Luxury branding is entering a challenging phase. With the rise of digital and a fluctuating global economy, this sector has been transformed dramatically in a very short space of time. What people now perceive as luxury is changing.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this shifting perception is an increase in social awareness. Very swiftly a luxury brand can appear ‘vulgar’ simply by being positioned on users’ social feeds next to images of phenomenon like environmental damage, civil unrest or refugee crises.
So what is a brand to do in the face of this complex new landscape? Should they be bold and audacious, hold their nerve, stick to their media plan and risk the backlash? Or do they soften their approach, go for a more understated look and feel that won’t be compromised by contentious content? We’ll consider many of these kinds of questions in this article.
While questions of taste and decorum can be troubling for luxury brands marketing to, the sector itself does not appear to be under threat. These problems of context are mitigated by the growth in real terms of the wealthy class. Those who can afford luxuries have more money than ever to spend on the finer things in life.
And with this growth, there are many opportunities for established brands to strengthen their hold on the market and for luxury startups to break into the sector and capture a new, younger audience that has different expectations from luxury goods and services.
But consumers are not the same as they were even 10 years ago. Luxury is now much more about fulfilling aspirations, and connecting with luxury consumers on an emotional level. What it isn’t about is a lack of taste or subtlety.
Ironically, it’s often the rich and exalted celebrities themselves who transgress on the rules of luxury and image. This was evidenced recently with the Bayern Munich footballer Frank Ribery’s missteps dining at the restaurant in Dubai of celebrity chef Salt Bae.
He was fined by his club after reacting furiously to criticism for videoing himself eating a £1,000 gold-encrusted steak carved up by the famous chef. The 35-year-old former French international was seen sprinkling salt on top of the glistening 400g golden tomahawk steak, before posing alongside Salt Bae. His ostentatious order got skewered online, summed up by one comment which read: "Roll meat in gold, pay 1000 EUR and post a video. What a world." Now that is rubbing salt into the wound.
Displays of gaucheness like this don’t play well at a time when there are so many humanitarian issues cross the front pages of the world’s media. Many would say businesses and brands must be leaders in taste and correctness when it comes to presenting themselves to potential customers.
Alex Colley, Creative Director of ikon, has worked for many luxury brands. “Personally I’ve never been comfortable with overt displays of wealth or luxury. Especially with the brands I wear. I understand for some, flashing the logo is part of what they are paying for, showing the world they too can own a Louis Vuitton. But for me, luxury is something understated, elegant, undefinable. And that mystique is something akin to the experience you’ll have working with us at ikon.”
Considering the ways in which we now consume our media over multiple channels and platforms, it may be that the era of exclusion is coming to an end. People are more informed than ever before and brands need to embrace how the younger generation makes purchasing decisions - it could represent the future of the business. This is the next generation of potential wealth and business owners, who have the power to buy and champion luxury products.
Luxury brands can’t rely on heritage alone, as NJ Goldston writes in Entrepreneur magazine: “Brand heritage and history now rank sixth to superior quality, superior customer service, superior design, superior craftsmanship, and exclusive products.” The brands who can must still leverage their heritage, but the quality of the end to end experience is what will impress a generation with probably the shortest attention span in history.
Unsurprisingly, it’s not old money that’s setting the pace in the luxury market. Rich millennials are redefining it through Instagram and other online channels. A recent article in Business Insider outlines how this generation are flipping the luxury market on its head. From expensive sneakers and VIP experiences to following social media influencers, millennials with deep pockets are challenging the traditional concept of luxury, preferring to spend on experiences – but unlike the rest of their generation, they pay extra to heighten the brand experience with VIP treatments and customisation.
“They want what’s unforgettable and unique, and they have a thirst for the unknown and they are going to markets where their friends haven’t been before.” - Jenni Benzaquen, vice-president of luxury brands in Europe for Marriott International.
This is new territory, and marketers are clambering to understand these radical new trends.
So it’s probably not news that truly understanding your target audience is key. It’s an essential part of any brand’s strategy and will likely require the assistance of a luxury branding agency to help you to reach this understanding. It’s even more critical for luxury brands to understand this because the sector is moving beyond tangible products, into more ephemeral experiences, aspirations and expressions of individuality.
