This is the second part of a three-part series on the business of Greek life.
Sorority girls love Lilly Pulitzer. Scroll through the Instagram feeds of competitive chapters at big schools such as the University of Georgia, Alabama and Clemson, and the clothing brand’s distinctive prints, which range from candy-hued to aggressively neon, appear again and again on smiling sorority sisters. Particularly in the South, its dresses and accessories are a Greek life staple.
At sororities, which value tradition, the company’s history plays a role in its appeal. Founded in 1959 by the late Lilly Pulitzer — a high-society Palm Beach housewife who, according to company legend, opened a juice stand and created a line of colorful cotton shift dresses to mask any stains — the brand was embraced by style icons, most famously Jackie Kennedy. In time, its designs became shorthand for a type of inherited, preppy privilege. Vintage “Lilly” is passed down from generation to generation — Caitlin Glasscock, a student at the University of Georgia, first discovered Lilly at 13, when she was gifted a pineapple skirt and sweater set her mother had worn as a girl. When I visit the lone New York City Lilly Pulitzer location (on the Upper East side, naturally), the sales girl cheerfully tells me she’s been wearing Lilly since the age of five or six.
But the label hasn’t simply rested on its legacy-approved laurels; instead, it’s worked to attract a generation of customers who didn’t grow up in its pink-and-green cardigans. Krystal Faircloth is a Lilly superfan and lifestyle blogger who collaborates with the brand on social media; she wasn’t familiar with Lilly until her freshman year at Louisiana State University, where she pledged Delta Zeta. It was the brand’s prominence at her chapter, not at the university as a whole, that turned her into a convert. “Sorority fashion is different from people who aren’t in sororities,” she says. “It’s a lot more preppy.”
The brand has actively fanned this sorority flame. In 2010, it rolled out customized items with sororities’ colors and letters. The line was discontinued two years later for unknown reasons, but the company maintains an explicit relationship to Greek life. (Lilly Pulitzer declined repeated requests for an interview.) As its website assures, the customized line may be gone, but “from your little to your big and all of the sisters in between, trust us — there’s still Lilly to love for all of your girls.”
That a nearly 60-year-old company isn’t just relevant, but vital enough to inspire an entire subcategory of online posts about sorority life, is a testament to the brand’s savvy adoption of digital marketing. For its sorority line, the company opened up the process to online voting. Those that collected the most votes “won” customized prints, effectively turning students into brand ambassadors. “Having a Lilly print is a huge deal, especially in the sorority world,” Tori Tidwell, a student at University of Georgia, told the school’s independent daily in 2012, adding that along with fellow sisters, she urged friends and family to vote for Delta Gamma.
It’s just one example of Lilly Pulitzer’s multifaceted campaign to attract younger customers on social media. “We knew the brand could not survive by focusing only on the customers that had already been buying our styles for years,” CEO Michelle Kelly wrote in a March blog post for the Harvard Business Review. The challenge, she continued, was to find “an approach that engaged millennial shoppers on their terms, while staying true to the values that made Lilly an icon.”
So far, it’s threaded this needle by appealing to commonalities in its target demographic. Lilly may be for everyone from grandmothers to college students to toddlers, but in an important way its audience is narrow. By the company’s own classification, customers are “affluent,” and, although not an official designation, largely white.
Lilly’s social media strategy reflects this. Over the past decade, the company has built a network of stylish, young women with large social media followings who post photos in which they’re decked out in Lilly. The collective image is one of sunlit, carefree, unfussy luxury, an updated spin on a privilege that, at its core, remains unchanged. This has drawn the brand criticism for being elitist, but for branding purposes its worked out nicely.
Carly Heitlinger, who began working with the company in 2009 as a college student, contributes to this aspirational collage. An online “influencer” before the term was a relevant, Heitlinger posted musings and photos online her freshman year at Georgetown. The side project turned into “The College Prepster,” a lifestyle blog that now doubles as her full-time job. She makes money through events, paid sponsorships and advertising revenue.
Through her writing and photos on various social media channels, Heitlinger comes across as polished but approachable. (Her “About Me” page is sprinkled with “fun facts,” such as “the day doesn’t start until I’ve had a cup of coffee and it doesn’t end until I’ve read a few pages of a good book.”) With 185,000 followers on Instagram and 57,000 on Pinterest, she now works with Kate Spade, Nordstrom, Splendid and other brands, some of which pay her to feature their products.
Her relationship with Lilly is less formal. When Heitlinger likes an item of clothing, she’ll email Caroline Wright, the company’s head of integrated marketing and social media. The product is typically gifted to her, meaning she doesn’t pay for it, but there’s an expectation that she’ll feature it in a post. As with most of her partnerships, Heitlinger only features items she would actually wear — her blog’s success depends on its careful curation – and so “there are seasons where the brand doesn’t speak to me and I may do less, and other seasons I am emailing them every day,” she says.“They’ve been able to capture organic excitement and translate to relationship with bloggers.”
