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Now that consumers have had about a year of experience wearing masks, everyone knows some of the small annoyances associated with them. They can cause skin irritations and breakouts; they get sweaty sometimes; and it is too easy for them to blow off or get dropped on the ground if not fully secured. To deal with the emerging needs that result from these problems, innovative firms have come up with a range of offerings that they can market as solutions to an immediate problem—but also as valuable and appealing options for the long-term. Consider the stories of two fashion and style brands that moved from designing and selling conventional accessories prior to the pandemic, to developing masks, and then to inventing and promoting the relatively novel idea of mask chains.

The coronavirus had disrupted these firms’ existing businesses; one founder noted that she was starting to eat through her savings. Noting the styling of a necklace on an old promotion, one of the designers decided to conduct a new fashion shoot, which featured necklaces and glasses chains attached to masks. Once the idea got into people’s heads, the orders came pouring in to the shop.

Made of various fabrics and lightweight plastics, such as Lucite, the various mask chains can be coordinated with the high-design masks, but they also can be worn with even basic, disposable versions. Most people link them through the ear loops and run the chains along the front of their necks, so that they are visible and decorative, similar to a necklace. Fashion icons including Jennifer Lopez and Mindy Kahling have been photographed wearing them, creating an image of the chains as fashion forward.

It’s a funny positioning for an accessory that previously has been associated with older or conservative consumers. Popular views of glasses chains usually involve grandmothers and librarians, who use them to keep their eyeglasses handy for peering at misbehaving children. But by innovating their uses, the mask chains became more than either glasses chains or necklaces, with appealing features of both foundational notions. That is, they keep masks from being accidently lost, but they also add a bit of flair and style to an otherwise completely functional accessory.

Orders for the mask chains skyrocketed so quickly that both designers had trouble keeping up with demand. The question is whether that demand will disappear as a larger proportion of the population is vaccinated and masks are no longer mandated. According to policymakers and experts, even if masks become less prevalent than they have been at the height of the pandemic, they are likely to remain a visible part of society. In some cultures, people have been wearing masks regularly, any time they caught a cold or other virus, in an attempt to protect others around them. In addition, different variants of COVID-19 continue to pop up, implying that things might improve, but the threat still might remain.

For the small businesses though, the key is to continue to remain nimble. They saw a new market opportunity and quickly shifted their operations to pursue it, with great implications for their business and their success. If they can keep that perspective, they should be well positioned to pivot again and meet whatever demands people might develop to keep themselves safe, masked, and fashionable, all at the same time.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why are mask chains becoming so popular?
  2. Where in the product life cycle would you locate mask chains? What about masks themselves?
  3. What kind of innovation are mask chains, radical or incremental? Defend your answer.

Source: Valeriya Safronova, “Marks Aren’t Going Away, so Consider the Mask Chain,” The New York Times, January 21, 2021