How a classic American luxury designer has modern marketing in the bag.
Coach them while they’re young.
My first experience with a Coach bag.
With my mother’s arm in one hand and my matching American Girl Doll in the other, I shoved my way through the dense crowd in front of the Plaza Hotel. It was my annual trip into the city for my birthday, and I was about to turn nine. Before we left, I made it clear that absolutely no boys were allowed (nope, not even Dad). I wanted to take on the streets of New York, and although I didn’t know much about the city, I knew that the character Eloise from my childhood books would absolutely not have any boys tagging along on her shopping spree. As we finally made it to a clear space on the sidewalk, I stopped dead in my tracks. A man with dozens of bags carefully organized on a tarp in the middle of the street caught my eye. There, I saw it: a lime green shoulder bag.
This was my first memory of a Coach purse. Of course, it was fake;I didn’t know what designer bags were, and I basically had to beg my mother to cough up the $15for the tacky monstrosity. Nonetheless, it became my favorite piece in my closet, next to my Limited Too pink and black plaid skirt. I could just imagine walking back into my suburban home with the bag in hand and hearing my brothers tell me how cool the color was. For the next several months, the Coach shoulder bag stayed full of Lip Smackers, a Tamagotchi, and a fresh outfit for my American Girl Doll (you know, just in case). I still have this bag today.
Flash forward to high school, where I attended class from 2012 to 2016. Coach bags still reminded me of my mom, but not because of our annual girls trip. I started to become more interested in personal style and what it said about a person before they had the chance to open their mouth to speak. I saw Coach as a brand for an older generation, tolerated as bags for moms, even seen as diaper bags around my neighborhood. Overall, the loud Coach purses were seen as tacky if worn by the teens and twenty-somethings I looked up to in Seventeen Magazine and on Tumblr. I saw them as, dare I say, cheugy, for the time. If your style spoke before you had the chance to, Coach would be saying “tacky”.
Now I am fresh out of college, and care a lot less about what I wear, what people think of me, and have been seen carrying a dull-colored canvas bag with mystery stains on it more often than not. Although my idea of style has slipped into the “comfortable work from home” category rather than the “plaid skirt and lime green purse” or “Tumblr and Seventeen Magazine” category from my past, I can’t help but notice every time I open a social media app someone has a Coach bag. As I start my new life in the world of adulthood, Coach has started a new life too, in the world of digital marketing. Let’s dive into the history of Coach and the strategy that has put them back on the shoulders of young women across the globe.
A brief history of their Coaching career.
The origins of the brand Coach.
In 2021, Coach celebrated its 80th anniversary. In those 80 years, the brand has gone through ups and downs in its leadership and style identity.
Coach dates back all the way back to 1941, originally founded under the name Manhattan Leather Bags by Lillian and Miles Cahn. Inspired by the baseball glove, they worked with artists to create a twelve handbag collection made from tan, supple, high-quality leather. In 1962, Bonnie Cashin, a pioneer in American sportswear due to her use of industrial hardware and organic materials, was brought on to the team. Cashin is credited with the brass hardware commonly seen along with the duffle bag silhouette. The Cashin motto was to “make things as lightweight as possible, as simple as possible, as punchy as possible, as inexpensive as possible.” This meant that the collection was classic in design but flashy in color, presenting itself in shades of red, pink, yellow, and green. Although this may have felt like a leap from the baseball glove-inspired bags initially made, this was nowhere near the finish line for redesigning the Coach brand.
When 1979 came along, Lew Frankfort became CEO and made the little-known leather goods manufacturer a world-renowned brand. Frankfort is a significant, if not the sole reason that Coach became the face of affordable luxury in the 1990s. Before this, there was either luxury or not, and nothing in between. The company got down to business by sharing a catalog and opening its Madison Avenue flagship store.
In 1985, Coach became a part of Sara Lee, but in 2000, they spun off in a public offering on Wall Street. Starting in the late 1980s, Coach began expanding and innovating to keep the brand strong and fresh. In 1992, they added outerwear such as their classic trench coat, and in 1993, they hired Reed Krakoff, known for sportswear design at Tommy Hilfiger. He took the sturdy and basic bags to the next level by adding accessories like watch straps, wallets, cell phone cases. These sound like great additions to the brand at the time; however, if I were going to blame one person for Coach’s downfall, it would probably have to be Krakoff.
