“Is innovation in the luxury sector possible, without showcasing the artisanal, human aspect that is increasingly rare in today’s world?”
Audrey Kabla, a specialist in luxury brand strategies, is Co-Managing Director of Adetem’s Club Luxe and founder of the Epykomene agency. She is also a training specialist in the field of luxury codes, the author of “Marque & Luxe” expliqué à mon boss (Editions Kawa), and Director of the Luxury Brand Marketing Master’s course at Sup de Pub (INSEEC Group). She lectures on brand strategy for Master’s and MBA programmes focusing on luxury and fashion in France, Europe, USA and China. She also writes a blog (The Blog of Epykomene).
LUXURY AND INNOVATION
Luxury and Innovation are very compatible!
If one views the luxury sector as an economic driving force (as defined by Voltaire in his philosophical poem Le Mondain), we cannot but agree with this statement. Innovation is necessary in order to breathe creativity, legitimacy, know-how, dreams and transcendence into the luxury sector.
The question we should be asking is of a different sort: How is the luxury sector innovating today? The answer is simple. Since the 2000s, the luxury sector has been adapting, purposefully and at an increasingly rapid pace, to societal and cultural movements, resulting in extreme democratisation of its marketing. The goal? To implement “effective” communication strategies – so defined because they are more contemporary, ever more commanding and sometimes deliberately ephemeral.
How to conquer the millennials
This is what the luxury houses want to know. Millennials are the new phenomenon in the luxury sector, and the companies need to open up, to adapt and in some cases to reassess the way their marketing departments do things. Luxury brands get together at conferences and share their knowledge, attempting to determine how best to attract millennials, how to make them want the products. Because, as Karl Lagerfeld said, “luxury is about creating desire”. Luxury companies study Gen Y and Gen Z with keen interest, and hire agencies to help them understand them better.
Twenty years ago, market research had no place in the luxury sector. There was no market monitoring, no “consumer” focus groups (the luxury sector only talks about “clients”). The sector advocated “inside out” creation, meaning that Couture house designers would create their vision of tomorrow’s fashion, after which clients might or might not adopt it. At that time, the creative aspect was the only thing that mattered in the luxury sector. Our communication strategies were all about “pull”: being seen, without letting on that we wanted to be seen, not going after the client, but waiting for the client to come to us. Marketing was disparaged, something that was done in silence — it dared not speak its name.
How things have changed! Today, there is no longer any shame in availing oneself of the services of renowned marketing agencies or fashionable new ultra-digital entities to analyse and plan how to enhance one’s visibility and speak young people’s language. Yes, the internet has shaken up the codes. The way the world has opened up to leading French luxury brands has also been a big help. The Americans and the Chinese see nothing wrong with the flirty way French luxury brands promote themselves, and they appreciate being listened to, looked at and seduced.
Many of these iconic brands adopt a customer-focused strategy and conduct proximity or “over-presence” marketing — usually aimed at establishing loyalty through high added value but more accessible products such as lipsticks, fragrances, skincare, accessories and small leather goods (belts, wallets, card holders, etc.).
And it works! According to an article in the 21 June 2018 issue of Capital magazine: “Chanel has revealed sales approaching 10 billion euros” – neck-and-neck with Louis Vuitton and showing an 11% increase over 2018.
Luxury brands – the new jet-setters
The crowds go crazy for our labels! Because many clients still love drenching themselves in logos, which they worship as the new emblems or coats of arms of our time. The time has come to think about humanising brands — even as humans want to become brands. We decipher the personalities and the attitudes of these profoundly alive and mystifying entities.
Recently, luxury brands have been subjects of films and TV series – such as “The assassination of Gianni Versace” about the Versace fashion house and its designer.
Again in the artistic field, Lil Pump’s song Gucci Gang had 789 million Youtube views as of 14 September 2018, clearly reflecting the popularity of the Italian fashion house among millennials – it’s been Americans’ favourite luxury brand since 2016. The burning question for brand strategists: Did Lil Pump surge to the top of the charts thanks to the Italian brand’s devastating image, or was Gucci the one to benefit from the talent of the young hip-hop artist? A daring and clearly lucrative alliance:
« Gucci accounts for 70 % of the profits » of the Keiring group, with growth of 44.6% between 2017 and 2018.
“Gucci (with 6,2 billion in sales) will continue to give the group its cutting edge. Its creative perspective, embodied in Alessandro Michele’s collections, has won over the younger generations in Asia, but that’s not all. “They need to assert their singularity in a digital world,” emphasised François-Henri Pinault. A brand can no longer just showcase its heritage and its know-how. There has to be authentic creative content, a dialogue has to be established with the brand: “Gucci’s online sales also rose by 80 % in 2017.”
(source: Les Echos –13 February 2018)
Because they’re worth it!
A “star pupil” role inhabits the luxury sector, which represents the “crème de la crème” of human excellence and creativity. Luxury brands set the example and set the tone on ethical issues and respect for the environment.
Luxury brands work with a leather alternative made from pineapple waste – this coveted “vegan leather” is so much more stylish! The 6 September 2018 issue of Le Journal du Luxe announced that Stella McCartney, the queen of eco-friendly trends in the luxury sector, recently teamed up with Adidas to launch the first Vegan Stan Smith line.
Renovating monuments is also very popular. Christian Dior is sponsoring a facelift for Marie-Antoinette’s Hameau in the grounds of the Palais de Versailles (source: CultureBox, 14 May 2018), following the examples of Dolce & Gabbana with Milan’s La Scala and Cartier with the Opéra Garnier in Paris.
There are numerous examples of innovations in the luxury sector through new technologies.
Products: The Journal du Luxe tells us: “Chanel’s latest ‘Volume Révolution’ mascara has a unique brush developed with 3D printing (…) Iris Van Herpen joined with the Delft University of Technology to develop a printing technique to combine 3D printed plastic with natural materials.”
Balmain introduced its “virtual army” of 3D models for its latest campaign (source: bbc.com, 5 September 2018). The appeal of virtual reality and digital technology offers another way of reaching millennials, who are digital natives. For those who would rather be safe than sorry, Bvlgari has introduced its mobile app Bvlgari Vault which “provides an ultra-secure space to store all of a user’s sensitive data on their device. Credit cards, passwords, documents photos … Once loaded into the app, all of the information is encrypted with technology developed by WISeKey » (source: The Indexe).
Sophisticated approaches to innovation
While many luxury brands are going with new production methods and new approaches to customer relationships (3D machines, social networks, cross-channel marketing, etc), others such as Guerlain and IWC continue to pay particular attention to human relationships – by snail-mailing a handwritten thank you note to clients after they buy a new beauty product or by creating customised products such as uniquely designed timepieces (“curation” approach).
What if innovation was about staying close to one’s origins, about luxury companies opening up to the world without losing their souls by attempting to adapt, fleetingly and at monstrous speed?
My feeling is that innovation cannot continue unless the human character that is specific to luxury – and increasingly rare today – is protected. Cultivating fine craftsmanship and traditional know-how, but also highlighting the people who make the products, who manufacture the dreams of the luxury sector, with transparency and humility. What if, in 2019, “luxury” innovation equalled authenticity?