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3 Lessons from Coco Chanel on how to go from outsider to successful innovator

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Photo by Charlota Blunarova from Unsplash.com

From complete outsider, raised in an orphanage, to extraordinarily successful entrepreneur. With radical innovations, she managed to revolutionise a world, that of high fashion, immersed in a mature socio-economic context, dominated by men and reluctant to change. Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was the first designer to have a global impact and one of the most influential women of the 20th century. But how did she manage, starting from scratch, to make her way in such a conservative and male-dominated world and end up turning it upside down?

Starting from this question, a new study reveals what are the key conditions that can make the difference for an outsider, leading them to success. The study was published in the journal Enterprise & Society (Cambridge University Press) by Mariachiara Colucci and Simone Ferriani, professors at the Department of Management, University of Bologna, together with Gino Cattani of the NYU Stern School of Business.

“There are three crucial factors behind Coco Chanel’s entrepreneurial success: her unique perspective on the fashion world, her ability to find and cultivate a niche of like-minded supporters, and her ability to exploit the ‘turning points’ of the historical period she lived in,” explains Professor Colucci. “This model, in which these three factors fit together perfectly, gives a clear picture of the seemingly inexplicable path by which some outsiders manage to lead radical innovations.”

Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was born in 1883 in a small village in rural France, in conditions of extreme poverty, and grew up in the orphanage of Aubazine Abbey. There, she received a basic education, but also learned to sew. This skill helped her to find her first job in an underwear and hosiery shop in the town of Moulins.

This was the beginning of her career in the fashion world. In 1909 she opened her first business as a hat designer, and by 1916 she was already running a successful business with three clothing shops and hundreds of employees. By 1931, she had 26 ateliers and more than 2,000 employees, with a turnover of 120 million francs (more than 60 million euros today). It was the highest figure in the Parisian fashion world at the time, and it continued to grow. By 1935 turnover had almost doubled.

“Coco Chanel started with a modest cultural baggage and totally lacked a social, economic and symbolic background. When she began her entrepreneurial journey, she was the outsider par excellence, yet she managed to leave an unprecedented mark on the development of the fashion industry,” explains Professor Ferriani. “She is also credited with playing a decisive role in creating the image, and the new social custom, of the modern woman.”

YOUR BACKGROUND MATTERS

According to the researchers, the first crucial element behind Chanel’s entrepreneurial success lies in her education and early experiences outside the fashion world. A position that uniquely shaped her aesthetic vision, allowing her to challenge the pressure imposed by the dominant canons of Parisian haute couture.

The environments in which she grew up and the unconventional stimuli she received gave her the creative freedom she needed to experiment with the radical ideas that would become a cornerstone of elegance throughout the world. For example, the researchers suggest that her sense of rigour, taste for black and white, as well as the idea of “functional” and “natural” clothing, which until then was completely foreign to haute couture, may have been inspired by the Romanesque austerity of Aubazine Abbey, where she grew up. Furthermore, it is thanks to the world of horses and racing frequented at the Chateau de Royallieu, where Chanel lived with her first lover, that the corset disappeared, and men’s trousers and shirts entered women’s wardrobes.

DEVELOP CONNECTIONS

But a radical vision is not enough, she needed to find a way to implement it. Here comes the second element that explains Chanel’s success: her exceptional ability to cultivate strategic connections with sponsors and influential members of Parisian high society.

“Coco Chanel was a seductive personality and an extraordinary networker. Through her social skills, she gained quick access to members of high society and prominent clients whose aesthetic orientations matched her stylistic vision,” explains Colucci. “Our study shows that Chanel’s social network was not only confined to the business world. Instead, it embraced multiple domains, notably the French artistic avant-garde, which readily endorsed the modernist ideals behind her sober aesthetic vision.”

Over the years, Chanel forged relationships and actively worked with artists such as Picasso, Cocteau, Reverdy and Diaghilev. It is also thanks to their support that her innovative style received public exposure in plays, ballets, and films, thus facilitating the fame and success of her creations. She was also an active participant in the Art Deco movement, which led to her most revolutionary design: la petite robe noire, the famous “little black dress” evoked by US Vogue in 1936 as “the Chanel ‘Ford’ dress.”

Photo by Roberto Martinez from Unsplash.com

CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING

Last but not least, there is the context. The third key ingredient in Chanel’s rise was in fact her ability to read and ride the dramatic change in social needs and customs brought about by the First World War. The post-war period was no longer a time for extravagance, and the privations of war had made women more receptive to simplicity and functionality.

“The truth is that Chanel, like all great innovators, was the first to read and anticipate a change in women’s needs, that the Great War only accelerated, paving the way for the birth of the so-called ‘modern woman’,” explains Colucci. “Chanel was ready, her creations perfectly coherent with the new image of women in society. What a few years earlier was seen as a radical expression of the female silhouette, in the roaring 1920s would become the dominant fashion.”