In 2001, Coach launched their Signature collection, featuring the bold “C” design. At the turn of the century, this new line was capitalizing on the logomania trend, captivating the entire fashion industry. Logomania involves prominent branding printed all over the piece and was a far cry from the origins of the baseball glove-inspired bags or the duffle by Cashin. This logo tapestry bag is what I remember as Coach growing up. Specifically, sizable brown tapestry tote bags covered in the “C” logo. Colorful, thin leather handles that looked like they would have dug into your arm five minutes into carrying them still haunt me in my nightmares.
If you think it couldn’t get worse than the logomania bags that teetered on the line of a free advertisement on a billboard, you’re wrong. In 2006, Krakoff debuted the Legacy collection, which included suede and canvas, adding brighter and less classic colors. Once such an iconic part of the bag, the brass toggles were replaced with magnets for closure. Coach’s website was now home to embroidery, contrast stitching, studs, fringe, bright patterns, and whatever else matched with Juicy Couture tracksuits and low rise Hollister jeans at the time. Although these intricate designs were popular, they lacked the durability and timeless taste the brand centered itself around during its origins.
It wasn’t until 2013 that things started to change internally, but the brand’s external reputation was still strongly tarnished in much of the consumer world. In a 2013 forum, user kawaiivictim posted, “If you are a female trying to make it into the high fashion world with a Coach tote (acting like you’re hot) you will be shaded.” They go on to say, “There are wannabe fashionistas who think they’re something hot because they paid 80 dollars for a 2-year-old Coach bag at T.J Maxx. You guys just don’t understand, it’s embarrassing…. like Uggs and Yoga pants.” (I can’t make this up, the word fashionista was used in a serious context, and there was a point in time when people saw yoga pants as embarrassing. kawaiivictim would have definitely seen me as very un-fashionista.)
In 2013, Victor Luis became Coach’s president and chief commercial officer. In 2014 he became CEO, and Lew Frankfort continued as an executive chairman. Coach finally announced Stuart Vevers as the new executive creative director, replacing cheugy king himself, Reed Krakoff. Vevers has brought Coach to a place where it’s flashy but still incorporates long-lasting and ready-to-wear style. Coach rebranded to become Tapestry Inc. and bought Kate Spade and Stuart Weitzman (if you saw me wearing their knock-off over-the-knee pirate boots in 2016… no, you didn’t.)
In 2019, they dropped fur from their collection and named Jide J. Zeitlin as the new CEO of Tapestry Inc., replacing Victor Luis. Zeitlin resigned quickly from his position in July 2020, following allegations of personal misconduct. Finally, on July 21, 2020, Joanne Crevoiserat became the interim CEO of Tapestry, having been with the company since 2008 in various leadership roles.
This leads us to the year of serious rebranding. Like many companies during Coronavirus, Coach had to pivot to focus on their digital platform, and they are killing it.
Put me in, Coach
How Coach has used digital marketing to revive their brand
If you’ve been on social media lately, and I mean any social media, you probably noticed the rise of buying pre-owned items. From Facebook Marketplace moms selling their kid’s old toys to TikTok’s second-hand hauls to YouTubers’ impressive thrift flips, sustainable shopping has crept its way to the forefront of many consumers’ minds. With the popularity of thrifting and second-hand love coupled with trending Y2K fashion, old brands and styles have been revived. It turns out I should have kept that pink and black plaid skirt.
As we see brands like Jean-Paul Gaultier and styles like lowrise skinny jeans (FML) arise from the dead, we also see, you guessed it: Coach. “Why had we deemed Coach an ‘embarrassing’ brand? What made it less luxe than any other designer on the market?” Bella Gerard, fashion & lifestyle editor at Stylecaster, writes. “The realization that we were in the wrong began with the normalization of thrift shopping as mainstream.” Remember the logomania bag I called tacky a few paragraphs ago? Maybe I was wrong.
