Philippe Mihailovich, professor of luxury brand management at EDHEC Business School in France, advises against simplistic branding strategies founded on storytelling. In the first of his series of brand building methods dubbed ‘Haute Luxe’, he argues instead that brands should be veritable ‘soulmates’ to consumers based on loyalty and a ‘love story’.
The face of luxury branding is changing forever, as is our world. The internet, mass media and mass expansion of luxury brands into emerging economies across the globe has led to the development of a very luxury-savvy consumer. The consumer is becoming an educated expert, a connoisseur. These clients now have the power to seek out the rare, to personalise the product and to widen their choice even more. If ever there was a time to build a strong competitive identity, it is now. If you don’t get your brand message right at this moment, when consumers are seeking out the best, you could find yourself left out in the cold for a long time to come. It’s easier to create a good reputation when consumers have an open mind. Once they feel they become experts, it will take much more work to change their minds. It’s time to get your story right.
Branding is not only about business, it just often happens to fall under the control of marketing professionals and business people. Countries, regions and cities too are considered as brands and nowadays compete as brands. They cannot be sold or put onto balance sheets, but they have to cope with the same issues of brand image, brand reputation and ultimately brand identity just as commercial brands need to do. In the business of luxury, branding and marketing has traditionally been despised and brand management has not been a norm. Behind the best marques are often the creators themselves or their families. In luxury fashion, the responsibility of a ‘brand manager’ is traditionally found to fall onto the shoulders of a talented designer. There’s a reason for this. Luxury understands the importance of creativity. Luxury is driven by excitement, passion and creativity. Anything less is quickly exposed as shallow or soulless or worse, opportunist or ‘bling’.
Many luxury brands fail to provide all the answers that today’s informed customers seeks to know. Simple ‘storytelling’ isn’t good enough anymore. True luxury brands are not built on one story such as a Ralph Lauren Polo story/theme. This would be like building the reputation of an artist on only one piece of work. The luxury brand story is more about the artist, his creative universe, his beliefs and values as well as perhaps technique, materials and all the emotional touch-points that the work may evoke. The less it touches us emotionally, the less we may be interested in it, just as in human relationships. A human being has many stories to tell, as should a brand, and a person who always recounts the same story is often considered boring, shallow, limited or all at once, same with a brand. What is more, the brands can no longer control their brand messages in the way that they used to. There is too much information coming in, from blogs to traditional media to opinions of friends and the brand’s competitors. Luxury brands need to recognise that they have to engage with consumers on a more personal, emotional as well as functional level, in order to succeed in today’s marketplace because sooner or later they will move on and leave your brand behind. As with human relationships, you need to build shared experiences with the other, over time. It’s about building stories, not telling stories.
In the luxury field, the word ‘brand’ mostly implies ‘marketing’ and marketing has always been considered a dirty little American word in the industry. It implies looking for more business, more sales, and overtly targeting customers as if they are being hunted down for their money. In contrast, luxury goods makers did not target the customer they attracted the client. They were not based on business plans but on visionaries with a great passion to create something new. Their creations were acquired by the privileged few who came to them for their expertise. They did not need to ‘brand’. Their style was as distinctive as a Van Gough brush-stroke. Branding is for herds of cattle that all look the same and therefore the only way to differentiate one from another is the burn your name into its hide to state “I own it”. It’s very far from claiming, “I created it”. Luxury was not ’brand’. Today’s luxury ‘brands’ are targeting the masses but trying to be subtle about it. As such ‘brand’ can be seen to imply, known to all and accessible to many. The risk is its vulgarisation, but not necessarily so.
The most effective brands capture your attention with their look, win you over with their unique personality, impress you with their heritage and breeding, get under your skin with their magnetism, work their way to your heart with their warmth, and seal your loyalty with theirs. Creating a successful and enduring luxury marque is about forging a deep emotional bond with the consumer. The luxury brand must aim to become a soulmate. When you have a one-to-one relationship, you don’t need to ‘brand’ yourself, you already exist in the mind and hopefully, heart of the other. You are unique to your client and your client is unique to you. The unique method that I will propose in this forthcoming series is based on this all-important recognition. Every luxury ‘brand’ should aim to become a new soulmate. “Some women, when they go to a party, get more emotional support from the expensive new handbag they’re clutching than they get from their husbands,” fashion publisher Jane Raphaely says with a smile.
The Haute Luxe series
The Mihailovich Methodology that will be presented over a series of publications on LuxurySociety.com proposes how you can and should in fact build your brand as if you were building a love story, because in essence you are, in a few easy to understand steps. The approach taken is very simple and very human. Just as the best interpersonal relationships are based on mutual admiration, warmth, honesty and trust, so are the most enduring relationships between customers and their brands. Each extract will provide a useful theoretical tools or insights that can be used as a checklist for ensuring that your brand builds a sustainable relationship with the luxury connoisseur of today.
The series consists of extracts from a forthcoming book, still awaiting a publisher. It aims not to present branding as a pseudo-science. Its approach is more about human curiosity, intuition, adventure and surprise. It’s about human relationships, passion, desire, love, trust, betrayal or simply disappointments. It’s about family, kinship, honour and heritage. It’s about simplifying branding, examining brands before they become brands and de-branding brands once they have become brands. It respects and pays tribute to brands that remain discreet, authentic and are generous – giving more than expected. Most importantly it differentiates between the industrialised and democratised so-called luxury brands driven by business plans and the non-industrialised, hand-crafted, very humanised and soulful, and often unknown haute luxe ‘pre-brands’ that are driven by passion and integrity. It is these marques that will win favour with the connoisseur-client of our era. Now is the time to humanise!
The series will follow a 12 step program along the following lines:
STEP 1: YOU’RE GORGEOUS. The rules of immediate attraction.
STEP 2: GETTING INTERESTED. Showing and declaring, receptiveness
STEP 3: GETTING TO KNOW YOU. Where are you from/where you live.
STEP 4: WHO’S IN YOUR PAST? Your history/how you got here.
STEP 5: MEET THE FAMILY AND FRIENDS. Liking those closest to you.
STEP 6: ARE WE RIGHT FOR EACH OTHER? Let the head have its say.
STEP 7: CAN I TRUST YOU? I need to rely on you
STEP 8: I WANT YOU. Consuming passions
STEP 9: SOULMATES. We share many values
STEP 10: I LOVE YOUR TOUCH. A personal touch throughout.
STEP 11: I LOVE YOU! I’m committed, happy, totally engaged
STEP 12: HAPPILY EVER AFTER. Constant desire/lasting memories.
The guidelines provided are derived from, and intended to work across, all luxury categories but each brand has its own DNA, universe and codes and brand creators or developers should do their own research to see whether certain tips will add value to their brands or not. It is impossible to write a brand bible of do’s and don’ts to suit all brands, because people change, competitors change and rules change. However, it should help you or anyone involved in brands to avoid certain potentially costly and damaging pitfalls whilst providing ways to establish a long-term vision for your own brand as well as ways to keep its relationship with clients, soulful, fresh and exciting. If I show despise for greed and a bias towards generosity, it is because I strongly believe that brands, and luxury brands in particular, should share these values. Readers are invited to update or challenge views expressed in this text below in order to ensure that the thinking get better and better. It’s the polemic that counts.