What drives these people? How do they speak, where do they live, go for their fun, find their information, spend their time – yes, even time can be considered a luxury in our hectic culture. But most important of all, how are these people’s emotional needs defined?
As we’ll see later, luxury has multiple touchpoints for a customer to be brought into a brand’s sphere of influence. As with a lot of businesses, focus has shifted to a consumer-centric approach where personalisation is the ultimate luxury.
Lupe Puerta, Global Director VIP Client Relations at Net-A-Porter & Mr Porter explains the exceptional levels his team will go to:
“Their number one priority is to meet the needs of our customers and make shopping effortlessness for them. We’ve driven across America, we’ve jumped on a plane to deliver to a musician as they’re about to go on stage. We’ve gone direct to the world’s most sought-after designers to source pieces that haven’t been produced. We’ve travelled across the world to get a bespoke piece of jewellery to a client the same day because they’ve needed it for an event that night and no courier would be fast enough. Truly, there is little we won’t do for our clients and there’s no slowing for us in 2019.”
Whether you are in the luxury business or not, lessons can be learnt for any business about this kind of dedication to clientele. For customers to keep coming back they not only want that deep level of personal service, but also the knowledge that they will get it time and time again.
This is a level of service Alex Colley is familiar with. “One of ikon’s differentiators is a bespoke, personal service offered by our Creative Director. We can focus closely on a few clients at a time so you can expect high standards of service and quality of work from an exceptionally skilled team.”
There’s no room for complacency in the luxury sector. If demands aren’t met, there is no shortage of competition that will run (or indeed jet) that extra mile for their customers and brands can lose clients in a flash.
Luxury brands have recently fallen victim to a design trend for simplified logos and watered down imagery that has resulted in accusations from inside the industry of blandness.
It could be a fair observation that, en masse, luxury brand logos are beginning to look very similar. There are very practical reasons for this. The first is the cost of a rebrand can be huge for global marques so it’s a decision a business doesn’t enter into lightly, and once they do, they need to ensure they don’t have to do it again for the foreseeable future.
The second reason is a logo needs to be more flexible than ever to suit every digital device, and also work well in print at all kinds of sizes, from iPhone to billboard. This has given rise to responsive logos which adapt to the size and space needed but are still recognisable in every situation.
And as Alex Coley knows, the relevance of the logo isn’t as important as it once was. “Of course a logo is important, but the expression of your brand is far more critical. People buy based on how you make them feel, not on whether they like your logo or not. From our experience in delivering campaigns the more flexible the logo is, the further you can push the design work creatively without too many restrictions.”
It’s probably fair to say that the design press was pretty underwhelmed with the new Burberry logo when it was unveiled recently. But dig deeper and the commercial potential for the design becomes clearer, the development of the pattern monogram and the possible executions start to make a lot more sense.
And this move to a new monogram was not simply designed to create an urban, youth-centric aesthetic. It was also a crucial financial decision, as Sarah White reported on Reuters:
“In the longer run, Burberry is banking on the patterned print to help improve its performance in high-margin leather goods, which make-up 38% of its sales, less than the roughly 60% and 75% at sector champions Gucci and Vuitton. Both have developed recognizable monograms over several decades.
Its bet is that the monogram could be declined into different shades more easily than the camel check, while remaining identifiable.”
Burberry has created a flexible brand pattern that can be expressed endlessly in digital and in real world environments where consistency is paramount.
Ferrari is a useful case in point. They rarely advertise, believing their high performance and precision in F1 racing better articulate their excellence than any kind of verbal articulation.
For any luxury brand, a clear, consistent strategy is essential to help you to develop the kinds of brand associations you want to create in the minds of your customers. It does make future campaign work easier as you can always refer back to the brand DNA you created originally. So for Ferrari, if a proposed creative idea doesn’t link directly to their belief in precision high performance it won’t be stamped with the famous black prancing horse emblem.
The mantra of ‘the power of no’ has begun to become a cliché. But the truth of it is in the Warren Buffet quote: “The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say NO to almost everything.”
Whether personally or in business, understanding what you stand for is crucial to know what to say no to. It’s no different with luxury brands.
The luxury fashion brand, Louis Vuitton has developed incredibly fruitful collaborations with several famous artists such as Yayoi Kusama, incorporating their visions and philosophies into the company’s collections.
