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       Zara is a mid-price point lifestyle brand that manages to maintain a consumer base that successfully spans age, socioeconomic and geographic boundaries. Through the employment of high-status cultural intermediaries and a ubiquitous brand culture, Zara sustains the image of a brand that possesses high cultural capital and is competitive with today’s luxury brands. If we are to perceive as true Douglass Isherwood’s notion that the essential function of consumption is its capacity to make sense, Zara’s success is a no-brainer; luxury-esque fashion at an exponentially lower price point is exactly what today’s fast-fashion consumer is looking to purchase into. Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of cultural capital lies at the basis for understanding Zara’s ability to maintain the sensation of a luxury brand as it fruitfully provides embodied high cultural capital to its customers, which is rare in a mass-market consumer environment.

The Consumer

       The ideal Zara customer is a fashion-conscious, cosmopolitan, sophisticated woman. The price point is a bit higher than budget but lower than luxury so the company attempts to gain consumers from both ends of the spectrum; the budget consumer sees the items as a splurge while the luxury consumer sees them as a steal. The mix between trendy and classic pieces, which include “instant fashions” copied from the runway shows as well as a line of basic pieces for all seasons, allows for the age range in customer to vary.

       The ideal consumer for the brand must know the trends and be willing to hunt for them. “To consume is to participate in an arena of competing claims for what society produces and the ways to use it,” states Néstor García Canclini. This principle is at the foundation of Zara’s consumer acquisition technique.  Instead of accepting that luxury items are only produced by luxury brands and that purchasing them is the only way to achieve a high status from clothing, Zara customers question this logic and are willing to accept that in spending less, they remain able to be relevant to the wealthy, well-dressed set. In doing purchasing this way, Canclini asserts that such consumption serves to appropriate meaning onto the items consumed which, again, the Zara consumer model supports. With such a fast-fashion brand, the shopper feels as if they must buy the product then and there in order to make sure it doesn’t fly off the shelves; Zara consumers capitalize on sales and new merchandise by taking advantage of the fleeting quality of the clothes and accessories. Also key for fashionistas is knowing that not everyone will be wearing the same thing as they are, a real fear when wearing clothing from a fast-fashion retailer. Zara avoids this by upping the price point more than an H & M, for example, thus limiting just slightly the consumer base for more popular items. In facilitating this sort of consumer awareness, Zara assuredly promotes its sales with this in mind; by retaining sales to only twice a year, the sense of immediacy in purchasing becomes evident.

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       One of the most well known activities for the Zara brand community is the biannual sale. It occurs around January and June worldwide and, as an avid shopper and Zara customer, I have never seen such a coming together of shoppers outside of perhaps Black Friday. Advertorial-esque pieces written about the Zara sale enforce the concept of buying things quickly because they might not last as well as buying in bulk during one visit. A search for #zarasale on Twitter results in hundreds of posts in different languages and from disparate origins around the globe, projecting the mayhem that is the sale. Purchased items are pictured time and time again, the word “obsessed” is overused, and all participants attempt to pertain to the Zara community, even in a way so small as a Twitter post. The overwhelming expected recognition of the Zara sale on Twitter relates to the success of the sale in bringing consumers together; no one is posting that they are surprised that the Zara sale is happening, they are posting that they are participating in it and, in doing so, are expecting others to recognize that their participation in receiving a great deal from this well-known retailer will insure their augmented cultural capital.

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       Perhaps the most noticeable consumer engagement aspect of Zara is that of fashion bloggers. Beginning with such prominent faces as The Man Repeller, Leandra Medine, Zara has become a quick street style and blogger favorite for mixing with luxury items. Medine titles one article, “Where Zara Wins: Is The Real Luxury of Shopping in Zara?” The article depicts Zara pieces next to luxury ones which have clearly been mimicked by the former and poses the question to readers that if luxury means having the ability to choose, then it could be that Zara, with lower price points for just as trendy items with a shorter production time, is the more luxurious option of vendor. With the support of such a cultural intermediary and street fashion advocate as Medine, consumers are given the idea that they should become members of the brand community as well and, even better, that they can afford to do so. The list of bloggers who support Zara wares goes on, from Fashion Toast and Victoria Tornegren to the Haute Pursuit and Sincerely Jules.

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       Comments from readers on the aforementioned article include “Unfortunately not all of us are born with trustfunds. Hence the choice is not a choice, it’s the only way to get access to fashion forward clothes,” and “The point about easily spending $100 at Zara is too true. Last time I was there I purchased a skort and a thin-strapped tank and it cost $97. They are pricey to the average person!” The takeaway from such comments is twofold: firstly, even amidst blatant comparison to designer items, consumers consider Zara to be an aspirational brand in terms of price and trend and, secondly, that Zara is a validated method used by consumers to purchase into the luxury fashion identity. Here we are brought back to Bourdieu and his understanding of cultural capital. Cultural capital as access into the hierarchy of society is cultivated by consumers as their purchasing decisions are influenced by the potential resulting outlook on their individual self that will come from having made such purchases. Embodied cultural capital, the most desirable variant in that it indicates knowledge of how to use something not just knowledge that the purchase should be made, is achieved in a Zara purchase thanks to the support of such high cultural capital influencers as fashion bloggers. To further serve in this conceptualization, Celia Lury’s “culture loops” can be employed to examine the process of the meanings carried by Zara branded products. Ever since the cultural material of high cultural capital and trendiness were attached to Zara, well-priced luxury goods are compared to the brand constantly. Zara is often the first brand considered when a customer is looking for such an item and, as time goes on, the items gain more meaning as accessible luxury goods.

