Authentic Fossil

Authentic Fossil

A brand that realized early on design could be the thing to set it apart from the competition.

Fossil violates the rules of branding with gleeful abandon — an unorthodox strategy that has provided amazing flexibility and great success.

from Business Week Online

Fossil’s multiple logos, ever-changing packaging, and continually reinvented publications appear at first to have nothing more in common than a certain visual historicity the Retro look. “The fact is that we have a very consistent brand identity, built around the ideals the company was founded on in 1986,” says Tim Hale, who has been Fossil’s creative director since the beginning. “But graphically, it comes out of a shared sensibility among our customers, staff, and management, and not out of a standards manual.” This is a living brand, rather than a legislated one. And design is the differentiating factor.

It’s been a powerful differentiator. Starting with one line of Retro-style watches sold through department stores, Fossil now sells sunglasses, leather goods, and apparel in 2,000 partner stores and 82 of their own outlets and that’s just the domestic market. Fossil products (and its lifestyle brand) are distributed in 80 countries, bringing in upwards of $500 million in net annual sales.

The brand’s success has translated to a second business. Disney, Cole-Haan, Armani, DKNY, and Paul Frank have all contracted Fossil to design, produce, and brand their own licensed products. Belief in design as the maker of brands has paid off.

When Fossil was launched in the ’80s, most businesses based their brands on product-oriented, features-and-benefits positions. Fossil’s decision to base their brand on design was a gamble but one that was informed by market realities.

Founders Tom and Kosta Kartsotis observed Swatch’s success in the early ’80s, and saw an opportunity for other affordable, design-driven brands. By 1985, they had three lines of watches on the market, based on different design themes. Only one succeeded: the ’50s-style watches loved by their father, “the Fossil” (hence the company name). Once the market chose the Retro line, they brought Tim Hale on board to develop the brand.

Hale’s mandate was to first find out why consumers liked Retro, and then to exemplify those values in design. “Our market is 18- to 25-year olds. They don’t have personal memories of the mid-century, and don’t necessarily know where this style comes from, but they like it,” he says. “To them, it looks `classic.'” It’s much the same overseas, where the brand translates as authentic Americana. Inside Fossil, Retro style stands for the company’s traditional values: honesty, bringing a good product to market for a good price, having integrity in its dealings with people, and standing behind the product. “We try to be as authentic in the way we operate as in our design,” Hale says.

The appeal of Fossil’s style seems to be rooted in its innocence, which the designers emphasize. “We focus on the positives of the postwar era: the return to industry, the technological innovation, the fascination with big cars, the optimism,” says Hale. “And we love the effects they created with saturated color and illustration.”

As an infant brand, Fossil’s challenge was to create identity at the point of purchase without advertising support. Unique packaging was the solution. The packages had to work as display props, brand identifiers, and value-added items in their own right. “We wanted to give the merchandiser something to merchandise with, and the customer something to love,” says Hale.

They started going to flea markets in search of ’50s ephemera. They bought packages, tins, jars, antique cameras, telephones, radios, knick-knacks, and then immersed themselves in the artifacts of the era. Initially, they used the collection as props to create an authentic setting for the watches in their merchandising materials. “Then we realized we had to create that same kind of collectibility with our own packaging,” says Hale, “which is where the idea of the tins came from.” Tin packages last for years, can be printed with almost any kind of design and people love them.

From the beginning, Hale and the Kartsotis brothers wanted the visual identity to be random. Hale explains that “you can’t hold people’s interest in displays unless you update them regularly, and customers won’t keep a package if they already have one just like it. On top of that, our market continually refreshes itself as customers age out of the demographic, so we need to refresh our look.” They deliberately designed packages with the Fossil name appearing in all kinds of fonts and settings, using themes and graphics that vary from year to year. Still, they manage to convey a consistent image. As Hale says, “We know what is and isn’t Fossil.”

Being a high-fashion brand, they have to provide new products continually. Fossil goes to market five times a year, and since 25% of the line expires in each cycle, the entire product line is refreshed annually. So is the packaging. “We produce close to 3 million tins per year, using 100-plus different designs,” says Hale. That’s a lot of new design and it’s all done in-house.

Fossil’s 100-plus design staff could easily pass for a full-service consultancy. They have watch designers, graphic designers, eyewear designers, packaging designers, photographers, model makers, and manufacturing designers. “We could go outside and find phenomenal talent, but that would be a double-edged sword,” Hale says. “Since they don’t live the brand every day, they don’t always get it. We’d rather put the energy into managing and developing our own talent. On top of that, consultants’ fees would cut into our margins. Owning both the brand and the infrastructure has been very healthy for us.”

