Profusion of choice has allowed consumers to seize on brands as tools in the expression of self. If two products perform equally well from a functional point of view, then the deciding factor is their ability to fit with the consumer's perceived self-identity.
Academics describe this as 'symbolic consumption'. Professor Yi Fu Tuan, one of the early theorists in the field, set the scene in a 1980 paper: 'Our fragile sense of self needs support, and this we get by possessing things because, to a large degree, we are what we possess.'
Nowhere is that fragility more obviously buttressed than by what we choose to wear. From a state of nakedness, we become clothed by wearing our favoured brands like an outer skin. The directness of the connection between apparel and self is evident in the phrase that gets used when a garment doesn't quite feel right: 'It's just not me.'
Loyalty to an apparel brand is probably the highest compliment a consumer can pay, with its implied acceptance across the discriminating membrane of self. So compliments, then, to two British clothing brands that have succeeded in becoming part of the self-identity of so many: AllSaints and Superdry.
With AllSaints recently securing the £105m cash injection it needs to overcome the collapse of its original Icelandic investor, and Superdry reporting 86% growth only one year on from its £400m initial public offering, both brands are poised for ambitious phases of fresh expansion.
The key is global expansion, and that will depend on the propensity of many more millions of people to accept these brands as the outer expression of themselves. In this, the two companies face oddly contrary challenges.
For AllSaints, the difficulty lies in its very distinctiveness. In more conservative markets than the UK, there simply may not be enough people whose self-identity extends to the assertive rips and fronds of its quirky gothic style. Perhaps the brand will need to add more accessible lines and give just the occasional nod to fashion trends, which it currently ignores.
For Superdry, conversely, the challenge is managing its undoubted mainstream popularity. This is a brand that has benefited from a subtext in the theory of symbolic consumption: that few people choose to express a wholly unique identity.
Instead, the fragility of the human condition ensures that the urge for individuality is balanced with the instinct to belong. In the vital Asian market, group affinity is an even more significant feature of everyday life than it is in Anglo-Saxon cultures, so the easy acceptance of Superdry's muscular checks and edgy comfort will be a boon to the brand.
The problem comes when popularity spills over into ubiquity, which debases the symbolic worth of the brand. The mass appeal of Gap, FCUK and Abercrombie & Fitch imploded when too many of the wrong sort of people started picking up the brands. Superdry's creative directors will need to find the sweet spot that maintains the label's mass appeal, but keeps out the riffraff.
International success for both brands is not inconceivable, but neither will it be simple. The trick is to keep their own sense of self intact as brands, without falling prey to tired repetition.
Long-term consumer loyalty is the aim. For brands in general, however, and apparel brands in particular, loyalty is always fragile.
Helen Edwards has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand, where she works with some of the world's biggest advertisers
30 SECONDS ON ... INTERNATIONAL CLOTHING BRANDS
Notoriously difficult to manage for sustained success and relevance, even the biggest general apparel brands have struggled to keep their allure:
- Gap Earlier this month, Gap parted ways with head designer Patrick Robinson. It all looked so promising, with a redesign of its denim line and a collaboration with Stella McCartney for its kids' range - but they were not enough to turn around declining sales.
- C&A It's still out there doing business in most of Europe, having quit the UK market in 2001 when competition from the likes of H&M and Matalan got too much. It is now apparently facing similar problems on the Continent.
- American Apparel Famous for its charismatic, lawsuit-facing founder Dov Charney, American Apparel is frequently described as 'troubled' and is currently closing stores and cutting costs. On the upside, the company recently reported a smaller-than-expected loss for Q1 2011.
- Anthropologie Definitely the one to watch, Anthropologie combines its quirky own-brand with unusual labels and homewares products. Founded in Pennsylvania in 1992, and now owned by Urban Outfitters, the brand's international expansion began in 2009 with store openings in Canada and the UK. The website extends the offer across 30 countries.