       Due to the popularity among fashion bloggers, I personally have seen Zara become a sort of status symbol for college-aged and career women looking to assert their unique style in a professional environment. Instead of settling for the objectified cultural capital perhaps associated with clothing from H&M or Urban Outfitters, Zara consumers believe that by purchasing into the brand, they are gaining embodied cultural capital in this sphere of the fashion industry. This aligns perfectly with the image that the brand attempts to project in creating a luxury sensibility by way of mid-range clothing.

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       It is interesting to consider the way that brands are portrayed online in methods that are out of their control such as celebrity use of their items or fashion shots taken by simple customers. In Zara’s case, the Pinterest tags for the brand yield what seem like high fashion, high quality images. It seems that there is a mutual agreement among Zara consumers that the brand represents a high cultural capital sensibility of fashion and, for this reason, the brand image is perpetuated in these beautiful, professional-looking images. This search led me to think about why the brand community would be content with continuing to enable such a brand identity when, in reality, Zara is not a luxury brand and I believe that this occurs because Zara represents a new sector of the fashion business that mixes the high and the low and has created a previously unconsidered sense of style. This new sector stems from an increasing propensity towards omnivorousness in today’s consumer society. In relation to the Peterson and Kern study discussed in class, lessened exclusivity of the most coveted fashion trends, combined with the generational politics of pop culture (and, therefore, pop fashion) accepted as more than just a phase, and the change in status-group politics which appropriates high-brow culture to that of low-brow and vice versa all contribute to increased omnivorousness. It makes sense that a brand which transcends the label of strictly high or low fashion would thrive in such a changing retail landscape. Thus, Zara consumers and brand community members continue to report fashion bloggers and celebrities wearing the clothing to secure the brand’s position in the greater market. This sort of unintentional, native advertising is the result of great product and smart designers with a quick turnover process for making goods and, I believe, will be emulated by many more brands as the fashion industry progresses.

       According to socialmention.com, the word “Zara” is mentioned on average every 11 seconds on the internet. The sources through which “Zara” is most mentioned are photobucket.com, youtube.com, answers_wiki.com, flickr.com and facebook.com. Such a social media presence exhibits the great desire for consumers to expose their relationship with the brand in order to perpetuate the connection and sense of community that comes along with buying or talking about Zara products. 

       With almost 20 million “likes” on Facebook and 814,000 followers on Instagram (just the English versions) Zara’s far reach among consumers becomes clear. On Facebook, there are thousands of likes and comments on posts by Zara, which are in turn “liked” by other participants; such constant back and forth between consumers is not something that we see occurring for strictly luxury brands as the sense of exclusivity and the desire to purchase items that are actually not shared by anyone else is their purpose. Search #Zara on Instagram, the fashion sets’ social media platform of choice, and one will come across over 3 million tags for the brand. These include items purchased and in-store visits, items desired and outfit of the day shots in a plethora of languages and styles.

       Zara, with the connotations it maintains today, has only been around for a relatively short while but I believe that with the rise in social media and fashion bloggers, the community has grown to include a very fashion-conscious set of women and men. The community has grown to include men and children over time, as well as younger consumers as the price point becomes extended with greater offerings in both directions.

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       The conflicting community attachment I often see with Zara is the wide age range of the community. Girls as young as high school wear the clothes while older women also shop there. While this might be usual in a department store setting, it is often strange to see a 50 year age gap in the dressing rooms, even with the large store sizes and vast styling choices. I believe this is mediated with the range given by the brand in product categories, in that the clothing ranges from club-wear to sophisticated, corporate-ready garments. I wonder, however, whether or not it is sustainable for Zara to continue to provide for such a wide range when it might become uncomfortable for either side with the increase in awareness of the rest of the brand community through the internet and social media. I found no evidence of resistance against Zara. Truly, the brand has not been around long enough to gain an opposition force as many other brands might have. Only the future will tell whether the decisions made by the brand will negatively affect the brand community.

The Strategy

       Zara does not have an advertising budget; the household name doesn’t find it necessary to advertise when so many people already maintain brand awareness. The finances are instead allocated to purchasing brick and mortar locations that improve upon the company’s image of “affordable luxury.” By locating Zara stores in close proximity to luxury labels, which the brand emulates in the design, process is the method by which Zara sustains the perception of high quality, fast fashion. Even in online posts, such as on Tumblr, there are posts which link Zara to high fashion luxury retailers as these stores were visited in the same shopping trip. Subsequently, the high cultural capital achieved in shopping at Chanel, for example, is transferred to a much less costly Zara purchase.

