A checkmark dubbed the “swoosh” is the symbol of one of the most iconic brands in history. Its wearer embodies everything the brand aims to convey: strength, endurance, motivation. For Nike’s customers, the swoosh isn’t a checkmark. It’s an incentive to run one more mile. It’s teamwork and sportsmanship. It’s a reminder to “just do it.”
When does a sneaker become more than a sneaker? What makes a consumer choose one seemingly identical t-shirt over another? Emotion plays a big part. Fashion branding at its best speaks to its intended audience like a trusted friend. It stands up for you, becoming the outward-facing expression of your personality.
“Brand,” though, is so much more than a logo. It’s everything that logo stands for, the sum of every creative decision that runs like a thread through product, packaging, and marketing. Great fashion branding is storytelling that weaves a narrative through every touchpoint.
What is fashion branding?
Fashion branding encompasses all the elements that establish a fashion business’s image in the eyes of the public. Together, your mission statement and company values, your brand voice and origin story, as well as the visual style guide that governs everything from your brand colors to logo to photography treatment, constitute your fashion branding.
In the fashion industry, branding can be more critical than the product itself—the brand cachet often carries more value than the t-shirt it’s printed on.
As you build your own clothing line, the solid foundation of your fashion branding strategy will inform every move and help you stand out. As you scale your small business, a clear set of branding guidelines will ensure brand consistency across your products, locations, website, social channels, and customer experience.
12 fashion branding tips from the pros
Below, a dozen experts offer their best fashion branding advice. Hear from entrepreneurs, fashion designers, and marketing agency execs on everything from finding your target audience to working with agencies.
1. Describe your brand in 3 words or less
Expert: Joey Ng, CMO at Yami, freelance brand and growth marketing consultant, creator of StopAsianHate.info
Joey’s advice: “Branding in fashion is key to helping the customer solve the problem of expressing their individuality within the context of assumed dress codes. If you can’t communicate who you are as a brand to a person who would identify with your core values and aesthetic, then you won’t be able to sell it to them.
“Whenever I approach a new brand that I’m working with, I always start with describing it in three words (or less). Take the time to brainstorm every adjective you believe belongs in the world of your brand. Then keep eliminating them until you have three favorites left. I went through this branding exercise for a record label’s merchandise arm and we landed on ‘Y2K B.E.T.’ In just two words, we had pinpointed the permeating theme of all the visuals, sounds, textures, and feelings a consumer would experience when engaging with their brand.
“Find your niche and define in very few words what makes your brand distinctive. If something doesn’t fit those original three words—even though you might like it—scrap it. Establish the core message, nail it, then expand.”
2. Build a solid team
Expert: Andrew Coimbra, women’s designer at Mackage
Andrew’s advice: “The most important thing to consider when starting your own label from scratch would be to know your brand. People rarely consider what that means beyond the basics. Who are your clients? What is your ultimate objective? Where do you see your label in five years? These are core questions that define the direction of every single step you decide to take in promoting your business.
“Part of knowing your brand is knowing who can help you build it. I’ve been extremely lucky in growing really special friendships with people in my life whose perspectives are well-curated and valid. I would suggest finding a core group of friends, or a team of people who have skills that are beneficial to you. Grow and learn with each other.
“Celine is a brand with proven longevity. Although its collections are distinctive season to season, it still maintains a great balance of sticking to its staples. Beyond that, its branding has evolved in a way that feels natural to and reflective of its values.”
3. Tell a story
Expert: Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart, sustainable fashion expert, founder of vegan clothing brand Vaute Couture (closed in 2020)
Leanne’s advice: “Fashion is an outside expression of who you are on the inside. So branding is everything for fashion. It’s how you shout to the world: If you’re like us on the inside, you might express that in the same way on the outside.
“You can’t outsource your voice. It’s your heart and soul, it’s your story. It’s important to ask yourself, as a label, ‘What do I have that big corporations don’t?’ Where do we win naturally and where will they try to fake it and fall short? This is where you have to go loud. We were an all-female team of activists in Brooklyn doing our best with limited resources. This is what we had that big companies did not.”
4. Leverage free tools
Expert: Chris Ngo, owner of The Leverage Showroom, co-creator of Embellish NYC, Haus of JR, Crysp Denim, Lifted Anchors
Chris’s advice: “Social media plays a big part in branding, and it’s also the most inexpensive way to build a brand. You can reach a big demographic and audience virtually free. A t-shirt business that’s built in a garage can grow a following from a personal Instagram account.
“In the fast fashion market, people want to see what’s in now. So many brands are hopping on trends and pushing similar looks, trying to be first to market. But it’s not who makes it first—it’s who makes it better.”
5. Create an experience for customers
Expert: Alex O’Byrne, director of WeMakeWebsites
Alex’s advice: "Building a fashion business is all about creating a brand. Sure, the product is important, but the brand is much bigger. Ask yourself this: Do people buy Nike sneakers because they’re better than other sneakers? No. They buy them because Nike has created an extremely desirable brand. They buy them because of what wearing Nike sneakers says about them.
“A great example I like to use when talking about building a brand is P&Co. Take a look at their Instagram—the bikes, the beards, the coffee, the tats. All you need to do to become a part of their brand is buy one of their t-shirts.
“Fashion branding needs to be about the emotional experience for your target audience. Exceptional branding provides a sense of comfort and acceptance, yet inspiration to keep your clients coming back for more each season. These three questions are a good place to start:
- What do you want your brand reputation to be?
- What are your brand’s core values?
- How does your brand want to be visually seen?
“Once you’ve answered these, then you need to start executing on them.”
