Brand Chief Ana Andjelic on Breathing Life Back Into Esprit

'If it's a comeback tour, you play your greatest hits'

Ana Andjelic has a big, weird CV. 

I first encountered her when she handled digital strategy at The Barbarian Group in 2009. Like everyone else, she was blogging her perspectives on branding and social media. It was nerdy—she has a PhD in sociology from Columbia University—and she remains a prolific writer. You can read her more recent output on The Sociology of Business.

She pissed off a lot of readers—and some clients and colleagues, too. "I think people either really love me or hate me," Andjelic tells Muse.

Later, she moved to Droga5, serving as a senior digital strategist. The agency was exploding then, and she was part of its big wave of unexpected thinkers, surveying adland's issues through a different lens. 

People in advertising who make marks in strategy and planning don't generally end up on a creative director trajectory, and great roles for them are pretty rare. Usually, the best you can do is claw up into a VP, strategy seat. That’s where Andjelic landed for awhile: SVP, global strategy at Havas LuxHub.

She pivoted brandside, and started carving out space for herself as a CMO in fashion. Her most notable role so far has been at Banana Republic, where she helped redefine the brand's identity and product design approach.

Now, she's chief brand officer at Esprit, a massively nostalgic name that feels, to many, like it fell off the face of the earth, taking the '80s and our happy millennial childhoods with it. Andjelic's been there a year, working to revive the brand on a local and global level. 

Below is a conversation we had about what her work entails.

Muse: What attracted you to Esprit?

Ana Andjelic: The CEO sent me a message on LinkedIn that said, "I want to talk to you about Esprit." I was like ... wow, you don't know why or how, or where it came from.

It must have felt like a nostalgic fever dream.

You know what Esprit's greatest brand asset is? People love memories of themselves—especially of themselves growing up. Human memory filters bad things out and creates this story of growing up as a time of discovery and wonderful experiences—travels with friends, late nights … everything that was part of those teenage years, and young adolescence. 

We are nostalgic for ourselves. If you have a brand that was lucky enough to be there, your job is done in a sense. You're not nostalgic for Esprit. You're nostalgic for this T-shirt that you wore on the first day of school, and how it made you feel. Or how you thought you were the coolest girl at the prom. That is something all of us have. What happened in our thirties is so much less real to us than the time when we were becoming ourselves.

That's such a filmy thing to try to revive and associate directly with Esprit. It feels a little dangerous. Did you feel confident about how you wanted to approach it?

We have different strategies for reviving the brand. In North America and Asia Pacific, Esprit just … went away. People think it doesn't exist anymore; for them, we're bringing it back. In Europe, it's been around for years, but the brand equity degraded into a pile of sand when they started competing on cost. The challenge there is more operational: How do you revamp the stores? How do you revamp the website, while not losing the customers that are keeping the lights on? That's a different strategy. It's less brand and more smart marketing, smart merchandising, smart retail.

So for North America and Asia, it's a brand comeback. Europe is more like adjusting retail expectations progressively at points of sale. But you need these strategies to somehow meet in the middle. They have to, but they need to transition. Those transition plans look very different. For North America, because you're positioning from zero, you have a blank slate. The transition plan in Europe has to be more nuanced, on a longer time frame.

For North America and Asia, it's the big comeback tour. Everyone loves a comeback tour.

But the caveat of a comeback tour is, nobody wants to hear the new music.

That's okay, and I'll tell you why: If it's a comeback tour, you play your greatest hits. This is a great opportunity for exhibiting our archives, great things you can reuse from the '80s and '90s. Then you have new things.

Think of a band. Literally, we're taking cues from music—with invites, merch, all that. Tina Turner would play her hits, then do interview shows with her new material. That is how you attract new audiences. Also, we're seeing a lot of mothers and daughters that provide a great two-for-one strategy. Mom comes in, talks about her high school days and Esprit. The daughter buys that '80s aesthetic.

It reminds me of Stranger Things: You've got this nostalgia audience, but you've also got this whole new audience that wasn't even alive during the '80s, but for some reason they like the mouthfeel.

