Marketer of the Year: Iconix Brand Group Inc.

Iconix Brand Group Inc.’s mega-watt marketing year almost didn’t happen.

When company Chairman and CEO Neil Cole was first presented with the idea of signing pop star and tabloid regular Britney Spears as the face of the Candie’s brand, he was not convinced. “I said, ‘you’re out of your mind,’” the executive recalled with a smile. “The only reason I went along with it was because I thought Kohl’s would stop it.”

But the retailer, which sells the Candie’s products exclusively, gave the go-ahead. And the move has paid off. In the first days after the deal was announced in March, Iconix received roughly 1.7 billion media impressions.

“America loves a comeback story, and it was the year of Britney’s comeback, and we were lucky to be there,” said Iconix chief marketing officer Dari Marder, who has worked with Cole for 23 years. “We were lucky that [her team was] looking for a partner to show she was marketable again.”

Iconix was able to build a large-scale, multiplatform campaign around the singer, who launched her highly successful “Circus” tour this year. In addition to being an associate sponsor of the tour, Iconix unleashed a national print, in-store and television campaign. It also incorporated Candie’s apparel and footwear into Spears’ music videos and targeted her young fan base through the singer’s social networking sites. “It was a 360-degree partnership,” said Marder.

But Candie’s wasn’t the only Iconix brand to draw buzz this year. The Rampage label had not one but two supermodel spokeswomen, starting with Gisele Bündchen last spring and then Bar Refaeli for the fall ’09 and spring ’10 campaigns. In the fall, Bundchen moved over to the London Fog brand, followed by “Desperate Housewife” Eva Longoria and husband Tony Parker for holiday ’09 and spring ’10.

The Badgley Mischka brand turned up the glamour for its 20th anniversary last spring by hiring Annie Leibovitz to shoot a glossy, Hollywood-style campaign starring Longoria, Lauren Hutton, Anjelica Huston and others.

Joe Ouaknine, CEO of Titan Industries Inc., which produces part of Badgley Mischka’s footwear line, said it was an important year for the brand, and not just because of its milestone. “The big highlight this year was the growth and wider distribution of the brand,” he said. “Our business today is performing like a dream after a difficult start three years ago. Of all the Titan brands, this one is our jewel.”

At the Op label, Iconix continued marketing with its cast of young stars and starlets, including Joel Madden and AnnaLynne McCord. And the Starter brand got plenty of play on and off the field with its spokesman, Dallas Cowboy Tony Romo.

The Iconix marketing team of about 30 also put its efforts behind the Candie’s Foundation, an organization founded by Cole in 2001 to educate young people about the consequences of teenage pregnancy. In a controversial move last spring, Bristol Palin signed on as a teen ambassador for the foundation, appearing at its town hall meeting on May 4 and on dozens of news programs. “That day, National Teen Pregnancy Day, we were on almost every show … and we created a dialogue, which was our goal,” said Cole.

All that buzz has helped the firm’s bottom line. Overall, Cole said he expects Iconix’s sales this year to total $8 billion by year-end, an increase of 33 percent over the previous year — a mighty feat in a recession. He pointed to the Wal-Mart labels, which include Op, Starter and Danskin, as some of the company’s best performers.

“Iconix Brand Group delivers great style at affordable prices,” said Dottie Mattison, SVP and GM of apparel at Wal-Mart Stores Inc. “We’ve been pleased with our partnership with Iconix. They share our focus on bringing mainstream, quality brands … to our customers.”

For his part, Cole attributes much of his company’s success to a focused business strategy. “When we were in the shoe business totally, we used to have to worry about buying shoes, retailing and supply chain, but today we’re just marketers,” he said. “We have great partners who handle the supply chain and handle retailing and product, and with us being a brand management marketing company, we get to focus on what we do well.”

Iconix’s close partnerships with retailers has benefited the firm in several ways, especially when it comes to costs. Cole estimated his firm’s overall marketing budget rose about 10 percent this year, but was probably worth 50 percent more because they were able to tap into retailers’ ad spends.

Iconix just celebrated five years of working with Kohl’s, its first exclusive retail partner. “The long-standing partnership between the Kohl’s and Iconix marketing teams has resulted in several innovative and successful campaigns for the Candie’s and Mudd brands that have resonated with young consumers and driven sales,” said Kevin Mansell, chairman, president and CEO of Kohl’s Department Stores.

And Iconix isn’t done. Marder said they are currently casting for Op’s spring crew, and are working on something “bigger and better” for Candie’s. “Britney will be tough to top,” she said, “but we think we’ve got something good.”

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