'Covetable' items key: Differentiation works for Banana Republic

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Banana Republic continues to differentiate itself from its Gap Inc. brethren and ride the public's newfound interest in dressing up with a campaign in March magazines.

Print ads in lifestyle and fashion magazines simulate a laid-back brunch party, with several models clad in dressy pieces, notably a white-and-yellow houndstooth-check coat that has already gotten exposure on the editorial pages of several fashion publications.

"We're trying to showcase now what we call the `covetable' items," said Jack Calhoun, exec VP-marketing. "This is all about the wardrobe, the collection," he said, adding the campaign aims to be "aspirational, but not so aspirational that it's not real."

Banana Republic has revamped in the last two years, featuring business casual and dressy weekend wear for 30-something professionals. Since CEO Paul Pressler joined in September 2002, Gap Inc. has differentiated its three main brands-Gap, Banana Republic and Old Navy. Gap has steered toward classic pieces such as corduroys and jeans, while Old Navy has aimed at casual, lower-priced items for the whole family. Mr. Pressler has focused on upgrading the marketing functions at all of Gap's brands, including the hires of new head marketers at all three units.

"We've been working to elevate the brand for a year and a half," featuring dressier items for women and suits for men, Mr. Calhoun said. This season's covetable items will be featured in print and outdoor ads, as well as on direct-mail pieces, in-store displays and on bananarepublic.com. Spending has increased, as well: Banana Republic spent $26.5 million in media in January through October of 2003, compared to $16 million for the same period in 2002, according to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR.

It seems to be working; Banana Republic's December same-store sales-over the key holiday period-were up 10%, vs. an increase of 4% in the year-ago period. January sales were down 1%, but analysts were not concerned, noting January is typically a month to clear out leftover holiday merchandise and make room for spring items.

In a report to investors, Credit Suisse First Boston analyst Richard Baum noted that in recent store visits, "Banana Republic's women's assortment is as strong as it has ever been."

backlash benefit

"It's a coming together of the right business," said Richard Hastings, VP-retail sector analyst at Bernard Sands, a New York-based credit consultant specializing in the apparel and retail industries. Banana Republic has benefited from a backlash against casual-Friday apparel that went out of hand.

"They went from sloppy casual Friday to more sophisticated casual Friday," he said. The demographic is also right, he added. Those young professionals have both time to shop and money to spend, which means more sales, less discounting and higher profit margins.

The spring campaign is the last effort created solely by Banana Republic's in-house advertising department. The retailer hired Omnicom Group's Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco, last month to bring in new ideas for the brand.

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