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Cotton Holds Its Own Against New Synthetics

Innovation, customer responsiveness and aggressive marketing are among keys to cotton's success.

Cotton is "the fabric of our lives," or at least so the folks at Cotton Incorporated, New York City, would have us believe in their highly successful integrated marketing campaign a communications blitz that permeates virtually every sector of American popular culture and has made the Seal of Cotton among the most recognizable logos in the world.The Seal of Cotton, according to the companys trade magazine ad (one that frequents these very pages) is more recognizable than several other American icons, including Microsoft, Kodak, Prudential and Delta Air Lines.So the question is: how does Cotton Incorporated engineer the positioning of natural products against the new "cool" and trendy synthetic fibers and yarns that seemingly crop up on a daily basisATI found some answers to this question during a visit to Cotton Incorporateds recent Denim and Casual Bottomswear Conference at Pinehurst, N.C.The conference focused on product development, innovation and marketing. Experts from throughout the textile, apparel, retail and marketing channels gave presentations about the future of cotton yarns, fabrics and apparel.Innovation, responsiveness to customer needs, speed to market, verticalization, strategic alliances and aggressive marketing are the keys to success for companies that manufacture and sell in this market, the presenters agreed. The market itself is very hot at the moment. Cotton crops are strong, employment in cotton-related jobs is increasing substantially across all sectors, and retail sales are up 10.7 percent."The cotton market is very strong," said Bob McCormack, president of GaleyandLord, Greensboro, N.C. "Because of delivery issues, the numbers are even better than the retail numbers indicate."Reasons for the cotton boom, McCormack said, include the trend toward more companies implementing casual days either full- or part-time, which has resulted in a marked increase in demand for dress and casual cotton pants. Denim, as well, is enjoying resurgence because of a return to more basic denim styles by younger consumers.The Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) offers some opportunity for increased sales, McCormack said, but the World Trade Organization (WTO) presents a number of challenges."We wont be able to compete on price alone with the Far East," he said. Availability of labor and government subsidies will preclude American companies from selling on price. In addition, he said, duties will still be in place."I see the American textile industry becoming more flexible. The U.S. must focus on product development and maintaining the best quality in the world. We must be faster in development and faster in getting our products to market. We must see service improvement." McCormack said. American companies must be capable of rapidly fulfilling orders and be able to quickly adapt to the demands of the marketplace, he added.Opportunities before the U.S. textile industry include: the continued consolidation of textile companies to maximize strength and resources; concentration on the higher-end products at which U.S. manufacturers excel; verticalization into garment manufacturing or strategic alliances with apparel manufacturers; increased service and more timely fulfillment; management of vendors in order to keep shelves stocked; and the realization of export opportunities.From the apparel standpoint, aggressive inventory management, flexibility and delivery are key, according to William W. Compton, chairman and CEO, Tropical Sportswear International, Tampa, Fla."We need to keep a consistent flow of water through the hose," he said. The goal of Tropical Sportswear is 30 days from source goods to shipping.Tropical strives to carry no more than five days of raw materials to ensure flexibility and customer responsiveness. As well, the company carries no more than 10 days work in process at any facility.Quality remains, of course, a major issue, said Peter M. McGrath, vice president and director, quality and sourcing, JCPenney, Plano, Texas. "Quality is the price of admission now," he said. "It is not an added value; it is an expectation." 
In product development, consumers are looking for fashionable, comfortable garments that are complementary to their lifestyles and careers, according to Cindy Bellamy, vice president, technical services, Avondale Mills Graniteville Fabrics Division, Graniteville, S.C. Mills and apparel manufacturers need to concentrate on adding value to products as well as new technology, environmentally-friendly product development and rapid customer response, she said. "And products must be affordable," she added.Throughout the conference, one theme came to the forefront from presenter to presenter: the need for U.S. manufacturers to remain innovative in product development. Perhaps nowhere is there more evidence of how successful innovation can be than in the casual market."The casual market is an American icon," said Joe Don Long, fabric finish developer, Dockers Product Development, Levi StraussandCo., San Francisco. "It is as American as cowboys and jeans."Long took his audience through a typical Dockers product launch, from concept through product introduction. In the line-build stage, when the product is in concept, factors to consider include business objectives, design initiatives and product opportunities. At line launch, the transition begins from development to production.At this stage, sales samples are produced and evaluated. Next come pre-production runs, in which a small amount of product is processed to identify areas of concern and make final modifications. At the first of production stage, mass production begins. Any glitches are reviewed and corrected before product gets in the channel.Fitting the product to the customer is essential, Long said. He generated a ripple of laughter in the audience when he likened product development to the building of Noahs Ark."We know God had something specific in mind when he told Noah to build the Ark," he said, showing a drawing of the Ark as it often appears in religious literature."But, is that what Noah had in mind" he asked, showing a slide of a sleek sailboat in sunny tropical waters. "Nice, but obviously not equipped for the task," he continued. "Now, Im not trying to say that designers and product developers are gods," he quipped. "But, then, Im not saying they arent."Beyond innovation, speed to market, alliances and such, the other key factor is aggressive marketing. Creative, targeted marketing strategies do not guarantee success for any endeavor. They do, however, create the opportunity for success if product, price, distribution, service, etc., are competitive. Marketing is, as well, an arena in which many companies could stand to be a bit more aggressive including any number of U.S. textile manufacturers.The powers that be at Cotton Incorporated, as evidenced by the presentations at the conference, understand the fundamental