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Has coronavirus killed fashion? Probably not, but it has definitely taken a beating. An estimated £10bn of unsold clothing sat in UK warehouses during the last days of lockdown (The Times, 2020). Without the ability to see people or go into work during lockdown, the need to ‘dress up’ or wear ‘proper clothes’ has clearly diminished in many. Less social pressure may have kept at bay the desire to buy the latest clothes or keeping up with next trends.

In our earlier thought piece, we saw that people were excited for charity shops to open as they’ve been decluttering their wardrobes. To explore further how lockdown has influenced our behaviour towards the fashion industry, Lab ran another comparative linguistic research piece. We comparatively analysed Tweets that talked about fashion from three days in January, April and June, giving a total of 425,700 words. 

Importantly, employing this comparative linguistics approach enables companies to:

?      Track and predict emerging trends in retail/fashion

?      Deliver stronger, well-targeted personalisation

?      Protect brands

Here are the insights we discovered, and what can be done.

The jury is out for fashion in lockdown

In tune with our musings that people care less about fashion as there exists less social pressure, we found that people were 4.1 times more likely to use the words ‘pointless’, ‘useless’ and ‘no point’ when tweeting about fashion in June compared to January. Fashion – as a topic – is significantly less likely to be talked about during lockdown.

How, then, can companies survive this potential existential threat? Fashion brands should empathize with the mindset of their audience – learning from them more than ever before. Reflecting one’s emotions creates extreme relevance and saliency with the customer, which makes it easier for marketing to cut through the noise.

Deserved kudos should be given to Asos for simply mirroring the sentiment around payday in their social marketing. (Our earlier research found that people are significantly less likely to state their excitement for being paid during lockdown than pre-lockdown.) Discovering the narrative of thought among audiences via comparative linguistics provides companies with the tool to successfully mirror what their customers are thinking.

The self-reference effect (Symons & Johnson, 1997) might be warmly remembered by fashion marketing teams at this time. The effect states that people are more likely to remember information when it relates to them in some way. One beautifully simple demonstration of this was done by the Open University. The tube marketing campaign denoting the copy “If you’re standing here you could be studying here” led  to 114% of their enquiry target (Lida, 2019). Obviously, everyone standing here was reading the text, but this poignant relevance resonated with people and so led to its success.

Deeper analysis on Twitter revealed that people were 2.5 times more likely to mention ‘work clothes’ and 4.6 time more likely to mention ‘proper clothes’ in April than January. This key insight exposes something compelling: working from home has fundamentally altered the sentiment towards fashion. Fashion brands should acknowledge this and emulate the language of thought among audiences (ie create self-reference). Messaging such as “time to put on some proper clothes for the next long-awaited catch-up” might prove salient at this time as it speaks the same language as customers.

But some can’t stop ordering...

On the other side of the coin,  the phrase “stop ordering” was significantly over-indexed in fashion-related tweets from June but not January. The thumbs of many shoppers churned out tweets such as:

?      “Can‘t stop ordering clothes. It’s becoming an issue”

?      “I can‘t stop ordering clothes”

?      “Why can‘t I stop ordering clothes I have nowhere to go”

These findings suggest a divide between the public (ie the public who take to Twitter). While some have lost the need to follow fashion, others appear almost addicted to the act of ordering clothes. For the latter, perhaps this resembles a form of ‘retail therapy’ with many shoppers licensing their extra purchases by telling themselves ’I need treats because I’m in boring lockdown life’.

It would be fascinating to observe how buying behaviour changes for these people when ‘normal life’ returns (if it ever does). What in turn may license future purchases: payday, deals, influencer marketing, socially responsible branding? Knowing this would unquestionably bolster a CMO’s artillery.

For now, invoking principles of reciprocity, commitment and loyalty with their customers would help the online fashion industry. Strategies might benefit from activating the ’can’t stop’ shoppers to influence their own networks – eg giving them 10% off when they share the latest deal with their friends. Harnessing the social identities that we all associate with could trigger increased online shopping in the fashion domain. Crucially, a tailored approach is needed to identify and influence costumes accordingly (ie the ‘can’t start’ v the ‘can’t stop’ buyers). Identifying the cultural shifts and purchasing triggers is going to be the key to unlocking revenue for fashion companies.

