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Case Study

AETHER Apparel: How to Grow a Quiet Luxury Brand? Luxury Tactics 2.0

Outdoor Adventure Meets Urban Exploration

The Client

In 2009, two intrepid entrepreneurs founded AETHER Apparel to serve a gap in the performance apparel market. They wanted the finest in outdoor gear for their many adventures. But they also wanted style worthy of aprés ski. Big logos and typical luxury tactics didn’t fit their aesthetic.

Criterion Global was tasked with launching a beloved brand without hackneyed luxury tactics. Or the pushiness common (and arguably necessary) for ecommerce in a world controlled by Amazon, Google and Meta.

Aether sought to tell a story of unsparing commitment to quality, in an insider’s language of quiet brand signals. The brand has grown a devoted cult following on par with the best quiet luxury brands. As the NYTimes [1] said of its designs:

…[C]ompletely elegant, and completely anonymous, and completely irresistible.”

Quiet Luxury Tactics

There are two kinds of luxury. One is loud: Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Gucci. These brands are bathed in logo and constantly adapting to trend. The other is quiet. Think Valextra. Phoebe Philo for Céline. Old Hermès and Bottega Veneta. And while even these brands adapt to trend, the signals they send to buyers and observers are far more subtle. This is quiet luxury.

The proliferation of brands like Muji, Uniqlo, Acne, Common Projects in the aftermath of the 2008 recession, and their enduring growth through the post-Pandemic era stands as a counterpoint to the overt luxury that has blown-up during in this same timeframe. But growing a “quiet luxury” brand is, in a way, harder. There’s a greater focus on quality production (which increases costs). “Quiet” customer acquisition cannot rely on performance media buying or loud displays typical in the arsenal of luxury tactics.

Consumers most responsive to “quiet brand signals” are those the researchers Han, Nunes and Drèze call “Patricians” (upper left in the diagram below) [5]. These typically HNWI consumers are socio-economically able to purchase luxury (“Haves”), yet prefer quiet signals recognizable among each other. Brand building based on quiet brand signals takes a time-based approach, versus more overtly-visible media strategies.

Luxury Tactics: Quiet Brand Signals 101 Case Study

Typical Luxury Tactics

Logos
Celebrity Faces
Standard ad formats (Spreads, etc.)
Heavy-handed ecommerce performance media

Quiet Brand Signals

Cut and Fabric-forward Design
Photography-forward imagery
Below-the-line integrated content + added value
Limited, handpicked media partnerships

The Quiet Luxury Brand Growth Challenge

Develop name-brand recognition for a digital first apparel retailer in a category spanning luxury, sport, and fashion markets, while growing year-over-year revenue.

Along the way, this ecommerce-first brand grew to become a multi-channel retail experience with digital at its core.

But with every store launch and seasonal product drop, AETHER wished to avoid pushy tactics. It was a “quiet” logo, insider’s brand.

To achieve this, we selected a mix of core vendor partnerships established early-on in its brand growth. This core audience would continue to love AETHER for its steadfast commitment to this customer-led, low-key brand philosophy.

Product + Customer Insight

A hybrid of Prada with Patagonia, AETHER Apparel’s specific segment – at the intersection of luxury and sports performance – didn’t previously exist in the marketplace. Knowing their desired consumer’s love of travel, they chose Criterion Global for its luxury and travel expertise.

AETHER is designed without compromise and constructed from the most technologically advanced fabrics. Their full line of outerwear, knits, and swimwear was, in time, expanded to womenswear. An ecommerce-first approach eventually evolved to the launch of multiple prime location brick-and-mortar storefronts in LA, Aspen, New York, San Francisco, and a mobile pop-up approach with their AETHERstream retail concept.

Growth comes from ideas and opportunities, and the way that brands embrace them. But the pace at which companies get those ideas into market is often the key determiner of success.

Rethinking Luxury Tactics: Aether Apparel's Quiet Brand Signals

Paid Media Strategy

The client’s design philosophy to create modern apparel that defies trends, targeted to the urban-dwelling, design-focused, and well-traveled set gave Criterion Global’s expert media planners a clear sense of our primary consumer target. We deployed tactics for building brand-awareness alongside strong Return on Ad Spend digital media buying across platforms and markets.

As a luxury e-commerce startup with a high price point, reinforcing product value was key. The use of outstanding brand photography built a framework for social media segmentation that gradually expanded both existing customer databases and engagement from a wider audience.

Additionally, with international shipping available, we identified patterns of purchase across global markets and seasonally allocated marketing dollars internationally, across languages and weather patterns to take advantage of the natural ebbs and flows of outdoor and ski apparel purchases. Marketing with an ‘always-on’ strategy allowed our client to take advantage of selling higher-margin items year round, rather than waiting for cold weather to return to North America.

Business Outcomes

In over 6 years working together, AETHER continuously cultivates an extremely loyal fanbase of customers. Successes have evolved as the brand has taken flight:

  • Initially, audience engagement and awareness was key.
  • From there, we worked to improve efficiency through judicious use of print and OOH media.
  • Before long, digital channels showed ROI in excess of industry standards. For example, three seasons in, digital sales directly attributable showed a 3.14x return on ad spend, which steadily increased season after season to 5.21x 2 years in.
  • All the while, at the client’s behest, no performance media was used, just natural partner-direct media placements that resonated with the brand’s core audience.

Needless to say, momentum in new customer acquisition, visibility and buzz created a halo of sales above and beyond those immediately tracked to the campaign. In a 7-year, 26-quarter tenure, our work helped turn a startup into a sustainable success in lifestyle branded apparel whose love of adventure remains the creative core communicated across all customer segments.

Quiet Luxury Case Study: Aether Apparel + Luxury Tactics in Media Buying

Sources

[1] “A High Five, Handshake…” NYTimes
[2] “Urban wilds or great outdoors, Aether aims to be out, about.” LATimes
[3] “When the quiet logo speaks volumes” via Science Daily
[4] “Luxury Branding Below the Radar”, Harvard Business Review
[5] “Signaling Status with Luxury Goods: Role of Brand Prominence.” Journal of Marketing

Brand Growth Case Study

When longtime Criterion Global client (and storied brand) Orient-Express announced it would be changing its name, we needed to build brand equity overnight. From scratch. See how we helped Belmond maintain brand momentum post-rebrand, resulting in its ultimate purchase by luxury conglomerate LVMH.

Luxury + Retail Media Resources

[1]Our approach to brand hyper-growth for Venture-Backed Startups
[2]How to launch a beauty brand (Guerlain Case Study)
[3]Growing revenue +35% for a travel destination targeting HNWIs
[4]Luxury Media Buying: Our Approach