maxim of marketing: all things being equal, brand name always carries the day. As proof, Cotton Incorporated points to research that shows merchandise carrying the Seal of Cotton sells 27 percent more than merchandise without it. Cotton Incorporated innundates America with its advertising and promotional messages. The organization is on television, in magazines both consumer and trade, on billboards, and in the malls especially in the malls.Cotton Incorporated is well aware of who is in a position to make purchasing decisions. Spurred by the popularity of "Casual Fridays," sales of denim and casual bottomswear have steadily increased over the past few years. So it makes perfect sense for Cotton Incorporated to target the young professional in its advertising campaign. But the company also pays considerable attention to Generation Y, the hip youngsters who determine the very definition of cool.This same generation is often seen as the scourge of the mall. Youngsters walk by, run by, even much to the consternation of some security folks skateboard by. They tend to disrupt the activities of the slightly older Generation-X shoppers and bring downright outrage to aging Baby Boomers.But as these young people go by, they also go buy. And Cotton Incorporated knows this. So when Glendale, Calif.s Galleria Center decided to undertake an innovative and risky concept to accommodate this younger generation, Cotton Incorporated was among the first on-board.The Zone at Glendales Galleria is a new specialty retail and entertainment destination created within the mall to specifically address the lifestyle preferences of Generation-Y consumers. In addition to a collection of Generation Y-targeted shops, The Zone also features, among other things, its very own internal television station Channel Z TV and the popular "Cotton Cam." Cotton Cam, sponsored, of course, by Cotton Incorporated, invites Generation-Y visitors to show their cotton fashions and stylish, graceful moves. Images from Cotton Cam are broadcast live throughout The Zone, and those with the coolest apparel and graceful moves have the opportunity to win prizes."The Zone concept has been a tremendous success," Annette Bethers, senior marketing director for Glendale Galleria, told attendees at the bottomswear conference. What many regard as a liability of mall shopping loitering teens has been turned into a considerable asset with substantial purchasing power.Cotton Incorporated also has an advertising presence on The WB Network, which is now the number one television network among Generation-Y viewers, according to Jamie Kellner, WB Networks chief executive officer. The Seal of Cotton has become a visible symbol of a new age of consumers who refuse to sacrifice either fashion or comfort. Cotton Incorporateds aggressive marketing tactics, coupled with its continuing driving for innovation, have obviously played a major role in the increasing demand for natural fabrics. Functional Finishes Enhance Cotton Fabrics By Improving PerformanceInnovation and enhancement are two of the hot catchwords in the market today, according to Donald L. Bailey, vice president, textile research and implementation, Cotton Incorporated.Bailey, speaking at Cotton Incorporateds annual Denim and Casual Bottomswear Conference, said the consumer wants innovation, and the industry is trying to respond."Innovation is also known by other names," he said. "These include high-tech, intelligent textiles, nano-technology and others. At Cotton Incorporated, our efforts to achieve innovation center on the concept of enhancement by functional finishing."Cotton Incorporateds efforts in providing multiple finishes to cotton products result in a steady stream of new and innovative products to the industry. "In functional finishes, the most important new concepts are soil release and repellency, water repellency, moisture management, antimicrobial properties, stain resistance, UV protection and other concepts such as scented fabrics," Bailey said.Fabrics and garments can be enhanced by many methods, he added. These can be physical, chemical or a combination. Although enhancement has traditionally been performed in the textile arena, more and more products are being developed for use by the consumer in home laundering appliances.Hydroenhancement of fabrics is based upon the use of hydro-entanglement equipment commonly used to form nonwoven substrates, Bailey said. The system uses micro-jets of high-energy water to impact yarns, causing them to bloom and entangle with adjacent yarns in a fabric, layered fabrics or fiber webs.When the micro-jets of water strike the fibers in the yarns and cause them to be further entangled, the result is improved bulk and cover, improved abrasion resistance, reduced pilling, reduced seam slippage, increased yield, lower shrinkage, reduced color (if desired), cleaner substrates, physical patterning and, when two or more layers are enhanced together, lamination. An overall patterning effect can be achieved, he said.Hydroentanglement of denim, for example, can produce a number of desirable results, he added, such as uniform color loss as a result of fabric-width coverage by the micro-jets. A pin striping can be achieved using only a fine, localized stream of jets. By using a patterned screen on the backside of the fabric, patterns and surface effects can be achieved.Needle enhancement makes use of the traditional needle-punching equipment utilized extensively in the nonwovens industry, Bailey said. Multiple strokes of specially designed needles penetrate the fabric and entangle fibers within the structure. Many fibers are pushed though to the side opposite the needles penetration. The results can vary from entanglement of a single fabric to lamination of fabric and fiber webs.Home product-care enhancements give the consumer a voice in how garments look after repeated launderings, he said. "For some time now, detergents have included enzymes to remove the hairiness from laundered cotton products," Bailey explained. "The result has been a smoother surface and better color definition. Today the consumer can choose among products that contain liquid fiber, which is used in the washer to lubricate or protect cotton fabric from becoming scuffed and worn."In addition, dry cleaning systems are offered for home use to eliminate stains, spots and odors from "dry-clean only" fabrics. "Soon to be offered," he said, "are detergent substitutes for indigo and black denims to reduce color loss during laundering." These products have shown remarkable color retention improvements in garments that have gone through more than 30 laundering cycles. Cotton Incorporated is also developing a home wrinkle-resistant finishing system for cotton garments to enable the consumer to improve the smooth-drying charac-teristics of those garments."In conclusion, these innovations are just the tip of the iceberg of new and improved concepts that must come forward in the future," Bailey said. "As researchers, we must constantly think outside the box to create new products."
Cotton Incorporated's Donald L. Bailey

October 2000