From this in-depth look at Coco Chanel’s extraordinary life, researchers have identified the essential elements that can allow an outsider not only to break into a closed context, but also to revolutionise it and achieve extraordinary success. A radical vision from the margins of society, the ability to cunningly build a network of like-minded supporters, and the arrival of an exogenous shock that accelerates the process of acceptance.

The study was published in the journal Enterprise & Society under the title “From the Margins to the Core of Haute Couture: The Entrepreneurial Journey of Coco Chanel”. The authors are Gino Cattani of the NYU Stern School of Business (USA), Mariachiara Colucci and Simone Ferriani of the Department of Management, University of Bologna.

Strategies

Think before you design your brand’s logo: Marketers can capitalize on power of perception to influence beliefs about brand performance

Brands may want to consider using design elements that encourage structured/unstructured perceptions of logos, products, product packaging, and retail store design if their brand is primarily associated with utilitarian/hedonic benefits.

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Researchers from Oklahoma State University and University of Florida published a new Journal of Marketing article explaining how marketers can capitalize on the power of perception through the structure of visual communications to influence beliefs about brand performance, which ultimately influences product interest and choice.

The study, forthcoming in the Journal of Marketing, is titled “Marketing by Design: The Influence of Perceptual Structure on Brand Performance” and is authored by Felipe M. Affonso and Chris Janiszewski.

Brands are constantly updating their visual identities. Intel recently went through its third visual brand identity refresh in half a century and its new logo has iconic symmetry, balance, and proportion. The underlying geometry is apparent in the design. Could visual design characteristics influence consumers’ perceptions about the brand?

This new study finds that a sense of order and structure can reinforce claims about a brand’s utilitarian benefits. Intel’s visual marketing not only communicates the company’s vision and positioning, but also reinforces them through specific design properties. The researchers identify a variety of design properties that can influence perceptions of structure in visual elements, including symmetry, balance, geometry, regularity, proximity, and similarity.

It is well known that customers are subliminally influenced by visual marketing tools such as logos, packages, and retail displays; they use them as a basis to make judgments about brands delivering on their promise. We find that for brands that promise utilitarian (functional, instrumental, and useful) benefits, consumers are encouraged by visual designs perceived as more orderly and structured. This suggests marketers can capitalize on the power of perception to influence beliefs about brand performance, which ultimately influences product interest and choice.

Utilitarian vs. Hedonic Brands

At the other end of the spectrum are brands, such as Pepsi, which promise benefits related to enjoyment, pleasure, and experiences—collectively referred to as hedonic benefits. In this case, marketers can benefit from using visual design properties that convey lack of structure. The visual elements of Pepsi’s marketing communications are relatively more asymmetric, free-flowing, unbalanced, and irregular. The research suggests that these characteristics reinforce consumers’ beliefs about the performance of hedonic-positioned brands.

As Affonso explains, “We find that visual design characteristics that encourage structured perceptions of visual communications, such as high proximity, high similarity, and symmetry, can reinforce beliefs about utilitarian-positioned brand performance. On the other hand, visual design characteristics that encourage unstructured perceptions of visual communications, such as low proximity, low similarity, and asymmetry, can reinforce beliefs about hedonic-positioned brand performance. These reinforcements occur because structure and lack of structure have specific associations that consumers use to make inferences.”

These suggestions are supported by a series of carefully designed experiments, both in the lab and in the field, and an analysis of industry data. First, in a large-scale field experiment when a perfume was positioned as utilitarian (“Long-lasting. Great for work and everyday occasions”), consumers were more likely to click on the advertisement depicting the perfume with a visual design perceived as more structured than its unstructured counterpart. When the perfume was positioned as hedonic (“Delightful. Great for special and fun occasions”), consumers were more likely to click on the advertisement depicting the perfume with a visual design perceived as more unstructured than its structured counterpart.

Second, when consumers made choices considering functional goals (such as choosing a restaurant that provides a fast and reliable experience), they were more likely to pick a restaurant perceived as structured. However, when the choice involved hedonic goals (such as choosing a restaurant providing an entertaining and exciting experience) they were likely to pick the option perceived as unstructured. Importantly, the research finds that these effects, across a variety of visual marketing communications, induce a structured versus unstructured perception in different ways.

Finally, for brands perceived as more utilitarian, structured perceptions are associated with greater financial brand valuation and customer-based brand equity than unstructured perceptions. The opposite is true for brands perceived as more hedonic.

