Before launching Lively, a direct-to-consumer lingerie brand, founder and CEO Michelle Cordeiro Grant spent years learning the ins and outs of the business at now-troubled lingerie behemoth Victoria’s Secret.
Cordeiro Grant worked as a director of merchandising at Victoria’s Secret for just over four years, joining the company in October 2008 and leaving in December 2012. Although Victoria’s Secret has become synonymous with poor financials and an outdated marketing strategy in recent years, her years with the company were some of its best. The Victoria’s Secret fashion show hit a broadcast viewership peak in 2010, with 10.4 million tuning in. In that moment, Cordeiro Grant said the brand was “roaring,” with double digit operating income.
Victoria’s Secret was a “such a well-run organization,” Cordeiro Grant said, that even in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis because the retailer was able to defy fashion industry trends because of the necessity of their product. Its success is not dependent on being “in style” at any given moment.
“When you think about the categories, lingerie, swimwear and beauty, the margins are high, it’s easy to ship and you gain women’s trust by really doing it well,” she said. “It’s the first layer they put on or the most vulnerable that they are, in a bikini on the beach, so if you can win them there, you can hold on to them really well.”
At the helm of the brand then was Les Wexner, the longtime chief executive of L Brands, Victoria’s Secret’s parent company. Wexner announced his retirement in February, as well as the sale of a majority stake of Victoria’s Secret to private equity firm Sycamore Partners, a deal that may be in question due to the economic havoc wrecked by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Wexner has proven himself to be a controversial figure, particularly over the past year or so, as there have been questions over his relationship with Jeffrey Epstein and accusations over the treatment of women at the brand in a New York Times exposé. But there’s no denying his status as a legend in the retail industry, and Cordeiro Grant the lessons she learned from him were invaluable in building her own company.
“He really taught me how to build brands,” she said. His philosophy was to liken the process of building a brand to creating a movie. Models are equivalent to actors, a photoshoot is the set and the copy is the script. And to make the best brand possible, you must first “define who you are and why you exist,” and to be disciplined in that definition and protect it.
That’s certainly the approach people have seen Victoria’s Secret take in its marketing. The brand has always been defined by its sexy, “bombshell” image, its roster of “Angels” and view of lingerie as an instrument of fashion over function. It has fiercely protected that image, even as it’s become less in step with current cultural trends.
There’s no denying that Victoria’s Secret built a recognizable brand. Victoria’s Secret’s reluctance to update its image, Cordeiro Grant said, comes in part from the fact that the brand is so storied, with a brand positioning that’s been around for decades—and for many of those years, it worked.
“When you’re a public company, you’re really driven off comps, shareholders and spreadsheets, and at the end of the day, profit,” she said. “So when you’re doing well you just kind of fall into the rhythm of repeat.”
Near the end of her time at Victoria’s Secret, Cordeiro Grant was beginning to take greater notice of that reluctance to embrace change. The brand’s top products were ones that had been around since the 1990s, and she found that instead of evolving and embracing changes in consumer behavior, like the shift towards athleisure, Victoria’s Secret was “doing the same thing over and over.”
In launching a DTC brand, Cordeiro Grant saw an opportunity to be more nimble and able to adapt to shifting consumer tastes, as well as speak to a greater range of consumers with differing body types and backgrounds. However, she said that being inside Victoria’s Secret gave her the tools to build Lively in 2016.
“I knew what to do from a business perspective,” she said, adding that her experience taught her the P&L business model and perhaps most importantly, what the behind-the-scenes process of making a bra looked like.
In nearly four years since its founding, Lively has sold over a million products, and was acquired by Wacoal Industries for $85 million last year. It’s one of several brands, such as fellow challengers Harper Wilde and ThirdLove, that are bringing new faces to the lingerie category and changing the standards for lingerie marketing.
That’s particularly apparent in Lively’s new TV spot. The ad focuses on the pain points typically associated with bras—hard-to-adjust straps, poor fit, visibility under clothes—rather than aesthetic appeal through the eyes of a woman’s significant other, as has so often been the norm perpetuated by Victoria’s Secret. The spot stars Lively brand ambassadors and employees.
“I spent so much time in corporate walls deciding what America and the world wanted, and we were never really asking,” she said. “What I envisioned for Lively was a brand is built by social and built by community.”