Saturday, November 3, 2012

Not Your Daughter's Jeans and the Before-and-After Narrative

If you want mothers to buy your product, take a cue from companies like Baby Einstein and Airborne and adopt a before-and-after narrative. Make transformation your history, your mission, and your unique selling proposition.

Consider Baby Einstein's before-and-after narrative. Stay-at-home mom Julie Aigner-Clark wanted to expose her infant to the arts. She set up a studio in her basement and created a baby-friendly video combining classical music and visual arts. Having transformed her baby's world, Clark began sharing her videos and related products with other parents. Though Baby Einstein has backed away from claims connecting classical music and neurological development, that connection was part of the original narrative—show your arts-deprived infant a video and transform her brain. Even if such claims are no longer explicit, there's a reason the company invokes Einstein's name (for hefty fees to the late physicist's estate).

Airborne's founding narrative is similar. A school teacher was tired of getting sick and concocted a drug-free tablet that transformed her immune system. Now Airborne can boost your immunity, too. (Coincidentally, both Baby Einstein and Airborne have come under fire for making false claims. The mother-turned-entrepreneur might attract customers, but she'd better find an expert to vet her ad copy.)

It's surprising that it took the apparel industry so long to offer mothers a pair of jeans with a before-and-after narrative. According to a Reader's Digest article, Lisa Rudes Sandel didn't mind her poochy stomach until low-rise jeans came along:
"I couldn't fit into my regular size six," recalls Rudes Sandel, who had to go three sizes bigger to find a pair that fit. "They were uncomfortable, and they felt like they would fall down. I wondered, Why isn’t someone making nice, hip jeans for women with a figure like mine?" Like many entrepreneurs, Rudes Sandel turned her complaint into a business opportunity. The founder of Not Your Daughter's Jeans (NYDJ) has created a multimillion-dollar business simply by designing jeans for women with womanly bodies.
To launch NYDJ, Rudes Sandel and her sister "lured their father, George, out of retirement" from running a women's sportswear company. It was George Rudes who came up with the name "Not Your Daughter's Jeans." Rudes Sandel told Reader's Digest, "I thought he was crazy. And he said, 'Watch, my darling daughter. I know what I'm talking about.'" Indeed he did. With a name that identifies a problem and offers a solution in the same breath, NYDJ hardly needs a relatable founding narrative. That's a good thing for them because, as a transformation story, this one falls apart pretty quickly.

Though the company markets to Boomer-aged women, Lisa Rudes Sandel  was in her thirties when she founded NYDJ. Not Your Daughter's Jeans are the antidote to unflattering "mom jeans" (remember the SNL sketch?) but Rudes Sandel was not a mother until several years after launching her company. While Lisa Rudes Sandel is NYDJ's public face and author of its founding narrative, her father was much more than an advisor. George Rudes served as CEO until the company sold a 50 percent interest to a private equity firm in 2008. He knows his customers and what motivates them. Here's what he told PBS NewsHour about why Not Your Daughter's Jeans never go on sale:
I'm dealing with a demographic that has the most disposable income. Women over 40 who've been neglected in the fashion scene...They want to be comfortable in their jeans. So the most important thing about my company is we sell fit.
So what's the point of all this? It's not to complain about Not Your Daughter's Jeans. While I don't love their "look and feel a size smaller" marketing appeal, I applaud the company for bringing style to a broader range of sizes. And while NYDJ's $100+ sticker price is considerably more than I spend on a pair of jeans, the cost doesn't strike me as exorbitant for high-quality, U.S.-made clothing worn multiple times a week for several years.

My complaint is that when we feel insecure about our bodies or our age or our parenting skills, the solutions we're offered are products to purchase. Before-and-after marketing narratives rely on our insecurities and fuel our feelings of inadequacy. Who felt uneasy about their infants' lack of exposure to Van Gogh paintings before Baby Einstein defined arts immersion as a developmental need?

Women certainly feel insecure and overwhelmed. A 2008 survey of more than 12,000 women found that: "Women everywhere intensely feel a lack of time in their lives and the pressure of trying to contort time to accommodate everything they want to achieve." Almost half of survey respondents said demands on their time were their number one challenge. Almost half of respondents identified managing household finances as another significant source of stress. Almost half said they rarely or never feel powerful. On top of all that, women feel insecure about their appearance. More than two-thirds of respondents believe they're overweight and almost half rarely or never feel beautiful.

What do the survey designers conclude about these findings? Reporting on the results, author Michael Silverstein said, "Very few companies are realizing the full potential of this incredible opportunity." Silverstein, who coauthored a book based on the survey (Women Want More: How to Capture Your Share of the World's Largest, Fastest-Growing Market), said in a press release: "Our research shows that women are struggling to balance the 'job at the job' with the 'job at home'...They do the majority of chores and most of the tasks involved in child care. But they don't have the option not to work, because the family depends on their income. They want companies to help them save time, providing 24-7 access, easy information, appointment selling, and a responsive sales force."

I am sad to read that so many women feel overwhelmed, powerless, and unattractive. I am angry that the people most invested in understanding us want not to help us, but to sell us something. I'd like to think we can find more substantive, lasting solutions to the pressures in our lives than a pair of jeans with patented Lift Tuck Technology. (Here's a good place to start.) In the short-term, whether or not we buy the jeans let's not buy the narrative that says we need transformation and something we buy can provide it.

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