Marketing the Preppy


We have never purchased from Lands’ End. Perhaps the company’s WASP vibe has been a turn off, but this doesn’t seem to deter us any from making fun of the J. Crew catalog and then ordering from it. We’ll utter something faintly condemning—”Cords with critters! It’s like there’s no God anymore”—then flip to the back to see how much salary we can plow into one grossly overpriced sweater. Let’s face it, Lands’ End’s costlier counterparts (J. Crew, Abercrombie, L.L. Bean, even) possess far more appealing, modern-looking marketing campaigns.

So when an invite to view the new fall line landed in our mailbox, boasting of a “new direction” that the company was taking “from both a design and marketing standpoint,” we wondered if Lands’ End had decided on a makeover. Alas, not so much. Fall 2006 was just a reemphasis of the brand’s key pieces: With the recent trend toward retro-preppy basics, the company is highlighting their sturdy cashmere crewnecks and cardigans, white tote bag, light quilted overcoats and faux-shearling vests and boots. Classics, but slighted twisted: The cashmere sweaters can be monogrammed; the totes are available in an expanded variety of fabrics (seersucker; a thick waterproof quilted material). Perhaps not the earth-shattering makeover we’d envisioned, but positioned on dressmaker dummies against plain black walls or simply stacked on tables, the clothes looked strangely more modern than they ever had in the catalog. Granted, the Lands’ End jeans collection–light-blue rinses, faux-flattering styles reminiscent of your high school gym teacher on Date Night–will never be the company’s finest selling point. But as for other standard pieces from the fall 2006 line: Who’s going to argue with that Lands’ End staple, the white canvas tote? The heavy cashmere sweaters, sewn from a soft, rub-against-the-cheek knit, are slim-fitting without being clingy. The button-downs, the wool pants, the quilted parka: all were not much of a departure from whatever J. Crew sells for significantly more every season (to say nothing of Ralph Lauren).

What really was the difference here? Are we really seduced by those models perched on sailboats and gussied up in navy “Legacy Blazers” like the ones populating the J. Crew catalog? Or jeans offered in a rinse of “washed out” or “laundered”?

Perhaps so. In retail, the sell counts as much as the product.