“Our research offers actionable insights for marketers and visual design specialists working with design, advertising, social media communications, visual merchandising, and the appearance of retail environments. Specifically, the findings suggest that perceptual structure can be used as an efficient marketing communication tool. And it can encourage consumers at the point of purchase, being a relatively costless way to reinforce brand positioning,” says Janiszewski.

Lessons for Chief Sales Officers

  • Brands may want to consider using design elements that encourage structured/unstructured perceptions of logos, products, product packaging, and retail store design if their brand is primarily associated with utilitarian/hedonic benefits.
  • The implications extend to many other visual marketing communications, including print advertisements, website layouts, and app user interfaces. Marketers can take advantage of our findings and anticipate the consequences of key visual design decisions.
  • Brands could benefit in the long term from shifting the structure of their visual marketing communications to align with their brand positioning.

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Strategies

When do you ask for customer reviews? In many cases, sooner may not be better

The lesson for online marketplaces is that it is counterproductive to blindly adopt “faster is better” or “one-size-fits-all” approaches. Instead, companies should reevaluate their current practices and adjust the timing of review reminders to specific consumer target groups in order to elicit more consumer feedback.

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Researchers from University of Nevada Las Vegas, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Arizona State University, and KAIST College of Business published a new Journal of Marketing article that examines when is the right time for businesses to send review reminders to customers. The study is titled “Ask for Reviews at the Right Time: Evidence from Two Field Experiments” and is authored by Miyeon Jung, Sunghan Ryu, Sang Pil Han, and Daegon Cho.

Popular websites such as TripAdvisor, Hotels.com, and Booking.com send notifications to customers immediately following checkout, requesting reviews about their recent experience and other feedback. Many firms send automated emails or mobile push notices after a purchase to learn about customers’ recent experiences with the product. This raises the important question: When should companies send out review requests?

The research team examines how the timing of review reminders affects the likelihood and quality of product review postings. Issuing review reminders immediately or shortly after purchase of a product or vacation experience may threaten a consumer’s freedom and prompt an adverse reaction. Therefore, some companies send review requests at a later point to revive customers’ memory of their experience.

“Consumers’ reactions and memories are influenced by the temporal distance between a product experience and reminder. The likelihood of writing a review decreases as time passes because consumers’ recall becomes blurry. This is more of a reason for companies to find the fine balance between asking for reviews too soon and waiting too long, both of which affect the quality of reviews,” says Jung.

Sooner Is Not Necessarily Better

The researchers performed two randomized field experiments with over 300,000 consumers from online marketplaces offering different types of products. The first experiment involved consumers from South Korea’s largest online travel marketplace where consumers can book flights, hotels, and guided tours using the company’s website or mobile app. Four distinct timing classifications for review reminders were used: next day, five-day, nine-day, and 13-day intervals after the product experience. Consumers were randomly assigned to the treatment group (which received a review reminder) or control group (which did not receive a reminder) for each timing classification.

The second field experiment studied consumers in a major South Korean online apparel marketplace. Four distinct timing classifications were again used, but with different time intervals than the first experiment. Across both experiments, the team investigated the temporal effects of review reminders on the quality of the reviews.

Ryu states that “Our findings demonstrate that requesting a review as soon as possible is not the best strategy. We find that reminders cause problems when they are sent faster than the number of days it takes, on average, for customers to write a review.” For example, if a customer orders clothing online, it is too early to send a review reminder the day the product is delivered because people need sufficient time to try the item on and evaluate its quality.

Lessons for Chief Sales Officers

  1. Even though the standard for when it is too early may vary by product type and customer heterogeneity, it may be acceptable to send an early reminder in the case of search goods (e.g., paper towels, bottled water, and canned soups) because consumers have a clear understanding of the products and a high degree of certainty that it will be useful after an initial trial. In contrast, for experience goods (e.g., restaurants, beauty salons, travel), it may be prudent to provide consumers enough time to evaluate the product before sending a review reminder.
  2. “Our results indicate that overly quick reminders are particularly detrimental for businesses with young consumers,” says Han. For example, Generation Z has always used digital platforms and is independent and pragmatic. In this sense, prompt reminders may be prone to violating their autonomy and freedom. In other words, the negative impact of an immediate review reminder may be disproportionately greater for younger individuals.
  3. Cho explains that “As for the impact of review reminders on review content, we find delayed review reminders can alleviate the poor quality of delayed reviews. However, except for review specificity, the timing of review reminders has a negligible effect on review content such as ratings, sentiment, or length.” In other words, the content of reviews does not change between those who wrote them after the reminder and those who wrote them without the reminder.

The lesson for online marketplaces is that it is counterproductive to blindly adopt “faster is better” or “one-size-fits-all” approaches. Instead, companies should reevaluate their current practices and adjust the timing of review reminders to specific consumer target groups in order to elicit more consumer feedback.