It also helps Fossil maintain a consistent identity as the brand evolves. “Fossil is a moving target,” Hale says. “With our own staff, we can keep the designers on the same page as we take new directions. Though we stay in the same genre, we use a different set of themes every year,” says Hale. “To keep it fresh, we’ve promoted the idea among the designers of constantly reinterpreting the theme, adding to the language of the brand. This allows us to bring in young designers with new ideas, teach them the core elements of the brand, and trust them to express it visually.”

Each packaging series has a theme resort hotels, motor oil, or laundry soap carried over two to four tins. For products sold in Fossil stores, the designers also develop themes around the individual locations, to make a connection between the store and the products it sells. For each cycle, the designers make trend boards themed collections of vintage packaging to present at brainstorming sessions. “We’ll come out of each session with a half dozen themes. Then the designers go off, develop original concepts based on the source material, and bring them back for the next session, where we might begin to work out the colors.”

One problem with relying on historical sources is that the design can become an homage to the past, rather than a contemporary communication. To stay current, Hale and his team have created a hybrid. They collect and study matchbook art, album covers, needle packages for radiographs, old cans for pharmaceuticals, cologne, and cosmetics, select graphic ideas that suit Fossil’s witty, unpretentious personality, and recombine them. “We interpret the source material and put a spin on it,” says Hale, “but we always strive for authenticity. The typography, for instance, is either hand-drawn, set in old lead and wood type, or printed with silkscreen or rubber plates, then scanned in. We pay close attention to the effects age has on surfaces and color pure colors don’t translate as Retro. They have to be distressed, given texture, and look as though they’ve dulled or yellowed with age.” Over time, though still working from mid-century sources, Fossil has developed a visual language of its own. Bouncy, customized fonts and simple, cheery illustrations are arranged in energetic compositions with a distinct palette of ochres, olives, soft blues and strong reds. The designs are simpler and bolder than their mid-century models, more carefully focused, but never lose the spirit of the age.

What’s interesting, given all this attention to authenticity, is that most of Fossil’s products don’t look Retro. While the packaging story is about classic Americana, the product story is driven by fashion trends in the Modernist tradition: good materials, good craftsmanship, simple lines, and considered detail. Hale says, “People have a sentimental attachment to the humor and authenticity of the brand, but on a day-to-day basis, they want stylish accessories.”

The tins are virtually a separate product line. “We have a running joke,” says Hale, “that you can either buy a watch and pick out a tin, or buy a tin and pick out a watch. Either way, it costs about $65 bucks.” Behind the wit lies an interesting marketing strategy. “Letting customers choose their own tin adds to the shopping experience. If the item is a gift, they can customize the package for the person they are giving it to.”

Since the brand, rather than product features, drives Fossil’s success, it seemed logical to extend the line. Fossil is gambling their success on two factors: the nature of their brand, and the experience of their management. “We started as a watch company, but what people came to love is the character our visual identity represents,” Hale explains. It’s a lifestyle brand, and as such isn’t married to any one product.

Retail experience matters when it come to knowing what products to add and when to add them. “Our senior management comes from department store backgrounds, and know where the holes are,” Hale says. “They saw a vacancy in watches, then in leather, then in sunwear; those vacancies represented opportunities for the right vendor, with the right product, at the right price.”

Fossil has managed to translate their Retro image across media as well as across product lines. Whether print, interactive, or architectural, the underlying visual language and personality are constant. The headquarters building is done in Chicago brick, with stained concrete floors, and warm interior colors. The annual reports use light-hearted historical imagery, lively headlines, rich textures, and the same warm colors. The website follows suit. But the packaging carries the brand to the public.

As Hale says, “We’re not packaging products, we’re packaging Fossil.” In fact, the U.S. courts have ruled that the watch-in-a-tin is part of Fossil’s trade dress, as well as the shape of the original box. “The identification of Fossil with the tins is almost on the same level as the identification of Coca-Cola with the hourglass bottle,” says Hale. The tins have become so popular that they’ve become collectibles in their own right, as intended. “We started assigning dates and serial numbers to them, like baseball cards, so collectors could keep track of them,” Hale says. “And they do. These days, when we go to flea markets, we see a lot of Fossils.”

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