6. Take your time
Expert: Odessa Paloma Parker, fashion writer and art editor
“Branding is important because it helps tell the story of your product—it communicates what your values are, your perspective, and helps illuminate small character elements that are part of the bigger picture of your business.
“Take your time! Creatives and entrepreneurs often rush themselves because we all now operate at such a fast pace. If your business and brand represent something meaningful—and creating such a thing doesn’t happen overnight—then the world can wait, because it’s worth it.”
7. Tap into influencer power
Expert: Madelyn Chung, founder and editor-in-chief of Represent Asian Project, former fashion journalist (The Huffington Post, Fashion, Chatelaine, Flare, and Yahoo! Style)
Madelyn’s advice: “A great example of a brand that understands social media is Calvin Klein. The brand enlists the ‘it’ models, celebrities, and influencers of the moment to promote its brand in a simple yet fresh way. It created a want in the market that would eventually turn into free press and advertising. And, as its latest campaigns feature a diverse cast of individuals, more and more people feel like they too can rock their Calvins with pride and confidence.”
8. Understand your competition and target market
Expert: Nick Ede, CEO of EastofEden London
Nick’s advice: “Fashion is all about identity and establishing a strong tone of voice that makes you stand out from other brands. My advice to new brands is to do market research and see who your competitors are. It is one of the most competitive markets.
“It’s also important for brands to understand what their target market is, what they want to provide their customers, and how to become the go-to place for fashion fans. Having a strong social media presence is a must—this can be a really cost-effective way of communicating with your target customer.”
9. Determine your unique selling point
Expert: Sara Koonar, president of Platform Media + Management
Sara’s advice: “When most shoppers are faced with a choice, whether to buy this black tote bag or that black tote bag, they’ll choose the one they’ve heard of. It’s as simple as that. Getting the word out about your brand and what makes it unique is crucial to your sales. And sales are crucial to keeping your business afloat.
“You don’t need to place expensive print or television ads to market your clothing line. Collaborating with influencers and building a community on social media can be very effective in building business. Of course there are benefits to having an expensive PR firm and schmoozing fashion stylists to get your clothes on the backs of A-list celebrities, but you’ll be surprised how influential social media can be.”
10. Work with a professional
Expert: Helen Rice, creative director and co-founder of FUZZCO, Serious Buildings, and Pretend Store
Helen’s advice: “Fashion is constantly changing, so it’s important for brands to work hard to establish and defend their niche in the changing landscape. Due to the dynamic nature of fashion, brands must be incredibly aware of themselves and the market. Their ability to embody the lifestyle that their audience aspires to is developed through every decision the brand makes, including materials, design, production, customer service, and cultural associations. These elements inform the relationship the brand has with consumers.
“Fashion brands should consider consulting with a branding agency right in the beginning. This allows the brand to gain insights into the best strategy for the shopping experience, merchandising, positioning, voice and tone, and visual balance between the graphic identity and the product. An agency can ultimately help the brand navigate the changing landscape of the fashion industry.”
11. Don’t try to be everything to everyone
Expert: Carolyn Delacorte, founder, Boxwood Co
Carolyn’s advice: “Fashion has long been an aspirational industry. Many brands, from Chanel to Anthropologie, have developed a cult following so robust that just the mere sight of a logo inspires a feeling of belonging. Nowadays, a collection is more about culture than it is about draping and perfectly sewn seams.
“Over the past two decades, we’ve seen a dramatic uptick in the number of fashion companies entering the marketplace. Differentiating a line from similar brands is more of a challenge than ever. Buyers invariably want to introduce lines to their retail floors that will sell through quickly, and the fastest route to clearing racks is to ensure that there is a ton of brand recognition for a particular audience.
“Trying to be everything to everyone is a recipe for disaster unless your brand has many extensions. Know who your buyer is and play to the elements of pop culture that appeal to them. This takes a fair amount of market research and marketing discipline, and does not happen overnight.”
12. Be consistent
Expert: Gail McInnes, PR manager at Believeco, founder of Magnet Creative Management
Gail’s advice: “Having a strong brand with compelling messaging helps customers connect to the clothing and accessories they wear. If a consumer relates to the brand, it creates a connection, and the wearer feels as though the brand is an extension of themselves.
Branding should be established from the start, from the overall look of the product to social media content to how customers experience and shop the brand. But it needs to be consistent from the get-go. If you are an exclusive luxury brand, your language and imaging needs to reflect that luxury feel and voice. If you are an independent, ethically-sourced brand, you may want to use softer colors in your marketing material and have a softer tone in communication.”
Standing apart in the fashion industry
If you’re starting your own clothing line, spend as much time understanding who you are and what you stand for as you do on designing beautiful clothing. Success in the industry relies on fashion branding that’s creative, authentic, and nimble enough to respond to ever-changing trends.
Feature image by Cottonbro Studio/Pexels
Fashion branding FAQ
What does fashion branding mean?
Fashion branding describes how fashion businesses establish the image of their company in the eyes of potential customers. Aspects like product name, brand colors, logo, website design, blog content, and more can all help to build a coherent fashion brand.
How do you make a fashion brand unique?
Explore online communities and identify a niche audience with shared values and interests. Pay attention to how community members express their individuality, and develop a strong brand identity that resonates with them and is consistent across platforms.
How do you create content for a fashion brand?
Creating content for your fashion brand involves spotting content trends and being present on the latest platforms. A few ideas to consider are:
- Offering tutorials that show customers how to style outfits with your products
- Create video content that gives your customers a look behind the scenes at your production methods
- Partner with influencers who share your target audience
- Incentivize customers to share photos and videos of their recent purchases