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Every July I walk into a clothing shop to find jumpers and scarves on the rack. When I ask for swimming trunks just before I depart for my August holiday, the sales assistant tells me: "We are showing our autumn range now." It seems insanity to me, but the reason is the supply chain and the time it takes to design, manufacture and dispatch a clothing collection. 

In fashion, intellectual property has always been about brand development, trademarks and instantly recognisable iconic designs: the Chanel 2.55 bag, Ray Ban sunglasses, the Hermes scarf, the Burberry raincoat or Christian Louboutin heels. These high-end products provide differentiation and pricing power underpinning market and brand value. They also feed the rest of the industry as ideas trickle into the mass market. 

The ability of mass-market retailers to pick up these trends and turn out collections quickly (and cheaply) has often been the difference between success and failure. In these tiers of the market, time really is money and the most valuable intellectual property is the know-how and skill of management teams to turn on a sixpence.

In the past 20 years, as every transaction we make has been recorded and analysed, another type of intellectual property has become just as important for brands as design – the use of customer (and social media) data to pinpoint trends, drive pricing and feed just-in-time supply chains. Therefore, in modern fashion big data has created a convergence in strategy between brand and non-brand retailers, each trying to work out what we want before we know ourselves.

The resulting business model for the fashion industry is to combine the lowest-cost manufacturing with algorithmic analysis of customer data to refine sales and marketing campaigns, generating more bang for the buck.

However, at least one retailer has turned this logic on its head – the clothing chain Zara (Inditex Group). Founded in La Coruna, Spain in 1974, the chain has become the largest retailer of affordable fashion globally and propelled its creators to the top of the Forbes rich list. The market loves Zara (it has been a strong outperformer) because it delivers. But what does it do differently?

Analogue thinking
Perhaps as a consequence of its Southern European heritage (Spaniards are a highly sensory people), Zara has put a premium on rich data. It is the data source that is surprising. Eschewing statistics, store managers are trained (and incentivised) to capture qualitative feedback that tells the story behind their numbers. The reasoning is that big data tells you what but not why. 

In Zara's case, it does something revolutionary – staff watch customer behaviour and ask people why they like what they like when they buy it (and what they do not like). This textured feedback and the entrepreneurial savvy of empowered store managers provide real-time actionable data and reinforce an entrepreneurial corporate culture.  

This humanistic approach is combined with another unorthodox strategy – the location of manufacturing is close to the consumer markets where the products are sold. This move is inspired. Despite a disadvantage in employee costs, without the logistics of long-distance manufacturing to contend with, garments that shop managers love can be prioritised and production runs repeated. Hot items restock quickly, while trends are still relevant and market share is acquired and defended. Each season the Zara share of wallet remains secure.

Of course, time-based competition is not new and in many other areas (eg, application development) speed to market, iteration and fluency of new product release trump intellectual property in terms of competitive advantage. But uniquely in the fashion world, the Zara brand has grown to reflect this approach and capability.

The relevance for IP professionals and those investing in intellectual property is that in thinking about the commercial value of intellectual property, business models are critical – particularly where they influence corporate culture. Zara produces on-trend, affordable clothing like many of its competitors, but it outperforms them. Why? My answer, as usual, is that intellectual property matters, but IP management matters more.

This is an Insight article, written by a selected partner as part of IAM's co-published content. Read more on Insight

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