The '80s became a product in itself, and people are buying it. For this reason, it's the right time and the right place for the right brand. I wouldn't do this for Banana Republic. What we did there was go to the archives and revive that imagined world. Because that's what they were doing—hand-drawing imagined worlds.

Even the name 'Banana Republic' had that feeling of a whimsical imaginary world.

It wasn't about the dark colonial stuff. The founders of Banana were thinking, What would people do in these imagined worlds we're inventing? Who would they encounter and where would they go? It was all about imagination. It's not about safaris or adventure.

With Esprit, we've got this rule-breaking brand that hired John Casado to do their logo. You already have all these great elements, you just have to let them live and breathe in 2023 and beyond. Don't get trapped by them, but keep the ethos.

How do you go about that in practical terms?

Basic questions. What is the focus of our content, collaborations, curation and community building? How are we gonna go about those things? First the what was defined, the how was defined, the Esprit look was defined. What specific look is recognisable as Esprit? It's metropolitan outdoor, like gorpcore.

What is gorpcore?

Gorpcore is like … Patagonia with a sequined dress.

Do you mean like glamping, but clothes?

Exactly! It's a kind of a metropolitan look, very Gen Z. It's oversized, layered, masculine and feminine at the same time. So at Esprit, we have unisex plates. We don't call them unisex, but they're the elements helping define signature products: Soft hues, oversized, layers, the drawstring bag.

We're looking at then and now: What are the products that encapsulate that metropolitan outdoor brand aesthetic perfectly? How do we translate it to now, so you have something that's very current, but linked to the DNA? 

You don't want to be a prisoner of the past, because you want to move on. But you want to move on in a way that's differentiating, because over time, Esprit started competing on price. When you do that, you do the most commercially viable things. See that woman in stripes? That's something anyone might have. If we offer that, who are we? You need to have an aesthetic point of view. 

Then we defined the product strategy, because design falls under brand and product. We needed hero products—the signature products of the brand. Then you have a collection that enables you to participate in trends from the Esprit point of view. And then there's the foundation: What are the Esprit pieces you wear every day? How do they incorporate the logo or colors? 

Esprit's known for color blocking. How do you modernize that? You need those signature details on offerings that everyone has in their wardrobe. After the signature products and new product pyramid, we worked on the key personas that impact our merchandising strategy. 

Finally, we did campaigns. With campaigns, you need to start slowly, bringing Esprit back into people's closets. You can't do the same old things. E-commerce has its own social art direction, with cues of playfulness and mischief. But the campaigns for our new positioning are more elevated, more premium.

You don't succeed by competing with Shein or Zara. You have to provide something that's better value. There are people who used to buy luxury twice a year, and can't afford it anymore. Only the rich can afford luxury. So they go to you, because the quality is there.

Who is in your creative family tree?

I don't really have models or icons like that. I believe inspiration is everywhere. For Esprit, my inspiration is Hermès: That confidence that allows you to not be afraid to put a $100,000 bag together with little birds and a playful aesthetic and imagery; you don't need to take yourself seriously. Marni is another in that aesthetic family—again, embracing that frivolity of luxury.

I also used to read a lot about design and experience design earlier in my career, and then obviously sociology.

You used to write a lot about your research.

Yeah, because I have a PhD in sociology. But I also looked at cognitive psychology and behavioral economics. And experience design—what makes people respond. And industrial design. So those would be my inspirations. It's less of a "family," more of a ... city, a neighborhood.

How did you find yourself solving these kinds of brand problems?

I often see what something is and can be, then want to take it there. Maybe it's my sociological background. The nature of academia, of research, is to be curious, to want to dig in and be able to explain it.

When a brand is doing well, there is very little you can add. Unless they're like, "Hey, we want to do X, Y and Z." Maybe that's the next stage of my career, scaling brands that are doing well, because that's often a challenge. It happens when an aesthetic appeals to a particular group of people. How do you grow that aesthetic without making a mess? So that's a challenge for Tiffany or Hermès. LVMH has that same challenge, but their approach is to open new stores, saturate the market, and do streetwear.

