Luxury business leaders wise up and show signs of abandoning their mass-market strategies for a return to exclusivity and craft.
*Thumbnail credit, Tom Palumbo
Throughout the past few years, many luxury companies have followed the model of growth that includes frantic brand-buying sprees and diversification into complementary categories such as interior design and technology.
Based on the conversation among industry leaders that just closed in Monte Carlo at the Financial Times’ Business of Luxury Summit, that very trend is what will be avoided in the future, as luxury companies seek to preserve an image of quality in the eye of the consumer.
The Honeymoon is Over
During the boom years, many luxury companies ventured into secondary product and service endeavors spanning the range from cell phones to hotels, under the strategic principles that 1) these outshoots serve to further their brand image, 2) their reputation of quality could transcend from the product category they had built a name upon, and 3) that "everyone else was doing it" - they didn't want to be left out of the game.
Pushing the Brand Image
The idea that these complementary product categories could further the brand image began from the right perspective. After all, what better way to promote a fashion label's home collection than to furnish an entire hotel under the brand name? When coupled with the managerial expertise of EMAAR Hotels & Resorts, the Armani brand has done just that. However, the brand image of Armani was established in sartorial minimalism and modernity, and while that can be reflected in some ways through the environmental design of a hotel, to convey the brand experience through hospitality is another matter. With tourism lagging in the economic crisis, it is doubtful that Mr. Armani wants the concept of minimalism conveyed through empty hotels.
The real problem emerges when the brand image is exposed to elements outside of the company's core capabilities. Just as in licensing out fashion products for manufacture or sales to external parties, final control over the product and customer experience is lost. This poses a significant risk.
While the concept of co-branding is a nice way to give more consumers access to a brand they love, the benefits are often shortsighted. While the Total-Look trend died in developed markets in the 80s, co-branding projects served as a way to reignite the flame. Fashion companies went beyond the traditional accessories categories typically reserved for leather goods (shoes, bags, belts, etc) and began to venture into tech projects. Although this allowed several die-hard brand enthusiasts to more adequately encompass their life in a brand of choice, it also allowed some brand outsiders to have a "piece of the brand image" without the purchase of more traditional items.
I have several points on this: for the fashion-cell phone explosion, brands from Prada to Dolce & Gabbana and Armani have played the game, coupling brand imaging in aesthetics with the technological capabilities of LG, Motorola or Samsung, respectively. However, the development process for the Prada cell phone was tedious and expansive, and Prada had to sacrifice some brand imaging points while LG had to sacrifice some cutting-edge technologies to bring the project to fruition. An equal compromise in aesthetic and technological appeal serves neither the fashion brand nor the technology company. The expertise of neither brand could be fully conveyed in the project, driving the perception of quality down. This is what happens when you venture too far from your core capabilities, without enough understanding of the new category.
On the other hand, Hermes worked on a limited-edition co-branding project with Bugatti to create the Bugatti Veyron Fbg par Hermes. While Bugatti pumped this high-performance dream car full of the best automotive technology on offer, Hermes stuck to their core capabilities in leather goods and sartorial excellence to outfit the vehicle in the finest interior upholstery and complementary accessories. The resulting product is a $1.5 million car that definitely will not be driven by every brand enthusiast, but it certainly represented the best of both brands! Furthermore, the project achieved greater market exposure for Hermes and Bugatti through a lot of positive press coverage in both the luxury, fashion, automotive and leisure categories.
Playing the Game
For years, the idea that luxury was an easy business to make money from prevailed. Companies entered the sector and shortened product cycles, product categories offered, store locations, and so on in an effort to milk the market for all it was worth. According to Bernard Arnault, “Some investors pushed by the frenzy of doing something were going to invest in almost everything. As luxury was perceived as an industry where you can make money easily, they were pushed to buy brands without knowing how to make them work.”
As consumers were hungry for "more, more, more," the luxury companies were all too happy to provide it, with little consideration for consequences beyond the immediate bottom line. Referring back to brand diversification, CEO and founder of Tod's Spa Diego Della Valle noted, “Several times I had to fight for our vision against external pressures, which were demanding we did perfumes, or mobile phones. My answer was that it wasn’t our competency. If I want a mobile phone, I want to buy it from Nokia.”
With market pressures mounting, brands began to churn out an ever-increasing supply of product collections. The highest brands of luxury in fashion found themselves competing on the same playing field of "fast-fashion" powerhouses such as H&M and Zara. You might be thinking, "How did this NOT seem like a problem?!" However, as long as the money was rolling in, shareholders were happy and companies felt little incentive to buck the trend in strategy.
The problem really emerged when the frantic consumer spending cycles ground to a halt after years of proliferation, luxury labels slashed their prices, and core customers were left wondering what they were paying for in the first place.
