Earlier this year, Fortune published a series of articles about iconic brands that were doing surprisingly well—thriving even—during the COVID era. Each brand story offers some instructive truths about the human need for permanence in these uncertain times. Writer Eric J. Lyman explains.
Boxy, colorful, popular Fjällräven Kånken backpacks are sold in more than 30 different hues, with new shades replacing older ones in the catalog every year or two. Toward the end of a video interview this spring, Martin Axelhed, the company’s 45-year-old chief executive, ducked out of view for an instant to fetch one near and dear to his heart.
Axelhed stood up, and proudly held out a forest-green Kånken backpack. “This was my first one,” he said. “It’s from when I was a child. I still use this one almost every day.” He also uses newer backpacks, he admitted, but the worn pack, still in use after nearly four decades of wear and tear, was a testament to the product’s durability.
Fjällräven may be difficult to pronounce (“Fyall-RAAH-ven” comes pretty close), but the brand is as visible as ever. Fjällräven has earned a reputation as a maker of rugged, dependable outdoor gear. Added bonus: the minimalist design serves it well in town, too. The Kånken backpack is all over Instagram, and can be spotted in downtown Amsterdam or on the hiking paths around Iceland’s Stokknes peninsula, part of a resurgence that’s lifting the bottom line and exciting investors. The stock of Fenix Outdoor International, the parent company, hit a fresh all-time high on Thursday.
Sales and stock surges
The economic impacts of the pandemic have been felt by everyone. In 2020, the global economy contracted by nearly 7%, its most severe economic blow since at least the 1930s. But despite that, some iconic products have thrived.
Bialetti, parent company for the Moka Express coffee maker, for example, has seen its shares nearly triple in value since hitting an all-time low last November. Fenix’s stock has done even better. Doc Martens is another COVID success story. The shoemaker launched an over-subscribed IPO during the worst of the pandemic in January, and has seen its shares rise by a fifth since then.
Another thing that ties the companies together: like the Fjällräven Kånken backpacks, they’re all beloved for their durability. Maybe it says something about the age we live in: consumers are willing to pay a bit more for quality stuff that stands the test of time, that exudes permanence in an age where society’s transience has been revealed.
This yearning for permanence has lifted these brands, though it wasn’t long ago that the durability factor was seen as a kind of Achilles heel for some of them.
Le Creuset, the enamel-over-cast-iron kitchenware still forged in its historic home in Fresnoy-le-Grand in France, is a good example. By the 1980s, the company’s famous casserole dishes (another product Fortune profiled) had saturated the French market, leaving the company’s growth rate sputtering. Nobody doubted the Le Creuset’s (pronounced “Leh Crew-ZAY”) quality, but almost everyone who wanted one seemed to already have it. They last that long.
That timelessness, however, turned out to be huge appeal during the pandemic when stay-at-home cooks upped their game, swapping recipes and all manner of kitchen tips. “We’ve averaged double-digit growth over the last 15 years, but during the pandemic sales rose even more than normal,” Simon Van Zuydam, group commercial director at Le Creuset. “People were cooking more at home, and looking for high-quality products for that.”
Similarly, the Moka Express—known affectionately as the Moka Pot—are handed down from generation to generation. The Italian coffee makers, made from aluminum, are lightweight and virtually indestructible, which is why you tend to find them in every Italian kitchen, at campsites, and in “best of” reviews written by and for coffee diehards.
Moka pot devotees don’t speak of having to make the morning coffee. They describe it more as a ritual. “All the alternatives to the Moka are designed to make coffee faster or in a more practical way,” Fabio Guggeri, who runs a small Facebook group aimed at Moka fans, says. “But faster and more practical doesn’t always mean better.”
But even Guggeri copped to the fact that of the four Moka pots he has in home, he didn’t buy a single one. They’re all beloved, and they’re all hand-me-downs. (Italians swear that the older the Moka pot, the more the reliably tasty the coffee).
Doc Martens shoes aren’t typically handed down from parent to child, though they do take weeks or months to break in. But once broken in, they feel tailor-made and can last decades. And while Vespa scooters—the final brand profiled in the series—aren’t meant to be passed between generations, Italian mechanic Luigi Frisinghelli, who first started repairing Vespas in the 1950s, said that the scooter’s all-metal components and lack of unnecessary frills make them far more rugged and easier to repair than their rivals.
Immune to fashion trends
“A product’s durability is really a reference to how well made it is, and being well-made is a prerequisite to its becoming an icon,” said Michael Beverland, author of Building Brand Authenticity. “A product’s durability alone isn’t enough, but without that, there’s no chance.”
Another big factor, according to Beverland, is to have an attractive look immune to short-term trends in fashion or design. Aside from changes in colors or style tweaks, all but one of the products profiled in the series are virtually indistinguishable from early versions from 10 or 20 years ago.
The one exception among the profiled brands is the Vespa, which has adapted to technological advances—most recently, an electric-powered version—since its introduction in 1946, while still maintaining a signature style.
“Buying an iconic product should in some way feel like an investment, the acquisition of something that will remain practical and fashionable in its own specific way,” Beverland said.
The same rule could be applied to other iconic products Fortune didn’t profile, ranging from the multi-functional Victorinox Swiss Army knife, the classic Burberry trench coat, and storied Leica cameras to cork-soled Birkenstock sandals and prestigious Rolex’s oyster watches.
Try, try again
Once a product is seen in this light, Beverland said, it changes the way the parent companies promote the brand, focusing on stories and utility rather than more buy-this-now commercial approaches that try to spark demand.
That doesn’t mean these brands can coast on their good name. The lessons these companies illustrate, particularly during the pandemic, is to use that design and marketing knowhow to innovate.
Bialetti, the company that makes the Moka coffee pots, quickly exploited the fact that coffee fans were consuming their beloved drink in very different ways during the early part of the pandemic when coronavirus lockdowns closed neighborhood coffee bars. The company pushed a kind of makeover that returned it to profitability.
Here’s how they did it: In addition to its traditional line of coffee makers, Bialetti entered into the competitive ground coffee market with a new “Perfetto Moka” brand you can use in whatever coffee maker you want. The company also joined the coffee pod revolution, albeit with a twist. The Bialetti coffee pods can be broken down into recyclable components, eliminating one of the main criticisms of other coffee pods—that they end up filling up landfills.
Le Creuset and Fjällräven, meanwhile, leveraged their strong brand cachet in home markets—France and Sweden, respectively—to build awareness and appeal internationally. It’s a strategy, it must be pointed out, that began before the pandemic, but really took off over the past two years.
Vespa has traveled a different route. Over the years, the brand has branched off into fashion accessories, as well as producing cars, filling military contracts, building racing motorcycles, and even designing a prototype helicopter. But the brand keeps coming back to what works: the iconic rounded curves of the original scooter, long a favorite of popular culture. After appearing in films alongside the likes of Antonio Banderas, Matt Damon, Tom Hanks, Audrey Hepburn, Jude Law, and Gregory Peck, the brand reinvented itself again this summer in Disney’s Luca.
Sometimes even the most eternal brands have to chance. If only a little bit.