Dominic Cadogan of Dazed writes: “The 2012 collaboration with 83-year-old artist Yayoi Kusama is one of the most visually captivating collections of Louis Vuitton. The Japanese legend’s dotty artwork populated handbags, clothes and accessories echoing her message of obsession and seriality. To coincide with the launch of the collection, stores across the globe were transformed. In Selfridges, the concept store saw the indoor space become into a polka dot fantasy world, with one window complete with an eerily realistic red-wig-wearing wax replica of Kusama.” Other notable collaborations include Cindy Sherman and The Chapman Brothers, all we admire.
Taking cues from the luxury fashion world and creating store concepts is taken a step further when luxury brands create experiences that add even greater emotional power to the buying experience. McLaren for example invites prospective buyers to the Foster and Partners-designed factory in Woking for a tour of some of the most iconic F1 vehicles from their rich history. It’s a powerful moment.
Imagine spotting Ayrton Senna’s 1991 world championship-winning car out of the corner of your eye just before you’re handed the keys to your own supercar at the factory. This kind of rarefied experience spins intoxicating brand stories of the purchase, and you can pretty much guarantee this story will be told over and over to the buyer’s friends, never losing any of its gloss and creating multiple “I want one of those too” moments. Because as we all know, referral is always the best form of marketing.
Understanding digital is important. But it’s still only part of the mix. Ferrari is a current master of combined digital and analogue brand marketing. They target users online based on their buyer behaviour – but they take action offline. Using Direct Mail they send a select list of prospective buyers a high-end ‘World of Ferrari’ teaser pack. The pack is highly personalised and attractively presented and has proven highly effective for them.
Amongst an online blizzard of social media posts, emails and newsletters, receiving a piece of targeted printed material through your letterbox can make a huge impact – simply because it’s no longer a common strategy. Don’t right print off just yet, it can be used to give a sense of exclusivity if executed the right way.
One thing is clear with younger demographics and on social media in general: video is the greatest killer app of them all. It’s no surprise really, but many brands have been slow to realise the power of the moving image to sell luxury goods.
Big social media platforms like LinkedIn and Instagram are making a serious push to promote video content over text and imagery for a more engaged digital experience. It’s one of the reasons Chanel has become one of the most influential luxury brands on social. As Nikki Gilliland for EConsultancy has said:
“Chanel’s social success has sky-rocketed in a short space of time, with the brand seeing an average growth of 50% across multiple platforms in just a year. One reason looks to be its video strategy.”
Seeking to capture the youth market, brands are becoming more adept at identifying the concerns and preoccupations of the demographic. These are real and serious beliefs and life-style determinants held by socially aware young people more aware than ever about climate change and living a healthy lifestyle.
And a healthy lifestyle means developing sensible attitudes towards diet in an age where cancer affects more people in the West than ever before. So it’s little surprise that veganism has become mainstream, with consumers expressing strong views on the positioning of a business’s brand values. So how do luxury brands square perceptions of opulence and exclusivity with sustainability and ethical living?
Our core DNA is to question everything and consider the ethics of any creative solution developed. It’s an approach that has worked very well. ikon has paid close attention to the ethical stances of luxury brands, and those that have undertaken a strategy based on personalisation. This has led the agency to work with some of the best creatives in their field specific to each project.
ikon cites Stella McCartney as an inspiration for their ethical, conscience-based approach to design and marketing. McCartney has been dubbed ‘the Queen of Sustainability’ for her refusal to use fur or leather in her environmentally friendly designs:
“I want people to come here because they desire the designs. At the end of the day, that’s when I’m doing my job successfully and in a stealth manner. That’s the most important thing. People don’t come here because I tell them to be vegetarian or to not kill animals or harm the planet. That’s not what you do in fashion. Maybe younger customers now do require that, but that’s only just happening.”
It’s an old saying but ‘the customer is king’ and that has never been more true. Brands are going to great lengths to provide the ultimate in personalisation to make them feel like a king. This in turn creates its own media channel of mini-influencers to spread the message to everyone they connect with.
Whether you are established or trying to break into the luxury market, it is imperative that you know your audience and are certain of your values for attracting your tribe of evangelists. Initially creating or monitoring your brand strategy will ensure you are on the right track with your messaging but then your consistency across every touchpoint must be flawless. The more you understand the customer, the more you understand what channels are best suited to engaging with them.