Safety first

In Twitter conversations concerning shopping, unsurprisingly in June the phrase ‘wearing masks’ was 17.5 times more likely to be mentioned than in pre-lockdown January. In line with recent scenes, ‘queuing’ was 18.4 times more likely to be used in June than January in such tweets. Could this negative perception mean that customers take longer than expected to flock back to the high street?

Importantly, we have seen a significant over-indexation on the topic of safety measures within tweets concerning shopping in June. To customers, the safety measures that shops are choosing may be one of the biggest priorities in their minds, knocking off other previously prioritised customer needs (eg selection range).

As we can see from the tweet below, providing and communicating the correct safety measures might lead to effective, inadvertent, word-of-mouth marketing. In a time of uncertainty, everyone’s habits are reforming. This window gives many retailers the rare opportunity to entice new customers as a result of old habits breaking down. Converting customers now might result in newly formed habits which could then set brand loyalty like concrete for the foreseeable future.

“Just done a #volunteer shopping trip at @Morrisons #Welling. Their social distancing measures are the best of any supermarket in the #SE18 area that I've seen. Hand sanitiser stations, friendly, proactive, helpful staff &; a great checkout system. Thank you!”

The rebirth of athleisure and loungewear

The word ‘exercise’ in fashion conversations on Twitter was 13.5 times more likely to be mentioned in lockdown (April) than pre-lockdown (January). In line with this, the phrase ‘workout clothes’ was also present in April tweets but not mentioned from our January scrape. It’s unsurprising that athleisure seems to be booming, as firstly, the clothes are comfy so meet the softer demands of WFH lounging, and secondly, people are exercising hence need athleisure.

From a societal perspective, people have a harder time flaunting their latest fashion piece. Might wearing gym clothes and leisurewear in the park represent the new social catwalk? Needless to say, fashion companies would benefit from riding this wave and, again, adapting their online presence to meet the lifestyle demands of today’s consumer.

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A tipping point for sustainable fashion

The previous comparative linguistic thought piece revealed that a large proportion of people are excited for charity shops to open as they have been decluttering their homes. In a time where comfortability is king, many have embraced the simpler Marie Kondo life. Such an insight on behaviour change prompts the question: are people becoming more mindful about fashion in lockdown?

Early findings show that mentions of ‘sustainable fashion’ and ‘fast fashion’ are significantly more likely to be Tweeted in June than January. In this fashion contexts, people were also more likely (1.6 times) to use unethical language (eg shame, evil, wrong, in trouble) in June than January. These findings suggest a turning tide for sustainable fashion amid lockdown. Could the self-reflection among many of us at the moment kickstart the slow fashion revolution?

Unlike ‘l‘art pour l‘art’ (‘art for art’s sake’), fashion for fashion‘s sake might no longer be the case... We know that Gen Z crave purchases with a wider meaning, not only impacting on them but on the rest of the world. Take the observable recent growth of sustainable trainer brand Veja, which has experienced an almost cult-like following among Z’ers.

Moving forward, fashion companies need to approach this movement with creative yet considered steps. A lack of authenticity could fatally backfire. Small steps such as positioning and producing year-round products, as opposed to excessive seasonal clothing, could earn many companies both kudos and revenue.

With extra time on our hands, many Gen Z’s have taken to DIY fashion, which has resulted in  companies such as Dickies offloading deadstock fabric/hardware to abet this newfound habit. No doubt an incredibly ingenious strategy by Dickies to brand awareness and loyalty. To date, the ‘#tiedye’ has received 584m views on TikTok (VogueBusiness, 2020). These are the waters that fashion companies must wade, striving to match marketing strategies with the mindset of their audience – eg challenges/tutorials for jeans customisation on TikTok and Instagram.

Future of fashion

It’s findings like the ones in this thought piece – fuelled by data-driven behavioural insights – that will help those in the fashion industry pull ahead in the rat race. Fashion companies must sell on value and purpose, not on price. More so than ever before is it critical to learn from our audience and use the findings as an opportunity to redraw fashions future roadmap (eg pushing sustainability goals, using storytelling, brand awareness through rising channels).

It’s techniques like comparative linguistics research that can perpetually guide fashion brands on what their audience is thinking and wants – sometimes even before they themselves know. Fashion forecasting is a whole sector within itself. Might this type of original research shed new light on not just the trends but the behavioural patterns within the industry?

Gemma Kane is a senior account manager at Lab.