business side meets the creative side in a very solid way. The outcome is really quite powerful and beautiful."
5. What approach do you take to fatigued brands that need refreshing? What's that rebranding process like?
"I'll give you an example. It's a smaller luxury brand that's been around now for almost 28 years. The brand has an amazing heritage and beautiful history, a beautiful craftsmanship and product, but it sort of disappeared a little bit from the public eye for many different reasons. What we ended up doing is first of all defining the essence of the brand in a few words. It helps give clarity and focus when you're redesigning all the different touchpoints. We reassess the logomark, making it look more modern to target a younger customer. We change the coloration of the brand, and we provide it advice on the evolution of the images for the visualization on the website. Then we craft the story. It takes a heavy component of interviewing the creator, the different touchpoints the creator deals with."
"We recently did a rebrand for the luxury Canadian men's tailor called Samuelsohn. They had a really broad distribution in Canada, so the most important part was to talk to all the retailers. Ultimately, you don't want to alienate the retailers with the rebrand, you want to bring them closer to you and provide them with new tools that will help them increase sales and grow the brand and reach a broader awareness. The interview part with the retailers and the key executives at the company was extremely important. We identified the strong points, the weak points and that gave us the right approach on writing the story. The brand ended up looking brand new, no pun intended."
6. How has the rebranding process changed since you first entered the space? What effect has the popularity of social media had on the process and the way things work?
"The mediums you had to worry about in the past when you were doing a rebrand, or rather that you had to consider, were print campaigns and some TV ads and look books and catalogs. Those were really key. Nowadays, what you have to keep in mind is the digital presence. How does the website look? Is it responsive? How is the content? All of that goes back to the tone of voice and the positioning. The touchpoint for the consumer these days is online. In the past, it was very much what does the look book look like? A lot agencies back then would say, 'We're a 360 agency,' but it was actually much more of a 180 approach. Nowadays, it's 360. And video is a huge component much more than it was in the past, again, because of the digital component. It creates an amazing emotional connection."
7. Given the recent news about Frida Giannini and Patrizio Di Marco, it seems that Gucci would benefit from some rebranding — what suggestions do you have for the label/what direction do you think it needs to head in?
"With Gucci, I think a major challenge that's happened with the brand is the design part. Relying on the archives and recycling archives all the time I think started getting a little old. I think there was also a pricing challenge where the brand went a little more affordable to reach the masses and that backfired. Gucci needs to go back up to luxury, and going back up to luxury is a very challenging process. Brand awareness is not as strong as it used to be in the past. It needs to go back to the heritage and really think this through - what does Gucci stand for? Then [consider] how does that translate. With Frida, the brand took much more of a 70s vibe, so it had a retro feel to it much more than a modern feel. It kind of lost its identity. It went from being this sexy Italian minimalist brand to much more of a Cavalli-esque type of approach. Design is a big factor. It's the same thing with what happened with Dior. Bringing in Raf Simons changed the brand completely on the women's side. On the men's side with Hedi Slimane, it got a cool L.A. vibe to it. It's not longer the old Parisian couture house. That's a rebrand, and that's a rebrand that starts with the product and with the fashion angle point of view. That's the first step that I think Gucci needs to do. Then simultaneously along with it, they need to look at the marketing. I think Gucci needs a whole new advertising campaign. Their presence online is very good I would say. They are quoted as one of the top three brands for digital, so I commend them for that, but I think the visual components and the branding elements need a fresh way of looking at them."
8. Can you name some big brands that have undergone really successful rebrands and shed some light on what you think made them so successful?
"In the industry, everyone praises Burberry for what they did, and they have done a great job going from a trench coat designer brand and making it a big lifestyle brand that's in the forefront of digital. I think Dior is changing, and it has started in the past two years to have a new look. It was very surprising to go from the very feminine, delicate couture aspect of the brand to a much more modern, art-inspired type of approach. Ralph Lauren also upping back into luxury and now being perceived as the Hermés of America, that's pretty fantastic what they've done. Another brand is Kenzo. Kenzo ended up going silent for a while. It's not as huge as the other brands, but they've done quite well."
9. Who do you think might make a good replacement for Giannini at Gucci?
"Phoebe Philo, Tomas Meier, Stuart Vevers."
10. Are you working on anything exciting right now that you can share with us?
"The part that I can share is the challenging part. A lot of the work that we do is extremely confidential. What we've recently worked on that we launched that was extremely exciting was the campaign for Holt Renfrew in Canada when they opened the first men's store in Toronto. We were in partnership with a marketing strategy company in Canada and creating the print campaign, the new positioning being based on the tradition of men's dressing or men's lifestyle."
11. If you could take on any brand as a client today, who would it be and why?
"Gucci is spot on because I think it's having an identity crisis. Other brands that I'm a big fan of and I admire tremendously are brands like Bottega Veneta. They have a beautiful understated feel that's extremely luxurious. I think they're not loud and in your face. Other brands that would be of interest - I think Balenciaga has a really beautiful quality in fashion and a point of view to put out there in a really smart way, but I don't believe they've tapped that yet. They're a little bit shy or understated in their communication. I believe Hermés needs a bit of a shakeup from a brand communication perspective. The website has a lot of interesting content, but I don't think it's showcased in the right manner. That needs an evolution."
12. Do you have any predictions as far as trends within the luxury branding space in the future?
"My answer regarding trends is that I do not forecast the future, but I do develop a lot of initiatives. In the next five years, overall I think the next trend is really about customer retention, loyalty and entertainment in the right way. That could be from a digital perspective - I'm a big proponent of video. I think it captures a beautiful feel and mood and emotion that's much stronger than a fixed image. And mobile too. Mobile is extremely important from a digital perspective. Social media has become a marketing mix. Is it the only thing you need to focus on? Absolutely not. And I never believe it was. I think from a marketing perspective, brands should focus on events so they have a face-to-face interaction with their customers, collaborations with other brands that cross-pollinate different customers and bring in a new audience, and of course the traditional print campaigns where it make sense."
13. Is there anything else you'd like to add?
"Luxury and fashion I think are two worlds that are separate yet interwoven, and a lot of times I get to work with brands that are more on the contemporary level or what you call accessible luxury, and that's a term that I have a big issue with because if it's accessible then it's not luxury. There is sort of a branding cloud sometimes when it comes to branding companies — they want to be in that sphere. I say for them either be a truly luxury brand and then communicate in the true luxury way or then be a strong modern contemporary brand and accept the fact that you're not a luxury brand. Those are two different types of consumers."