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Interesting piece in BusinessWeek about clothing retailer Eddie Bauer, which continues to try and redefine itself after years of uncertainty and corporate tumult.

The company’s new CEO, Fabian Mansson, is charged with turning around the retailer even as its owner, Spiegel, tries to find a buyer for the division while being in bankruptcy protection. Not an easy task – especially because Mansson has to accomplish the tricky feat of being true to Bauer’s historic tradition while creating styles that will being new customers into the stores and onto its website.

Some relevant excerpts from the interview with Mansson:

  • ”We have a fantastic brand to start off with. We want to take the best parts of our heritage and keep it updated for today's consumers. We need to create a point of view that speaks to the Eddie Bauer lifestyle -- an outdoor lifestyle. It's about carving out a unique positioning that we're just going to have to execute better and better going forward.”

  • ”This company has a history of going left and right strategically. That's not good. They had jumped into the dress-casual era prior to me coming on, and that's not what Eddie Bauer has been about. We have gone back to the inspiration of the outdoors and are trying to carry it through the brand in a modern, relevant way.”

  • ”We're starting to see a better productivity. This is a company that has been sliding for a long time. So we're starting to turn the corner now, and we're seeing a lot healthier sales, less markdowns…We're flowing our inventory differently and working our way through it quicker. Inventory [is] like milk and bread. It doesn't get better with time."

KC's View:
When we first saw this story, it occurred to us that we’d be able to use it to make a cheap joke about wondering if a guy named Fabian should be running a place like Eddie Bauer. (Shouldn’t the CEO be some named Jake? Or Max? Or Sam? Or even Eddie?)

But cheap jokes aside, we thought as we read the piece that Mansson is facing a kind of universal retailing dilemma – how to keep a brand tradition intact while appealing to an evolving customer base. In short, how to be authentic and relevant at the same time.

The advantage that Bauer has, we suppose, is that the name is the brand – it makes a statement before one ever enters the store or goes on the site or opens the catalog. So it is starting from a definable base…unlike, say, a lot of supermarkets that have made their living selling other companies’ brands without clearly establishing their brand position in the marketplace.

Of course, there can be a disadvantage there, too…because the brand name and image are so strong, it makes deviating from tradition a little risky. But we’d rather have a brand to build on than no foundation at all.