Dear Singaporean Designers: Good Design Doesn’t Guarantee Success

Local designers know how to design for their respective customers, yet the Singapore fashion industry falls behind others in the region. What’s holding us back?

Dear Singaporean Designers: Good Design Doesn’t Guarantee Success

It’s always the same scenario. A Singaporean fashion designer sits across the table and waxes on about his or her designs, inspiration, and goals. Then, they ask for tips on how to improve their products and grow their business.

The truth is quite simple. Creating a successful fashion brand is not always about design; it’s also about branding. It’s a straightforward principle, but one that consistently fails to register with hopeful local designers looking to stake their claim in an already-crowded fashion market.

It’s not just about the clothes—it’s also about your marketing.

Perhaps it is an innate sense of pragmatism that hinders fashion entrepreneurs from understanding the full effects of good marketing. To them, marketing equals extra costs without guaranteed results.

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Orchard Central and Orchard Gateway were once enclaves where you could find several local fashion brands. Photo by Claudia Horne on Unsplash.

It is true that marketing is not the panacea to solving all the problems our local industry is facing, but it is nonetheless important to establish a firm and long-term foundation in branding—a fact that most local designers do not seem to comprehend. This, unfortunately, leads to them being stuck with a stagnating pool of customers—an echo chamber that won’t increase growth.

Ho Semun, CEO of Textile and Fashion Federation (TaFF) Singapore, agrees. “Anyone who is in business needs to have a holistic approach to marketing. Doing well is not just about the product. It is also about how you position your brand both online and offline.”

Others may think that it is sufficient to market through social media, which is a great tool in helping popularise a brand among consumers. But here’s the catch: You have one second to get your audience’s attention, before your message is scrolled away into oblivion.

Social media is democratic; it gives everyone a voice. However, when everyone is talking, you have to speak up and speak wisely. Digital engagement is fleeting, and it is not enough to just upload photos. For it to work, you need to build a solid online community.

“Put simply, if you know the people that you appeal to and you’re able to engage them with relatable content, they will respond in sales”, says Tjin Lee, founder of Mercury Marketing & Communications. “You don’t need big marketing dollars to create a successful online community.”

One way local handbag brand Ling Wu creates a lasting mental image is through beautifully-photographed product campaigns. Photo credit Natsuko Teruya.

In a 2019 report that Nielsen Holdings ran about spending habits on premium items, 67 per cent of Singaporeans polled said that they had the purchasing power to shop as they pleased.

The report also suggested that these premium purchases came “with a range of desired features: quality, value, and a good feeling about yourself”. That’s the hurdle that some homegrown brands face: Creating a positive feeling for the customer.

Think about it—when you buy a dress from an upscale brand, part of the thrill is in knowing that you belong to something. There is an automatic sense of inclusion with everything the brand represents. You fit into a circle of discerning shoppers, and into the label’s culture. Ultimately, you’re being marketed feel-good factor and picking up the tab for it.

For local designers, chasing this euphoria needs to become a priority. What is needed is the cultivation of brand desirability within the Singaporean shopper’s psyche that will make them truly want to wear homegrown brands. This goes beyond a well-designed garment, because well-designed garments are everywhere.

In the same Nielsen report, it was stated that approximately 47 per cent of shoppers buying premium products are informed by advertising. Of this group, 35 per cent get their purchasing information from digital ads specifically—a fact that global fashion brands are noticing, according to Tjin.

“One fashion brand told us that outside of the US, Singapore is their top spending market—and they market to Singaporeans purely through digital channels”, Tjin reveals. “International brands spend on online marketing in Singapore because it works. So if this is a focus for global brands looking to enter our market, then it should be a priority for our own local fashion talents.”

Adding to this is the well-known fact that retail has evolved. Having a storefront with a couple of mannequins just doesn’t cut it anymore. Yet, while most brands are prioritising e-commerce, this opens up an opportunity for brands with physical spaces to create a targeted shopping experience for their customers.

Perhaps our designers should take a leaf out of our South Korean neighbours’ branding plans. Take Seoul-based eyewear label Gentle Monster for example, which seems to have mastered the art of experiential retail. Throughout their boutique, outlandish art sculptures sit alongside racks of sunglasses, even occasionally obstructing the products on display. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Their adventurous retail-marketing gamble that combines wild art with merchandise attracts shoppers who want to be part of the Gentle Monster tribe.

Gentle Monster’s Ion Orchard flagship turns the retail store into an art experience.

Closer to home, local fashion label Love, Bonito recently unveiled its third and largest store at Funan. It is designed to be as Instagram-friendly as possible—a sure-fire way of eliciting shopper-generated content that will ripple outwards. Love Bonito knows that if their shopper is having a good time, it increases spending. Customers get to stroll through augmented reality flower fields and shop seamlessly between online and offline realms. Instead of joining a long queue, they can take a number and continue browsing. It’s these little changes to the shopping experience that will ultimately reward the brand hugely.

On a more intimate level, local luxury handbag label Lingwu, founded by Goh Ling Ling, is yet another testimony to the merits of rethinking retail. Goh’s salon in Chip Bee Gardens invites you into a warmly lit living room peppered with jewellery, bags, and artwork. It looks like you’re in someone’s home, and it’s intentional. Ling wanted a space where her customer could browse at their own leisurely pace, and it also allows her to interact with them so that they feel empowered to spend. This has helped improve retail sales.

“The way that people shop is changing,” Ling explains. “People are buying less, but they are buying better. We needed to tailor a retail model that would benefit my customer, and having this salon made it more personal. Now, my customer is at ease, and they get to have a relationship with the product and the designer.”

Ling Wu’s cosy salon serves as a meeting place between designer and customer. Photo credit Natsuko Teruya.

So, what can we do next to help? On a bigger scale, more resources need to be made available to our talents, and we need to consider more initiatives and platforms that provide assistance in the areas of building brand identity. It is by no means the silver bullet, but it’s a vehicle to the next step.

“Marketing is a language”, Ling says. “Fashion entrepreneurs need to know that good design is one part, but it’s not enough. People have to buy it, and they get there by understanding your brand’s language.”

We need to emphasise the importance of investing in a strong marketing strategy. Designers need to begin crafting their brand lexicon as early as possible, and refine it constantly. The sooner they start this exercise, the bigger the long-term rewards will be.

Ultimately, for Singapore’s fashion market to see sustainable growth, they need to be telling the right brand stories to the right audiences.

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