Cotton Struts Its Stuff for 24-hour Runway Show

Trade Group Looks to Build Affinity for Fiber Among Fashionable Women, Convince Athletic Brands It's Not the 'Enemy'

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Ric Hendee

This weekend in Miami, Cotton Inc. is producing what it claims will be the largest fashion show in the world, with 1,440 looks and nearly 50 participating retailers and brands. It will also be the longest -- one look per minute for 24 hours -- and represent one of the most extensive experiential programs the organization has ever produced. MTV .com and Eonline.com will stream the event, hosted by E!'s Giuliana Rancic, live from South Beach.

Though not the first experiential event for the trade group, the show aims to extend Cotton Inc.'s "Fabric of Our Lives" campaign, as well as expand its presence with consumers and retailers in the women's wear category. A couple of years ago, the organization began infusing the long-running campaign with celebrities such as Zooey Deschanel and Kate Bosworth as part of an ongoing effort to get 18- to 35-year-old women to associate cotton with fashion, beyond just jeans and T-shirts. The upcoming fashion show is one more piece of that strategy. It's also a way for Cotton Inc. to promote new technology that can make it a viable competitor in the booming activewear category. Cotton Inc. works with Omnicom's DDB and Interpublic Group of Cos.' Jack Morton, an experiential agency. The organization also does some work with Mr. Youth.

Ad for Cotton's 24-hour runway show.
Ad for Cotton's 24-hour runway show.

But the brand isn't without its challenges, such as an unpredictable commodities market. Cotton prices surged in the first half of the year, reaching record highs in March, though they have now tumbled nearly 55%.

Ric Hendee, senior VP-consumer marketing for Cotton Inc., talked to Ad Age about the trade group's non-traditional approach to attracting consumers and building cotton's share of the market, as well as the impact of volatile textile prices. He also explained how Under Armour became a believer in cotton, a fabric the athletic brand once considered the "enemy."

Ad Age : What inspired the fashion-show concept?

Mr. Hendee: We find ways we can touch the consumer that hopefully help to add some flesh and bones to what we're doing with our advertising. We seek things of interest to a broader audience, and PR can support that . And it's a clear fit with our ["Fabric of Our Lives"] TV campaign, which is very much a part of our ongoing communications effort.

Ad Age : How will you measure the success of the fashion show and your other efforts, since, as a textile trade group, you don't have a traditional sales barometer? Is it through commodity demand?

Mr. Hendee: We'd certainly like to take credit for that . Cotton's share [of the fabric market] was under 35% when the organization first got started over 40 years ago. Now we're at almost 65%. But we can't measure change month-to-month. We use government measures and look at behavioral indexes. For the runway show, over 50% of the retailers we reached out to said yes, and we're looking at metrics via MTV .com and a couple of other websites we're working with on this.

Ad Age : How have volatile commodity prices impacted your efforts to market cotton?

Mr. Hendee: It's less of an issue now that [most textile] commodity prices are up. But that leads to people going to Asia to make things. They're chasing one country after another to get the best prices, and running out of options. It's our job to make them think twice before they [stop using] cotton, and the opportunity to do a runway show is so perfect for that , partially because it's a PR opportunity. When prices for cotton were high, we got lots of phone calls from business editors and journalists. That was very good PR for us. They kept mentioning the "Fabric of Our Lives" campaign, and it showed that consumers would pay more for jeans or blouses, if they knew it would be made of cotton vs. something else.

Kate Bosworth in Nina Ricca for a
Kate Bosworth in Nina Ricca for a "Fabric of Our Lives" ad.

Ad Age : How has your marketing budget shifted recently?

Mr. Hendee: TV has always been the backbone of the Cotton Inc. program. It gives us a chance to show 60 outfits instead of six, and we're able to add celebrity to that as well. We've begun to shift 20% to 25% of that budget into internet placement over the last four to five years. Much of it is pre-roll, but we're also looking at opportunities in social media and other assets. For example, you can go into Kate [Bosworth's] closet, and buy product at TheFabricOfOurLives.com. And Zooey [Deschanel] has a style book, so some of our money from TV goes into those internet activities.

Eight years ago, we did a bit of consumer print, but we let that go as we became more and more aware of the importance of doing a thorough job on the internet. And we're making more attempts to get into social media. As far as our strategic alliance group, [which handles experiential marketing], is concerned, we're spending 10% to 12% of our annual $25 million budget in that area every year.

Ad Age : What's been Cotton Inc.'s greatest achievement this year?

Mr. Hendee: Bringing cotton into moisture management is the biggest [achievement] of the year. Under Armour got popular saying cotton is the enemy, but in the past year we worked with the brand so they've taken cotton's new technology into their line. People like to wear activewear as street wear, so we saw that as a huge threat, but we tackled it through scientists and engineers. Through PR we've done some ads to the trade that basically announce that the age-old biblical fiber is the newest new thing in terms of the cutting edge of activewear [that ] manufacturers are making for functional clothing.

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