Lily's Secret

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A new push-up bra gives VF Corporation some much-needed support.

The Memo The words "aging" and "lingerie" don't often appear together in the same sentence. But for Lily of France, the venerable 70-year-old lingerie brand, the combination was appropriate. With its line of hyper-feminine, frilly bras and panties, not to mention an array of foundation garments (read: girdles), Lily of France exuded the aroma of yesteryear. Not exactly what a modern woman wants in her underwear drawer.

No surprise, then, that sales were sagging by the time VF Corporation bought the brand in 1998. Lily of France was the number 12 lingerie brand in the country and sinking fast, according to Chris Fuentes, vice president of intimate marketing for Greensboro, North Carolina-based VF. Fuentes knew that if the label didn't change dramatically, it wouldn't be able to attract a younger crowd - a group that had largely abandoned the department store in favor of specialty outlets like Victoria's Secret. "All the [lingerie] brands in the department stores were targeted to Baby Boomers," he says. "They weren't flashy, fun, brands. Companies like Tommy Hilfiger had brought the party, with great contemporary products, elsewhere on the department store floor. But no one had done that in intimate apparel." Could Lily of France be the one to make that happen?

The Discovery The team started from scratch: no fresh products on hand, no new products in development, and certainly no edgy brand equity to build on. Step one was a baseline segmentation study, executed by the Cambridge Group. The goal: To develop a target market for Lily, while ensuring that the strategy wouldn't cannibalize sales from its 15-plus sister brands. (VF is the largest apparel manufacturer in the world, and owns lingerie brands like Vanity Fair.)

The segmentation study revealed that although women have the same body parts essentially, they express very different personalities through the contents of their underwear drawers. For instance, there's the "low involvement" segment: women who buy just enough lingerie to get them through the week. "It's functional for them," explains Fuentes. "They'll have all white or all black underwear and they don't care. They put them on because they work." These were not the consumers that the company wanted to target.

Lily executives wanted to catch the eye of the "Intimate Apparel Enthusiast" (IAE). These women, aged 18 to 34, wear matching bras and panties, and love to shop for underwear - especially on impulse, which happens quite frequently. Although IAEs are only 18 percent of the market, they account for more than 25 percent of all lingerie purchases. While most women have a "special occasion" section in their lingerie drawer - where the strapless bras and the bustiers reside until called to duty - the IAE's entire underwear collection looks like most women's special occasion selection.

Next for the Lily marketing team was a battery of discovery groups to flesh out their segmentation, and to develop and test products. In the first series of groups, they learned that the world (or at least their target market of IAEs) was waiting for a new push-up bra. But there had to be a twist - or a pull. The bra that Lily developed - eventually named the X-Bra - has a cord between the cups that a woman can pull to adjust her cleavage. The bra cups can be positioned as much as an inch apart, or much closer together. Pull it tight and it's decolletage time.

Through focus groups and one-to-one interviews in cities such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Dallas, the Lily team learned that the X-Bra engendered feelings of empowerment among this cohort of young women, according to Anya Armstrong, marketing manager at VF. "More than any generation, this consumer can do whatever she wants, whenever she wants," she says. As Lily executives tested their advertising material, they learned that its edgy look, with bright colors and sharp photography by Moshe Brakha, appealed to their youthful target market. It created an image that was very different from the rest of the ivory and tan lingerie on the racks at the department store, Armstrong says.

The interviews also helped Lily brand managers understand how important this feeling of empowerment was to the IAE. For instance, a headline on one of their ad concepts read: "Pull, in case of emergency." It appealed to men, but not to women, says Fuentes. "Adjust to Stun," put the woman in control of her own cleavage, and was the right message to appeal to the target group.

The Tactics To launch the X-Bra, Lily execs employed diverse strategies. The team placed ads in a few obvious places, including magazines such as Mademoiselle and Cosmopolitan, because "this woman has a huge propensity for entertainment, she loves music and loves rock 'n' roll," says Fuentes. The ads were supported by a direct mail campaign and a guerrilla marketing effort. Among the guerrilla tactics: The company rented poster trucks to drive around New York City and also left post cards in bars and clubs. The public relations strategy which complemented the marketing effort included a launch party that was designed specifically to appeal to women. According to Fuentes, most lingerie launch parties attract men because they feature lots of pretty women in underwear. But since men weren't the target market for the X-Bra, that struck him as a bit silly. He set out to capture the female audience by using David Fumero, who plays Cristian Vega on ABC's One Life To Live, to appear on stage with the models.

Fortuitously, the movie Erin Brockovich opened around the same time that the product was launched. With actress Julia Roberts portraying the busty activist, "cleavage just happened to be big," says Armstrong.

The Payoff Whether it was Julia Roberts or David Fumero, Lily of France's sales soared after the X-Bra was introduced. By the end of 2000, sales were up by "double digits" over 1999 figures, says Fuentes. "In an industry that's just doing OK, those are stellar results," he boasts. X-Bra sales have even helped boost the brand's position by three notches, to ninth place.

To keep the momentum, and the interest of the IAE consumer, Lily has planned to debut other products. Recently, the company began shipping "Strappies," which are interchangeable bra straps for women who like to coordinate their exposed bra straps with their outfits. And scheduled for launch next month is RockOnColor bras, designed to work with plunging neck lines. The bra will come in "electronic turquoise, coral jazz, laser green, hip-hop pink, and diva pearl." For this product, the company plans a gift certificate promotion with When consumers buy two RockOnColor bras at retail, they'll receive a $10 gift certificate toward online music purchases.

As Lily continues its redefinition, Fuentes believes that the experience will change the way department stores sell women's underwear. "It's a departure from where the department store channel was," he says. "It was a big idea, and consumers responded to it. We're knocking all the wood we can find - we feel pretty lucky."

Of course, not so lucky is the consumer in search of a replacement for her old Lily of France girdle. Says Fuentes: "We're pretty certain that she won't identify herself with our brand anymore."

What the Critics Say "In this era, one would think that playing up women's bodies so boldly would not be the thing to do," observes Liz Tahir, president of Liz Tahir & Associates, a retail marketing consultancy in New Orleans. "But I think that it is. Women have spoken, and they've said that they're always interested in looking their best. There's no question that Victoria's Secret was the first to tap in to this a decade ago, and people have watched as they have gained a great market share. It's very commendable for Lily of France to plunge back into the field," she says.

Tahir offers two suggestions for the bra company. First, maintain control over presentation in the department store, including fixtures and visuals, so that women don't get lost in a sea of racks on their way to the X-Bra. Next, keep in mind that older women will be increasingly interested in products like the X-Bra, as Boomers fill out the demographic. "Lily may like to say that they're targeting only up to age 35, but there's no question that 40- and 50-year-olds want to continually have attractive shapes," she says. In that case, "aging" and "lingerie" may be a more profitable combination in the future.

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