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Strategies

Shoppers more likely to buy on ‘special’ day-themed promotions

Consumers are more likely to respond favorably to a discount celebrating a special day compared to the same discount with no link to a special day. The key is that consumers must find the promotion to be both original and appropriate, Zane said. For example, a spa pedicure discount on National Barefoot Day, versus a discount on clothing in celebration of a national food day.

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Call it “having their ‘Pi’ and buying too.” A new study finds that consumers are more likely to make purchases during promotions tied to a special day, like Pi Day (March 14), than during regular holiday or non-distinctive day promotions.

Researchers describe their findings in a paper, “Promoting Pi Day: Consumer Response to Special Day-Themed Sales Promotions,” published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

“We found that special day-themed sales promotions lead consumers to be more likely to use the discounts to make a purchase compared to the more standard promotions,” said Daniel Zane, assistant professor of marketing at Lehigh University, who authored the paper with Rebecca Walker Reczek of The Ohio State University and Kelly Haws of Vanderbilt University. “We also discovered that the positive consumer response to special day-themed promotions is essentially driven by consumers’ rewarding marketers for their creativity in providing a way to celebrate the special day.”

While many consumers associate discounts with traditional holidays and sales events such as Black Friday, Labor Day and Back to School, firms often now link discounts to “special days,” novel holidays not historically associated with promotions. 

Think pizza and pie promotions or 31.4% discounts for Pi Day, the annual celebration of the mathematical constant Pi (3.14…). Or sales on apparel, games or toys for Mario Day (MAR10) and Star Wars Day, May 4 (May the Fourth Be With You). Companies may tie promotions to National Ice Cream Day, National Dog Day, their founder’s birthday or the anniversary of a customer’s first purchase. Lands’ End created its own special day when it launched National Swimsuit Day.

First research to explore special-day promotions

The proliferation of special day-themed promotions in the marketplace – including in social media and e-commerce – inspired the researchers to explore whether the companies using them were seeing a benefit, such as increased sales, new customers and more brand loyalty. They are the first to systematically study the effects of special day-themed sales promotions, and the study is the first to explore how consumers’ perceptions of marketers’ creativity in linking promotions to special days can influence purchasing behavior.

Using field and laboratory studies, the researchers randomly showed participants one of two versions of a promotion, either a special day-themed promotion or a more traditional promotion, and assessed their intentions to use the discount to make a purchase. In one experiment, they found that consumers report being significantly more likely to make a purchase from a company when offered the National Picnic Day Sale, compared to the same discount framed as an Annual One Day Sale.

In another study, they partnered with a firm and found that consumers who received a 25% discount by email in celebration of the day that a company adopted its mascot dog were nearly twice as likely to click a link in the email to shop on the company’s website compared to those who received an equivalent discount with no mention of the dog’s special day. The effect held for national special days as well as special days more personal to an individual consumer, like the anniversary of their first purchase with the company. 

Their findings show that consumers are more likely to respond favorably to a discount celebrating a special day compared to the same discount with no link to a special day. The key is that consumers must find the promotion to be both original and appropriate, Zane said. For example, a spa pedicure discount on National Barefoot Day, versus a discount on clothing in celebration of a national food day.

Creative, appropriate promotions drive engagement

When consumers see a high fit between a firm and a special day-themed promotion, the perceived creativity drives increased intentions to use the promotion, the researchers said. However, when consumers see a low fit – even with the positive influence of creativity – the perceived inappropriateness “ultimately hurts purchase intentions enough to cancel out any positive effect of originality,” they said.

It’s known that more traditional sales promotions can generate negative thoughts about a firm because consumers assume marketers are just trying to persuade them to spend money, or they suspect the company is trying to unload old inventory, Zane said.

“Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this research was what we found to be the psychological driver of consumers’ positive response to special day-themed promotions,” he said. “They actually think about how the marketer who created the special day-themed promotion was creative in providing a way to celebrate the special day. In essence, consumers then reward marketers for their creativity by being more likely to use a special day discount to make a purchase from that company.”

Knowing the impact that special day-themed sales promotions have on shopping behavior can benefit both marketers and consumers, Zane said. For marketers and businesses, there is promise for increased sales, new customers and more engagement tied to such promotions. “The findings suggest that linking a discount to a company-generated special day can positively impact real customer behavior,” the researchers said. “It is possible that consumers who receive special day-themed discounts may feel they are unique or in an exclusive subset of consumers receiving the promotion.”

With technology and availability of customer data, there are growing opportunities to create special days and promotions specific to a customer’s interaction with a company, which may show additional potential, Zane said.

“For consumers, this work can perhaps help them reflect on the many hidden forces that shape our marketplace behaviors,” he said. “Being aware of this might help curb unnecessary or impulsive purchases.”

That’s knowledge as sweet as Pi.

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