Lilly Pulitzer features dozens of such influencers on its social media channels; its site even has a page where hopefuls can apply to join the photogenic club. On average, each girl has the attention of an engaged audience in the tens, sometimes hundreds of thousands, which means Lilly is able to harness an army of targeted microphones in exchange for compensated merchandise, a more affordable arrangement than traditional advertising.
In lieu of expensive professional ads, here’s Faircloth laughing on a boardwalk and Heitlinger smiling in the sunlight. They look enviably perfect, but thanks to their accompanying blogs, they’re personable, too. Oh, and they’re all wearing Lilly.
This is powerful stuff. “We look for in brand’s what we look for in friends,” says Dean Crutchfield, an independent brand consultant. The best companies don’t just advertise – they tell stories consumers can interact with. And via its influencer network, Lilly has outsourced much of its storytelling to bloggers who regularly correspond with fans.
Clearly, the strategy is paying off. The brand’s still modest following has expanded in the last couple years – since 2014 its Instagram and Facebook count grew from 330,000 to nearly 800,000 and from 860,000 to 1.2 million, respectively — and engagement is unusually high. Meanwhile, ecommerce sales have grown. Last year, online sales made up 30% percent of revenue, compared to 16% in 2011, a sign the brand is resonating with millennial shoppers. As CEO Kelly wrote in her HBR post, most of the brand’s young buyers prefer to make purchases online.
It’s an impressive trajectory for a label that was recently revived from extinction. While Pulitzer successfully grew her eponymous line from a side business into a national brand throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, by the early 1980s the company was overextended. New Directions, its failed sportswear line, was the last straw, and in 1984 the company filed for bankruptcy. The label remained dormant for eight years, until retailer Sugartown Worldwide bought the rights, and brought Pulitzer herself back as a creative consultant. In 2010, the Oxford Industries, which owns the lifestyle brands Tommy Bahama and Southern Tide, acquired Sugartown for $60 million.
Today, the brand is more than just back – it’s growing. Net sales were $205 million last year, up 22% from 2014 and 66% from 2012. Same-store sales increased 27% last year.
To sustain the forward momentum, Lilly appears to be trying to broaden its appeal.
When I ask a handful of sorority girls to name a brand that is a) popular and b) preppy, Lilly Pulitzer is identified before I can finish the question. But under Oxford Industries’ direction, the company is working to shed its preppy reputation. “They definitely want to be seen as a fashion resort line,” says Heitlinger. While the words resort and vacation are reiterated on social media channels, in interviews, and SEC filings, “preppy” is nowhere to be found. When I visit the New York Location, the sales associate confirms this, saying that instead of preppy, the brand wants to convey a resort vibe. Unlike other labels, Lilly’s colors don’t change with the season – they remain deliberately bright year long, she says, because vacations happen year round. Judging from the company’s strong performance, no one’s too alarmed by the subtle shift in tone.
Customers were distressed by another recent decision: Last year, the company announced it would release a more affordable line in partnership with Target (a typical Lilly dress retails for $150 to $250; For its Target line, prices ranged from $2 to $150 and more than 200 items were less than $30.)
On the surface, it was a positive move: more Lilly for more people! But some hard-core fans disagreed, taking to social media to complain that mass market went against Lilly’s very identity. Sorority girls led the charge.
“They grew up in these clothes, as did their mothers and their grandmothers,” Veronica Ruckh, the director of the popular blog Total Sorority Move, explained to Newsweek. “To them, Lilly is theirs.”
The hisses of disapproval didn’t hurt the collaboration, which sold out almost instantly at Target stores and online.
For a moment, it seemed the partnership was part of an overarching effort to extend Lilly’s reach, making the brand attainable for shoppers who can’t afford to drop $200 on a shift dress. “Lilly’s attitude and overall approach to her designs has always been about inclusivity,” Jane Schoenborn, the company’s vice president of creative communications told Elle. “We saw a collaboration with Target, a retailer that strives to make style accessible to everyone, as the perfect opportunity to amplify this message and bring Lilly’s story to a broader audience.”
And yet, despite its success, the company hasn’t rolled out more affordable options. Its messaging remains just as exclusive, and in May 2015 it made headlines when photos taken at its headquarters revealed fat-shaming sketches pegged to the wall.
The company quickly distanced itself from the images. “These illustrations were the work of one individual,” a spokesperson said at the time. “While we are an employer that does encourage people to decorate their own space, we are a female-dominated company and these images do not reflect our values.” But the message resonated nonetheless: Lilly isn’t for everyone.
Which shouldn’t come as a surprise, says Crutchfield, the brand consultant. “Who is their target customer? Someone who is fit, fashion conscious, Caucasian – that’s all about targeting. The more specific you can get the more success you’ll find,” he says. “Fashion brands appeal to certain types of customers, because no brand appeals to everyone.”
Despite Schoenborn’s cursory lip service to inclusion, the brand was built on an air of exclusivity, one that continues to shape its marketing strategy.
Like it or not, it’s easy to understand why: the strategy’s working.