But why I do this—it's rewarding. At Banana Republic, what we did led to 24 percent year-over-year growth.

How do you know you're done?

When the energy spent on pushing things internally became greater than the energy spent building things externally. Sometimes organizations say they want to change, but don't, and it's hard to tell at first. You show up and you're working with people who've been there for 15, 20 years. You want to excite them, and get along, but it doesn't happen overnight.

I'm a disruptive CMO. That means you break things as you go, unfortunately. The same thing is happening at Esprit. So we'll see. I'm optimistic, and there is still a lot to be done. But I'm not stupid optimistic. I'd be the first to say, "Maybe in Europe we should just kill the brand.”

Is that a question you still have?

No, it's more of a matter of setting the expectations and transitions now. We're down to thinking things like, should we isolate the brand in Germany? These are business questions you don't have when things are fine or when something is small, and you just have a website where you need to drive traffic. But here, we have so many different retail channels in different markets with different behaviors and products.

It's good because it forces you to change too. I always say discipline, discipline, discipline. When you're in a tough environment, you have to prioritize. And that's great, because a lot of CMOS just ...

...make PowerPoint presentations...

...and you know what? God bless them, they have a great life! For most of them, this is a very poorly defined role. You have to lean into different things.

So much of what you're doing does require the sign off of the CEO.

It's so important to have that trust.

So you're working very closely together?

Absolutely. Not only working closely, but maintaining transparency. You need to make decisions and bring them along, let them know, make clear recommendations. They let me pretty much run on my own. If they want something that I don't think is right, I offer my opinion and get back in my lane. We all want it to succeed.

Because so much of your corporate identity is breaking things, some of the things you break are going to feel catastrophic in the short term. What do you use as a compass?

If there is a buy-in strategy, it doesn't matter what happens in one quarter or two quarters. If you start doing discounts and you're like, "Oh shit, we went too far," you course-correct.

Everything is a hypothesis. No one knows anything. It can be an informal hypothesis, but it is a hypothesis that must be tested. Then you just see.

I want to give you an example. At the end of December, we had a pop-up in New York. It was very rushed, but it had to happen. We had some archive reissues, some vintage ... but we didn't know what would happen. The brand hasn't been there for 20 years. 

We looked at price sensitivity. Our hypothesis is to go into North American markets with a higher price point than European, because they won't care. We didn't have enough data to support that, but it's enough to try. So we had things like, a dress for $149. It's still an investment, but not the most expensive. Enough to convey value. If we didn't have a single sale, the hypothesis would still be moving. I would be like, "I made a mistake, let's course correct."

Have you made considerations about textiles? Because textile norms have changed a lot.

When I started, Esprit asked, "What would you change?" I said, "Nobody's buying it because the product is cheap." If you say something like that, you have to fix it. So they said, "What would you do?" I said I would upgrade the patterns. Next thing you know, I'm doing it myself.

But that's supposed to be what the job is!

That's why I'm doing it. I don't say no. The job is social media strategy and answering people's comments. But it's also upgrading fabrics, brand message and product. You can't elevate the brand without the rest.

Sometimes I feel like nobody knows what they're talking about most of the time.

They're just throwing shit at the wall and using jargon. I'm so grateful for academic training in this regard, trying to do something that means something. In the end though, it's all about the narratives, the stories we tell each other to make sense of the world. But who gets to tell the stories? Who's included and who isn't?

For me, that's basic media literacy. Material culture is more relevant when you see it as storytelling. As an example, I was looking at the spring products, the logo … you unpack the context, the period of time, unlocking all these memories for you or other people.

There's a narrative in a pair of sneakers or a pair of jeans: "Oh, people used to like this, and they were made for these kinds of bodies, and not for those kinds." Those products, those physical objects, are also stories. It doesn't need to be oral. It's a material story.

But brands sit in the middle. They have this cultural and commercial tension. That's what makes the story interesting.

Angela Natividad
Angela Natividad is the European markets editor at Muse by Clio. She also writes about gaming and fashion, and whatever else she's interested in, really. She's based in Paris and North Italy, so if you're local, say hi. She might eat all your food.

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