As Coach bags became more popular, they did what every good brand does: take that burst of hype and run like hell. The day I opened TikTok and saw the Pillow Tabby by Coach, I was instantly intrigued. The bag’s silhouette was revived by Stuart Vevers, originally dating back to the 1970s. At first glance, it may not seem like anything remarkable. Rich colored flap bags that can be converted into a crossbody if needed but come with the baguette strap that has made a name for itself in the industry as of late due to the Y2K reemergence. What makes it interesting is the pillowed effect. Pillowed bags are on the rise and have an interesting history themselves.
Flashback to the original quilted purse, the 1920’s classic Chanel shoulder bag. Pillowed bags exaggerate this look by adding more filling, and often, a larger pattern. Quilted, pillowed bags have been on my radar for a while now, ever since seeing the functional MZ Wallace nylon bags, which came around in the early 2000s. Today, high fashion brands are capitalizing on the trend again. You can see it in Bottega Veneta’s 2019 Fall/Winter Cassette Bag. Some brands dropped the look of the quilted pattern altogether, keeping just the stuffing-like texture, such as the creatively named Pillow Bag by Marc Jacobs, also introduced to us in 2019. To me, these bags also play on the more casual style we have had to adapt since working from home, and stay-at-home orders came into our lives over a year ago. They look more relaxed than a structured bag and seem so soft you could take a nap with them. Now, we have an entire line of bags in this style by Coach who has dubbed them “cloud soft bags.”
In 2019, the queen Jennifer Lopez herself was named the global ambassador of Coach following fellow ultra celebrity Selena Gomez. In February 2021, Coach released campaign advertisements with the bag featuring Jennifer Lopez along with Camila Morrone and Paloma Elsesser. However, this was not the marketing ploy that got the bag stardom. The Pillow Tabby is the “cloud soft bag” of choice by Coach that broke the internet, seen in the hands of influencers around the globe. Don’t believe me? Check out the hashtag #pillowtabby on TikTok.
Honestly, I had no idea that JLo was the face of Coach before researching for this blog post. In fact, I don’t think I know who any of the celebrity ambassadors are for my most loved brands. I do, however, know which influencers I see in reference to sponsored brand content. It’s hard to ignore the internet’s it-vlogger-girl Emma Chamberlain attending Louis Vitton shows in Paris, however, it’s expected and predictable to see movie stars, music artists, or models there.
Coach has taken influencer culture on social media and converted it into global advertisements. Gone are the days of trying to get high-profile individuals to pose with your products. Instead, Coach has done what every TikToker dreams of doing. They hit their target viewers’ FYP and stayed there. FYP stands for “For You Page,” and, according to dictionary.com, FYP acts like an individual landing page for users which showcases curated videos that TikTok thinks they might watch or like. Although there are paid advertisements on the FYP, Coach targeted individuals with influencers creating Tabby styling tips, unboxings, and reviews.
What makes FYP advertisements by influencers and users so appealing is the fact that they are multi-faceted. They seem more “real” than a supermodel carrying the bag or posing with it on a billboard. Reviews by these “real” people are convincing and show interactions with products in a day-to-day manner, like going grocery shopping or walking to class. People styling the bag are wearing clothes and outfits that other users could actually have or obtain. Influencers are more relatable, thus making their purchases more justifiable in the face of consumers.
Postgame Speech from the Coach.
What we should take away from Coach’s marketing tactic.
Coach’s marketing tactic is not exclusive to D2C behemoths. Those interested in digital marketing can learn a thing or two from the old, reliable brand our mothers and all of TikTok, love. Acting fast, targeting an audience, and knowing when to focus and when to pivot are all applicable to most industries, no matter the size.
Social media is not just a numbers game. Timing is just as essential to creating a robust digital presence. If brands focus on timing, the numbers often come. Being in the know of trends, whether they be in fashion, music, technology, or politics, are crucial and change quicker than a high school theatre group between sets. Microtrends have taken over the internet and our wardrobes, making these changes faster than ever. ‘Microtrends’ are the invasive styles caused by small groups of people that influence by socio-culture, economics, politics, and technology. Creating timely content, and quickly running with content that produces well and posting consistently, will cultivate growth. Coach took timeliness to the next level, capitalizing on the growth of TikTok, staying ahead of their competition, and finding their circle of ideal customers.
