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Can a Republican brand hack it in Vancouver?

HOW DO YOU take a brand that’s rooted in one physical place and move it to another without ruining its cachet? That’s the question on my mind as I watch Brooks Brothers, a brand redolent of high American conservativism, set up its first Canadian store here in the yoga-mad lululand of Vancouver. Could this possibly work?

If you asked people on the street to name a brand that means “USA,” many would say Brooks Brothers. The label has been a favourite of American Presidents down the ages: Lincoln was assassinated in one of their suits, JFK was a fan, and Obama wore them to his recent inauguration. The company’s challenge, if you ask me, is how to take an icon of establishmentarianism, and, without scrubbing it clean of its past, make it accessible to new customers.

In men’s clothing, cut is key. Brian Shaughnessy, who oversees the Canadian operations, says that for Vancouver Brooks Brothers is bringing in a trimmer fit – more a European suit than an American one. “But we'll change our offerings in Calgary and Toronto,” says Shaughnessy. “The size of our manufacturing operations allows us to be this flexible."

And there it is: Flexibility, the key to translating a brand for new markets.

The concept is slippery, however. Like common sense, flexibility is easy to say, hard to do. At one point last year we looked at taking Braun/Allison into the Toronto market. Some poking around showed us that we’d need to redraft almost all of our processes, and that finding new business would be much different than what we were used to.

So we put it off. It was too onerous. And at that time, our brand probably didn’t have enough history to rely on if we totally changed our delivery systems and outputs.

This is an important point: The ability of a brand to flex has everything to do with the sturdiness of its historical grounding. You can’t reach for something unless your feet are planted firmly on the ground. With this axiom in mind, Brooks Brothers, with its long lineage and clear brand, is well-equipped to tailor itself to new markets. Vancouver might just be crazy enough to work.

Three questions remain for me, however, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on them. What is the right balance between tradition and customization? When is it safe to mess with a proven formula? And what can start-ups do to make sure they are building a strong foundation from Day One?