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Nostalgia, Movie Stars and Drag Queens: Inside the Coach Brand Turnaround

The 80-year-old heritage leather goods maker has spent much of the last year leaning into a marketing strategy that emphasised fun. Its efforts are paying off.
Coach's Fall-Winter 2021 campaign shot by Juergen Teller. Courtesy.
Coach's Fall-Winter 2021 campaign shot by Juergen Teller. Courtesy.

Coach’s digital presentation of its Autumn/Winter 2021 collection opens with Michael B. Jordan sprawled on a plastic-wrapped couch in a vintage-inspired living room. The Black Panther star channel surfs on a 1980s-style television, eventually landing on Coach, a show whose title card bears more than a passing resemblance to Friends. Viewers are then transported into a replica of Monica Geller’s apartment, where K-pop stars Hyuna and Dawn break out into a dance battle over a cookie. Cue the laugh track.

The nine-minute film marks a departure from Coach’s pre-pandemic fashion shows, typically expensive spectacles featuring enormous props, and supermodels stalking past celebrity-packed front rows. But “Coach TV” is more than a hasty adaptation to Covid. Rather, it’s the culmination of a long-brewing effort by Coach to reposition its brand as central to the zeitgeist, rather than on the periphery.

Coach’s turnaround has been in play for the better part of the last decade, as sales have inched up incrementally in the years since Stuart Vevers joined the brand as creative director. But after Coach acquired Stuart Weitzman and Kate Spade to form Tapestry, all three brands struggled. A revolving door of chief executives — Victor Luis, who orchestrated the formation of the group, stepped down in September 2019, and his successor, Jide Zeitlin, left less than a year later amid misconduct allegations — didn’t help.

The latest brand revamp might just be working. Tapestry reported that it recruited more than 1.5 million new customers in the quarter ending Dec. 26, a “meaningful increase” compared to the same period in 2019, according to a regulatory filing. Sales in the quarter totalled $1.3 billion, down 4 percent from a year earlier, better than many analysts expected (Kate Spade sales, by comparison, were down 13 percent). Tapestry’s stock is near a two-and-a-half-year high.

“[Coach is] just pushing the envelope for the brand,” said Gabriella Santaniello, founder of research and consulting firm A-Line Partners. “They’re in a position now where they’ve got the roots and the authenticity and the quality of the product, but then they’re also not afraid to have a little fun.”

A Needed Refresh

When Vevers joined Coach from Loewe in 2013, the brand needed a turnaround. Coach had tumbled from its early-aughts heyday. The brand was increasingly associated with its many outlet stores, while “accessible luxury” rivals like Michael Kors stole market share.

In February 2014, Coach joined the New York Fashion Week schedule. Despite generating most of its sales from leather goods, the brand has produced multiple ready-to-wear collections each year since with the lavish fashion shows to match.

But the shows haven’t positioned Coach on the same level as fashion week headliners like Marc Jacobs or Tom Ford in the eyes of industry insiders. And they weren’t high-profile enough to convince ordinary consumers the brand’s products should be bought at full price, rather than the outlet mall.

With in-person shows on hold during the pandemic, Coach developed a new game plan. Coach Forever Season Two, the current campaign, embraces lighthearted humour, riding the pandemic-fuelled nostalgia for previous generations’ television shows and celebrities. Megan Thee Stallion dresses up as Regina George in Mean Girls, and Jordan and the musician Cordae appear in a Shaft spoof. Jennifer Lopez lip syncs to Blondie’s “Call Me” and Cole Sprouse caresses a Coach “pillow talk” handbag to a voiceover reminiscent of late-night phone sex hotline commercials.

“One of the things that I’ve said about the Coach family was [that] if the shoot was a party, you’d have a really good time, and that’s what I really wanted to achieve,” Vevers said.

Coach Forever Season Two saw more engagement on social media in February than any of the brand’s other recent campaigns managed over the previous year, according to Tribe Dynamics. That month, Coach’s earned media value, a measure of engagement, was nearly double the average over the previous 11 months, according to Tribe.

The campaign succeeded because it was high quality but not elitist, said Alasdair Lennox, group executive creative director of experience for the Americas at Landor & Fitch. The sheer range of celebrities, from teen soap stars to models to A-list movie actors, starring in quirky videos, sparked joy and delivered mass appeal, he added.

“I think the sort of the eclecticism [of the casting] represents the eclecticism of New York City,” he said, noting Vevers’ British sense of humour – a “playful irreverence” that helped make the campaign feel like an honest creative pursuit. Coach is unlikely to pursue the traditional fashion show format in the future without some kind of hybrid digital activation attached to it, according to Todd Kahn, Coach brand president.

Just before releasing Coach’s Autumn 2021 collection, Vevers appeared on an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Vevers introduced a challenge where contestants customised a supersized version of the brand’s top-performing Tabby Bag, an envelope-shaped clutch with gold “c” hardware at the clasp.

There were mixed reviews — some on social media felt the Coach product placement was jarring. But Coach leveraged the moment, posting about the challenge on social media, creating a landing page for the promotion and sending out a marketing email to North American customers highlighting the products in the episode. Coach also included the show’s eighth season winner, Bob the Drag Queen, in the Coach Forever Season Two campaign imagery.

Translating Views Into Sales

In the week following the Drag Race episode, foot traffic to its full-priced and outlet stores rose by 20 percent and 32 percent respectively, according to Placer.Ai, which measures US retail foot traffic.

In its second quarter earnings report, Coach’s parent company Tapestry reported that it increased its marketing spend over the last year, which helped drive new customer acquisition and propel triple-digit growth for the company’s digital sales from the previous year. Kahn said half of the new customers added over the last six months were Gen Z or Millennials.

The brand’s future may lie outside the US, however. Strong sales in China helped offset weakness elsewhere in Tapestry’s portfolio during the pandemic. Coach ranked as the number one brand in the handbags, luggage, and leather goods category on TMall’s Luxury Pavilion, Tapestry said in a February earnings call. In its second quarter earnings, Tapestry reported 30 percent growth year-over-year in mainland China. It has plans for a “significant” experience in China this summer, Kahn said.

Ultimately, Coach’s focus on long-term relationships with popular personalities and of-the-moment appearances is propelling a shift in how consumers feel about the eight-decade old brand.

When Rickey Thompson, a fashion favourite internet star tapped for a QVC-style Coach Forever video highlighting the brand’s Rogue 25 bag, posted the spoof to his Twitter channel, one commenter wrote, “the energy and light this exudes — through the roof.” Just after, the commenter added, “Wait, these are kinda cute.”

Related Articles:

How Impactful Were the Digital Fashion Week Shows, Really?

Tapestry’s CEO Is Out. What’s Next?

What’s Next for Kate Spade New York

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