You need to stay in the know of new platforms people are gathering in. Instagram and TikTok have vast amounts of users, but marketing on smaller, newer platforms may push your content to a community that would not have seen your brand otherwise. Take the audio-based social media app Clubhouse. Although my use of Clubhouse has dropped immensely over the past few months, I was on it all the time when I got access to the app during the COVID-19 lockdown. If I were trying to market a brand, it would have been a fantastic place to boost awareness and credibility. Using the app could have helped users put a face to the name behind the brand I was marketing, giving them exclusive audio content along with a sense of online community.
When I was using Clubhouse, I found the brand Snaxshot, founded by the frequent Clubhouse speaker Andrea Hernández. Snaxshot relays upcoming food and beverage trends that offer a curation of brands and aesthetics. Over time through social media, it has formed into a community of conscious snack consumers. If it weren’t for her engagement on the app, I would have never heard of the brand or the founder. After speaking with Hernández and creating a relationship with her outside of Snaxshot, I will be a longtime fan of Snaxshot. Constantly stay up to date on what to post and where to post it.
Acting fast also relates to that outside your brand, like your competitors, and even outside your industry. As time goes on, we are starting to see fashion and technology intersect. During the 2019 holiday season, Ralph Lauren partnered with Snapchat to introduce an AR-enhanced game featuring their cute mascot, the Polo Bear. Louis Vuitton partnered with the French luxury brand League Of Legends to create new skins to add to your characters and a capsule collection for avatars.
Acting fast also has to do with engaging with the right circle. Once you find the consumers that flock to your brand, you can narrow in and find individuals or groups that you align with. These are great to keep in mind when creating content for your digital presence. Think of these players as the ones influencing the quickly changing microtrends. A great example of this would be Maria Calvo necklaces and Victoria Paris. The beaded necklaces can are seen on the New York-based influencer’s neck, who has only been active in the space since December of 2020. The best thing about this is that the necklace does not look like product placement but rather adds her maximalist aesthetic. Maria Calvo, a relatively small brand at the time, noticed she was an up and coming internet-girl and took advantage of that. Now, Paris is seen sporting content sponsored by more prominent brands, like Nike. By creating content you know these players will engage with, you skip out on creating content looking for a consumer. The more people who engage, the more data you have to work with, which will help narrow your target audience.
Targeting an audience is easier said than done. When looking for a target audience, it’s essential to consider as many key factors as possible, such as what social media they interact on, where they are located, what age group they are in, and what gender they identify as. You want to draw your dream consumer and write a book on their day-to-day life.
Once you see more traction with your brand, even if it is just a little, finding the origin of the traction is hugely beneficial. Before throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks, consider product-market fit. Product-market fit means that your product or brand is in a place where it can satisfy a market. If you created your brand without a problem in mind, work backward. Define what problem you are solving, and find the market looking for the solution. This method will give you a starting place to jump off of and focus on.
Like a good coach always says, focus on your goal. We’re going to stray away from the Coach puns and stick to what Ross from Friends says: pivot. You should be ready to pivot away from everything you had planned, what trends you followed, and your target communities. The preppy apparel brand Abercrombie & Fitch initially started by selling shotguns, fishing rods, and other sporting goods. Wrigley’s started out by selling soap and baking powder and didn’t even consider gum until they began to give out for free to attract customers. This sparked the pivot to Juicy Fruit and Wrigley’s Spearmint. Your pivot may not be as drastic as Coach when they stepped away from the creative direction under Reed Krakoff, but, when you recognize even the slightest opportunity to pivot away from something that isn’t providing benefit, you should assess the risks and rewards. As the badass computer scientist and US Navy Rear Admiral Grace Hopper said, “the most dangerous phrase in the language is ‘we’ve always done it this way.’”
Coach’s days of large “C” embellished totes are long gone and in their place stand trendy muted shoulder bags. Today, under the creative direction of Stuart Vevers and the leadership of Joanne Crevoiserat, we see Coach coming back onto the playing field. Their growth by way of digital marketing skyrocketed, letting brands, new and old, learn a thing or two about their ability to act fast, targeting an audience, and strategically pivoting. Maybe it’s time for me to take out my fake lime green Coach shoulder bag and show my teenage sister that I wore Coach before it was cool.