Saving the Marriage
Just like any relationship on the rocks, luxury companies and their customers have to go back to their core values to re-build the bond that has been broken by years of inconsistency.
At the end of the day, a luxury company should represent solid quality and categorical leadership. The key words here are quality and leadership. When luxury brands diverge from their core capabilities where they exhibit the highest level of expertise, it is a letdown to all brand loyalists. When they chase the market instead of leading it, they let the brand down.
Many of the CEOs speaking at the Financial Times’ Business of Luxury Summit confirmed this attitude, including Berndt Hauptkorn, CEO if the privately held group Labelux. “During this period of growth, there were concepts that were superficial, that didn’t deliver in terms of product quality,” Hauptkorn said, arguing these brands won’t survive the economic downturn unscathed. “There will be a shakeout because there was overcapacity in the market. It will be a market with stronger brands and with a clearer message.”
The industry has begun to realize that once the economy recovers, customers will place a particular emphasis on values like quality and craftsmanship, but also exclusivity, as well as commitment to social and environmental responsibility. Companies that have remained true to their capabilities and core message throughout the boom years have seen less damage and a faster rebound than others in the recession.
In an effort to protect the intrinsic value of luxury brands, companies and production regions are going back to their most valued resources in production to strengthen intrinsic values in quality. According to Imran Amed, editor of Luxury Society, "In the end, it is the enduring quality and craftsmanship that count the most because this goes right to the heart of the way luxury products are conceived and created. Combined with great design, service and innovation, craftsmanship is what enables us to deliver lasting products that resonate with a new consumer mindset fixated on value."
While most luxury brands have cut back on retail space, collection sizes, and various departmental employees, for the luxury-savvy brands a focus remains on preserving the original craft of the brand. This includes the protection of craftsmen and artisans that produce their high-quality products, in addition to sustainable practices both environmental and strategic.
Having been through several recessions since he began creating the world's largest luxury group in 1985, Arnault stated that his key to success includes a solid long-term outlook: a generational business concept, not a 3-5 year plan. This allows a company to move forward with the big picture, and reduces the impulse to act on short-term trends in the market. “It is a natural tendency of companies during a crisis such as the one we are in to cut costs, drop prices, and stop expanding, because it has the most immediate impact on numbers,” he says. “But what we have learned in the many crises we have been through is that this is a mistake, especially when it comes to luxury."
Mr. Arnault also believes the government investment, reactive companies and a refusal to change course in spite of the current market crisis will help companies and production regions to preserve their capabilities. However, while some long-term-minded companies such as Chanel, Bulgari and Hermès have taken affirmative steps to preserve the dwindling numbers of craftsmen that produce their goods, other companies have stood by while production has been outsourced to unskilled worker regions abroad in the effort to feed the speeding consumer cycles of the boom years. While this labor pool of skilled workers is all but lost in the UK, there are efforts to retain and nurture growth there as well as in France and Italy.
Follow the Leader
In addition to increasing fashion cycles to pander to the whims of a fast-fashion-oriented market, luxury companies have been tailoring their products and marketing campaigns to lure existing customers.
The very history of luxury illustrates the point that luxury brands and designers provide items for the customer, which are so exciting the customer hadn't even thought of them. This is what originally made customers line up at the doors of the original artisans and designers- to see something new.
The recent years of endless market research, managerial consensus and client-centric focus on demand has diluted the interesting aspects of luxury. According to Jean-Noel Kapferer and Vincent Bastien, authors of Luxury Strategy – Break the Rules of Marketing to Build Luxury Brands, "Luxury brands today are the trailblazers of tomorrow’s taste. Once a consumer segment is identified it is too late to exploit it. ...There is no surprise in existing demand. This is why all classic luxury... was created through emotional intuition."
They go on to say, "As a cultural creator, luxury brands should set their own high standards. Listening to the consumer is the best route to a lack of differentiation, and failure to inspire the dream – the two levers of desire that are the only paths out of the recession in the luxury world."
While that does not mean companies should ignore the customer altogether (of course not), it does basically state the obvious that luxury players must be leaders in quality and innovation at all times, without submitting to frivolous market demands that might inflate the bottom line temporarily, but in the long run will break the bank and eventually the brand.
However, it should also go without saying that in order to be a leader, luxury brands must appeal to new consumers in Gen X & Y as Baby Boomers retire. In order to do that, they must earn their trust through demonstrated quality, sustainability and a legitimate brand story. And where will the new market hear that story? Online.
Financial Times' Business of Luxury Report 2009
Luxury Society Issue 5: Return to the Craft
Luxury Execs Emphasize Exclusivity and New Focus
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