Friday, 9 January 2009

Brand Roulette


Anyone with an interest in brands must have a mixed set of emotions right now about the economic effect on some historical brands. I'm torn between a faint nostalgia for what was, a frustration around 'what might have been', a smug 'well that was on the cards...' and a terror that everything's about to implode and go down the plughole...

Viyella is the latest victim. And another example of the brand in my head being very different to the brand on the ground (or indeed down that plughole). Inevitably the brands/companies that are going down have been dipping over years, maybe decades or even centuries. I can't help feeling Viyella's problems may have started with the name. First developed in 1893 and registered in 1894, the wool/cotton mix fabric was the first branded fabric - and named after the unlikely location of the mill where it was made - Via Gellia near Matlock. This sounds a lot like it should be in Italy to me - and admittedly potentially quite glamorous. 

However, from my own acquaintance with the brand, from the 1960s onwards - the name always conjured up more musty old ladies rather than svelt bronzed Italians. I do know exactly how the fabric felt, I know exactly what it was good at, I have a kind of 'muscle memory' of the product. It was a beautiful mix of merino wool and cotton that "combined lightness and fashion with warmth and durability," according to Wikipedia. It hang with elegance. It could be plain or patterned. It was great for children's clothes and military shirts. But - the name was more like Crimplene - pure polyester. And the fabric - the core product of the brand - no longer exists. 

So, whilst I'm a strong believer in the theoretical ability for a brand to be able to move away from its primary product - it only does this successfully when it takes on emotional associations and a sense of meaning to its customers that makes sense of new stuff. Indeed the very act of innovation can improve the brand. But despite everything that Viyella has done over the last 40 years or so, I still associate it most with the actual quality of the fabric. I don't have a new positive internal image of what it stands for. It feels to me as if some jewel, some tiny, shiny, brand essence, some super-compressed atom of ingenuity conjured up by the Sissons brothers of William Hollins & Company in 1893, got mislaid.

Viyella, of course, was also taken over by the march of society. Our urge for ever more instant gratification, our embracing of greed and shopping, our enthusiasm for almost disposable clothing has fed the erosion of good, quality products, the perception of benefit from durability, and our ever decreasing skills in dress-making and repair! A short revival of Viyella as a fabric occurred in the mid-80s with the likes of Laura Ashley developing 'modern classics' - and indeed some delightful girls' dresses, one of which I still have handed on from a friend's daughter. But this didn't really halt the trend. Sadly, with the re-evaluation of value, skills and longevity that will surely follow the cataclysmic crunch we are currently experiencing, Viyella (the fabric) would probably have a surge in popularity.