Refining a Brand: The Boston Proper Way


As those within the company readily admit, Boston Proper's emergence as one of today's sexy high-profile fashion brands was hardly launched from a bedrock foundation.


"All we started with was a name and a mailing list," recalls Margaret Moraskie, vice president of e-commerce for the Boca Raton, FL-based cataloger and e-tailer. "That was it."


The evolution of Boston Proper, which provides women's clothing, was indeed salvaged from a bankrupt scrap heap when president and CEO Michael Tiernan purchased the name (and that accompanying registry of addresses) from a Saudi bank.


Tiernan's company (previously known as the Mark Group) was first established in 1955 as Mark, Fore & Strike, a resort-based apparel retailer that later added the Charles Keath gifts and home accessories catalog to its portfolio.


Although the Mark Group ultimately surpassed more than $100 million in annual sales under three brands, profitability lagged farther behind.


Recognizing the potential of its Boston Proper brand, the company implemented drastic reform. As effective branding was identified throughout the retail landscape as a paramount factor for success, the Mark Group divested both Mark, Fore & Strike and Charles Keath (in 2002 and 2003, respectively) and renamed the company Boston Proper - a decision that Moraskie says paid big dividends.


"The company itself has been on a phenomenal run ever since," she asserts. "We put all of our capital and intellectual resources behind the Boston Proper brand because we saw that as the growth vehicle."


Boston Proper, which targets an affluent and active 35- to 55-year-old women's demographic - a market the company says is underserved - was not spared some fine-tuning and correcting of its own.


Characterized by Moraskie as a provocative brand that seeks to "step up to the line without crossing it," Boston Proper "had gotten a little too basic - at least for us, anyway. We needed to go back to our subtly sexy roots," she says.


At the same time, Boston Proper lowered its operating costs while improving quality and fit to better correlate with its higher-end fashions. According to the firm, all the initiatives have yielded a leaner and meaner - and more profitable - Boston Proper fashion house.


A stand-alone brand, a multifaceted strategy


Like a powerful South Florida hurricane accumulating force along its path, Moraskie says improved merchandising along with the refined marketing and the evolution of e-tail all converged positively for Boston Proper to create "a perfect storm, one helped along by a lot of exciting things that have gone on here during the past four years."


Moraskie, whose background is in merchandising, says the Boston Proper web site is designed to be a cohesive extension of the brand and its catalogs that is easy to use and provides a positive customer experience.


"Our customer is educated and extremely busy, and she wants to have a simple and fast shopping experience," Moraskie says. "When we provided that, we got great feedback. I think that's been a key to our online success. We've kept things very integrated. We view [e-tail] as another ordering channel with great upside from a sales perspective."


All indications suggest that Boston Proper's frequent catalog mailings (newly merchandised catalogs are shipped approximately every three weeks) are the primary driver of online purchases, which now account for about half of company sales. "I don't think we'll reach 80 [percent] or 90 percent like a brand targeted to a younger audience that has more of its customer base online," Moraskie says.


But the company is certainly holding its own in the online realm. As e-commerce in the apparel sector has sky-rocketed, Boston Proper has experienced a significant surge in online sales. Its e-tail business particularly picked up after it launched an e-commerce platform from Petaluma, CA-based MarketLive in February 2005.


The updated Boston Proper site retained a consistent overall look as part of the company's mission to continue providing a user experience that extends the Boston Proper brand, and also leverage the catalogs that are the company's hallmark.


"Among the primary advantages of the new site were its stability and speed," Moraskie says. "Our previous e-commerce platform had performance issues from day one."


Another key benefit is the ability to update the site easily in response to customer trends and also to keep it fresh. All of the company's approximately 2,000 products are sold online.


Keeping its eye on creative merchandising


The system's ease of use from an operations standpoint was also crucial, says Moraskie, noting that the company's e-commerce team was assembled with professionals who had a background in merchandising - not information technology.


"It's really all about putting relevant merchandise in front of the customer in a timely manner and making it easy for her to buy it," Moraskie says, adding that as a vendor, MarketLive also shares that retail-first philosophy.


Boston Proper is also using Omniture's web analytics to provide it with a better understanding of consumer behavior. Increased online marketing, anchored by a robust e-mail marketing strategy, and the addition of affiliate and search engine marketing, have been integrated into the brand's multichannel strategy.


This summer, Boston Proper also added zoom functionality to its web site in an ongoing effort to enhance the customer's shopping experience. This feature is provided by Scene 7, a New York-based provider of image server software that recently was acquired by Adobe.


The latter upgrade is a key one, especially considering Boston Proper's leverage of visualization in its catalogs and web site. The company features rich on-location photography showcasing distinctive clothing shot in exotic locations such as the Caribbean, which Moraskie says helps the brand establish a deeper emotional connection with its customers.


Throughout its transformation, the company has prided itself on its multichannel integration efforts: "You will not get different information from one of our customer service representatives than you will online," she says. "We work very hard on that back-end integration to ensure a consistent customer experience. It's so important. It's not very sexy, but it's the basics." 


Michael D. Cole is a former associate editor of Apparel and a frequent contributor.


fast facts

- Headquarters: Boca Raton, FL

- Target market: 35- to-55-year-old affluent, educated, active women

- Brand image: Provocative and sexy while maintaining age-appropriate fit

- Channels: Catalogs (Boston Proper and Boston Proper Sport),

- # Styles Sold Online: Approximately 2,000

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