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       The brand attempts to make the clothing seem ubiquitous, thus marketing to those who claim to be in the know of fashion and, therefore, must know the brand that everyone is wearing. In capitalizing on blogger product placement, for example, a reader with less means than is required for the luxury pieces a bloggers wears might feel comfortable going out to purchase just the Zara skirt or handbag from a story they see online. Banet-Weiser explains the success of a cultural “story” in attachment to a brand; if the two are able to coincide and combine in meaning, the customer will connect not only with the brand but also with the lifestyle that it promotes. Again, Zara is not just selling a less expensive version of luxury products; the company is selling the ability to belong to the high fashion word without strict financial means. Word of mouth is also huge in this case; the Zara sale is famous across continents and it seems that everyone makes several visits to find the best merchandise at a lower cost. This process of making the name seem like it’s everywhere, without forced advertising, allows Zara to be represented as attainable but desirable.

The Media

        Zara maintains an online, E-commerce site utilized to spread brand recognition and product knowledge. More interestingly, Zara is a favorite among fashion bloggers; the Man Repeller, Late Afternoon and Atlantic-Pacific blogs, preferred reads for the fashionista crowd, often feature Zara products in their outfits of the day or trend stories. Whether these items are gifted or purchased is unknown but the illusion of high cultural capital remains because such influential and affluent people in the industry are choosing to wear such pieces in their daily lives.

       In many articles, the Zara shop windows are discussed. This format for depicting the brand image is an underrated one in today’s digitally focused society but the brand places great importance on the impression given by the shop windows. In dictating trends and outfits tastes in this public way, any passerby is able to better understand the Zara vision.

       The Zara website utilizes photographic images of the clothing to show the product. There is also a lookbook online and a “campaign” which shows the clothes depicted in a more street-style sensibility. On the website, there is a link to “apps” which Zara has for a multitude of smart phones. Of course, the brand also controls a Facebook page, Twitter account, Pinterest board, Youtube channel, and Flikr. They also have an Instagram account but no link to it on their website which is curious. In using such social media as their most direct access to consumers, Zara as a company indicates clearly their target consumer: a young, fashionable woman who understands the brand’s ability to reinterpret trends. Additionally, Zara seems to be appealing to this consumer because they are the ones with the purpose to continue to post on said sites about the brand in order to perpetuate the image even futher.

       Inditex, the parent company of Zara, maintains 6,009 stores in 86 countries; in 22 of these countries the brand has an on-line E-commerce store. The younger consumer in places such as rural America use the website often to buy into the brand when there isn’t a store readily available to them. Zara consumers average 17 store visits annually while most other retailers average 4 visits per customer. This means that maintenance and merchandising of Zara stores is a huge priority for the brand in maintaining loyalty with consumers; shoppers expect a clean, interesting store design that can be expected to showcase the outfits and products of the moment.

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       With the ability to complete the entire design and production process for an item in less than 2 weeks, Zara’s goal is to move product and boost sell-through percentages in the short term. For this reason, I do not believe that Zara would exclude any customer base from their desired consumer. The stores cater to men, women and children, which allows a variety and more of a lifestyle feel than just a clothing brand. With varying price points and product categories, Zara’s goal is to have something for everyone. The question then arises, however, how to maintain a sense of high cultural capital when appealing to a mass audience. I believe that this is achieved in locating stores in urban areas where the more fashionable demographic would have express access. Smaller towns likely do not have a Zara in their mall or shopping center because Zara has focused primarily in gaining customers who are fashion-knowledgeable or at least cosmopolitan in nature. In theory, Zara’s expansion will lead them to open many more brick-and-mortar stores, presumably stretching into smaller, more rural locations but evidence to this being a priority is non existent at the moment. For now, the brand is centered on expanding the existing consumer base by spreading their message of aspirational luxury.

Bibliography

Banet-Weiser, Sarah. Authentic TM: Politics and Ambivalence in a Brand Culture. New York: New York UP, 2012. Print.

Lury, Celia. Consumer Culture. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1996. Print. 3 Dec 2013.

Changing Highbrow Taste: From Snob to Omnivore
Richard A. Peterson and Roger M. Kern
American Sociological Review , Vol. 61, No. 5 (Oct., 1996), pp. 900-907
Published by: American Sociological Association
Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2096460

 

Website Links

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/11/zaras-big-idea-what-the-worlds-top-fashion-retailer-tells-us-about-innovation/265126/

http://www.slideshare.net/irwanarfandi/zara-retailing-case-report

http://www.zara.com/us/en/lookbook-c471503.html

http://www.1to1media.com/weblog/2011/05/guest_blogger_jeanne_bliss_how.html

http://elle.co.za/zara-sale/

https://twitter.com/search?src=typd&q=%23zarasale