New York City, fashion-loving grownup gals clamor for new T-shirt colors in the “Grande” section, and the New York fashion industry has labeled Petit Bateau Ts the best on the market, no matter your age.
Every brand dreams of crossing generations. Not an easy task, because you always run the risk of alienating your customer base. So, how did Petit Bateau manage it? Or, as author Malcolm Gladwell might say, where was the tipping point?
Created in 1893 by Pierre Valton, the company was the first to manufacture cotton undergarments for WWI soldiers. Legend suggests that right after the war, while taking care of his son, Valton was inspired by a different children’s song (en Anglais): “Mummy, the little boats sailing on water, do they have legs?” The name of the brand and its icon product were born: Petit Bateau (little boat) and the petite culotte, an undergarment with cut-off legs for children. Prior to this date, children’s underwear was merely a miniature copy of their senior fellows’. The original name still defines the universe of the brand: the sailboat recalls a toy, the water allegory reflects hygiene, and the adjective “little” gives it a playful, tender angle.
By 1920, Petit Bateau became a well-established brand. The company launched its first ad campaign featuring “Marinette,” a chubby, mischievous-looking and half-naked little girl simply wearing a petite culotte, who would embody the brand’s irreverent spirit for years. In 1937, the brand was awarded the Grand Prize of the Paris Universal Exhibition in recognition for its innovation.
After WWII, Petit Bateau continued to sail ahead and rely on product innovation to fight competition: white “whiter than white,” armholes inspired by GIs’ underwear to allow a baby’s head to slip in and out easily of clothes, wool and cotton blend, etc.
But product innovation is not enough. In the 1970s, after eighty years of smooth sailing, the boat began to sink; the brand had stretched itself too far into unprofitable licensees, and had launched too many products that were too expensive. Petit Bateau had alienated its leadership in the children’s underwear category and lost its edge. Yves Rocher, a French beauty company, bought the brand in 1988 and immediately cleaned up the distribution network while giving up the plethora of licensees.
Vincent Huguenin, president since 1993, put childhood back at the heart of the brand and business strategy, and rebuilt Petit Bateau’s image around two core pillars, accessibility and irreverence. Prices decreased by 35% and retail stores opened quickly (from 40 stores in 1996 to 100 in 1998). The logo was redesigned from an aggressive blue, white and red palette to softer yellow and blue pastel tones, echoing the “tenderness” aspect of the brand, and therefore appealing to both mother and child. In-store, shelves were hung at child’s eye-level and the 1996 ad campaign featuring mischievous kids dancing to Jacques Dutronc’s song “don’t do this, don’t do that” echoed the irreverent attitude of the brand. Three years into the brand building process, the visibility had increased from 17% to 60% among six to ten year old children and reached 99% among mothers.
Still though, Petit Bateau was anchored in a rather small pond. It was an unexpected marketing buzz that allowed the legendary children’s brand to cast off. In 1996, Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel’s head designer, dressed his models on the catwalk with Petit Bateau T-shirts underneath their tailored suits. The fashion buzz was tremendous, and Petit Bateau began to pick up speed. Rather than launching an adult collection, the brand officially stayed focused on children but added a few sizes to fit women (14, 16 and 18 Europe; 4,6 and 8 US) and introduced trendy colors (bright pink, black, and purple).
Suddenly, Petit Bateau was ubiquitous. It was featured in every fashion magazine, sold not only in the children’s department, but also in the lingerie and junior areas. Sales in the “Grande” collection increased by 1000% in three years, and the new ad campaign adopted a tagline that said: “Petit Bateau lets you keep your childhood spirit.”
As the new millennium unfolded, celebrating its E 170 million (US$ 150M) annual revenue and E 9 million (US$ 7.9M) earnings, Petit Bateau opened a 214 square meter (2300 sq ft) flagship store on the Champs Elysées in Paris, and simultaneously charted new land in Amsterdam, Kobé, London and New York. In fact, international exposure is now Petit Bateau’s master strategy; Vincent Huguenin plans on opening ten stores a year abroad to assure 50% of the company’s total revenue.
But building brand recognition abroad might prove challenging, mostly because the iconic status of Petit Bateau is solely French. Nowhere else will the brand find this nostalgic affection. And branding pros would agree that it seems risky to be left surfing on a fashion buzz that you did not initiate. Finally, Petit Bateau will have to work at staying true to its core pillars: childhood, accessibility and irreverence. With prices in the States already much higher than in France (US$ 20 quoted on www.bluefly.com versus US$ 10 in my Paris neighborhood store), it will have to be careful not to go adrift.
Of particular note however is Petit Bateau’s website, www.petit-bateau.com. It’s smart and playful, at a crossroads between a company website and a childhood portal. It showcases the same color palette as the identity, the brand history and its products, and introduces a rather clever game –“e-leoux” – where funny little characters navigate the site pages to search for gold nuggets before exchanging them with other players via email to acquire a treasure. Since in most cases, parents are the ones getting the emails, watching Petit Bateau steer once again through the generations is quite impressive.