Numb and Number

How Brand Creatives and Analysts Co-exist

One of the great myths of anyone going into advertising, communications, or branding industries is that you need to be a creative genius and that math does not matter. We call think of the great campaigns that inspire us, the slogans that get stuck in our heads forever, and the jingles that play on even while we sleep. Creativity and inspiration are elusive and sometimes frighteningly hard to pin down. Continue reading

first laptop

Brand & Entrepreneur: Will They Love It?

An entrepreneur has to worry about a hundred different technicalities before going to market, but the most important question isn’t technical at all: Will they love it?

WITH STARTUPS, TWO big questions keep their founders up at night. “Will it work?” and “Will it make money?”

Although these are far from being the only questions to preoccupy the entrepreneurial mind, they are important ones. A startup is usually the brainchild of an individual or a close-knit team that comes across a solution to a problem. In fact the first questions that get bandied about usually begin with “What if…”

  • What if there were a way for everyone to use a computer wherever they were? Toshiba.
  • What if there were a way to promote the automotive industry and protect the environment? Tesla.

But Toshiba did not make the first laptop, and Tesla Motors did not invent the electric car. The first laptop (or better said, portable computer) was the Portal R2E CCMC designed and invented by François Gernelle in 1980. Toshiba’s first clam-shell laptop came along in 1985 after a few other versions were tried. Why do we remember Toshiba and not Portal R2E CCMC?tesla and musk, entrepreneur

The electric car sprang from the imagination of Scottish inventor Robert Anderson in 1832. Later in 1891, William Morrison of Des Moines, Iowa, built the first successful electric automobile in the US. The first commercially available electric cars came only 106 years later with the hybrid Toyota Prius (still available) and several thousand electric-only cars from such names as GM, Honda, Ford, and Nissan, although most were discontinued in the early 2000s. Tesla launched its Roadster in 2006. And while thousands of consumers are happy with their Prius, when people say electric car, they think Tesla.

Gernelle and Morrison had both hit upon the right ideas and had the right technological resources around them to put them into action. But the two are almost completely forgotten by history because they neglected one huge factor. One essential component that might have secured their respective places in posterity.

No Brand. No Recall.

A brand is, at its most elemental, an identity. This is where many entrepreneurs and startups get sidetracked with branding. Many people would like to believe that branding is about commercialization and sales. That when you start thinking of branding, you are thinking about ways to trick the consumer public or customer base. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. A brand is as essential to a product or service as your name is to you.

If you meet someone at a business networking event, he or she might give you their card and ask you to call. That is an act of branding. By handing you a business card, you can identify this person you met and distinguish him or her from the thousands of others you may have met in your life. Moreover, this person (let’s call her Sarah) tells you a little story about her business – it is a virtual office service. Then maybe she told you a funny story about a client who thought she was a hologram. Laughter. And another act of branding has taken place. Now Sarah is a living brand. You will remember her at least in part because she established an emotional bond with you – you laughed.

Do the Drones Fly?

Launching a startup and getting it to market is a huge undertaking for any entrepreneur. You have to make sure the app is properly coded and working, the shoes are well cut and sewn, the drones fly, or the coffee does not taste like battery acid, depending on what your startup is going to do. There are myriad details and technicalities that need to be sorted and tied down before launching your new product. If you leave out the branding, however, no one may ever be able to remember you.

Branding introduces meaning to your startup, a sense of its promise and purpose. You have asked yourself the What If question already; you have seen the problem that you are going to solve; but now it is time to articulate it. Giving your startup or product a name is an important first step, but being able to describe it, talk about its values and its personality will help people remember it. And that is eventually what will sell it for you.

apple and entrepreneur jobsFrançois Gernelle named his incredible innovation the Portal R2E CCMC. This was not wrong – every product needs a name – but he did not do himself any favors by giving it a name that sounds more like a spare part than a breakthrough in personal computing. The name you choose for your company (or for its products and services) should be easy to remember and reflect your business in some way. This is obviously not always true – Steve Jobs did not pioneer anything in the fruit industry. But if you give your product a whimsical name, you will have to work all the harder to connect the concept with its execution for your consumers.

Once you establish the name, the “Gernelle Portal,” for example, you then need to go to work to imbue it with the other brand values that set it apart from the others. The best way to do this is to tell its stories. With a new or innovative brand or product, something that has never existed before, the stories will have to come from the imagination. You can tell the stories of how your Gernelle Portal will change the way you live, the way you work, and how you enjoy your life. Later, after people begin to buy it, these stories will be replaced by real experiences. Slowly the new brand will come to be associated with an idea – the idea of personal freedom or individual expression (as opposed to being tied to a workspace or an office). Now, no matter how much or how quickly the technology races past you on the way to becoming a Toshiba or a Mac, people will still remember your brand. You will have established yourself as the Gernelle Portal. And the R2E CCMC will have been left at the back of the shelf.

Next to the R2E CCMD.

Tough Questions

Many entrepreneurs, when they are asked why consumers should buy their products, are stumped by the question. It seems like a harmless (and somewhat really important) question, but more often than not the entrepreneur has not thought through the answer. The product might be a clever or even an ingenious idea, but how does is benefit the consumer? And what should we feel about it?

When you get the branding right, the answers to these deceptively simple questions become second nature. The brand is the identity, and the whole reason that you wanted to bring this new gizmo to the public is because it has a real purpose – it saves lives! It saves time! Or, it is just a lot of fun! Whatever the purpose of the brand, it is part of its identity. The purpose, then, also carries a promise. One example of this could be a game app for android phones. If its purpose is to entertain us, then the promise is that it always will. Never mind that there are millions of game apps available to download. The brand is about you and your product, not how you compare with the others. Once the branding is done, then we will turn our attention to how differentiate it from the masses. entrepreneur

Answering the question about feeling may be more difficult. But think of other games you may have played in your life. Candyland? Childhood. Super Mario Bros? Nostalgia. Tetris? Boring. Angry Birds? Annoying. The first register that will affect your choices in playing games will be emotional, not rational. If you are coming out with a new game, how do you want people to feel? Excited? Suspenseful? Happy? Anxious? Or any of dozens of other emotional registers. The tone you adopt in talking about your new game will help create that emotion in the consumer. Later, of course, this will be taken over by actual experience, and (assuming you have written a good game) it will do a lot of the work for you. entrepreneur

Starting a new venture, as an entrepreneur or startup team, is an electrifying experience. It puts your creativity, technical expertise, organization, and business acumen to the test at all times. And while getting right and getting it sold are two important goals, getting it loved should come first.

Because when they really love your brand, they will buy and buy and buy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Steampunk Typewriter.

Winter of Our Non-Content

No reader wants good contentWe want good writing!

Reading the paperONCE UPON A time, our days began by reading the morning paper. content

Everyone had his or her own way of reading. I used to get the International Herald Tribune every morning when I lived in Paris. I read the headlines on page one and then I opened and flipped it to the back where I read the columnist of the day: Dave Barry on Tuesdays, Art Buchwald occasionally, and (my favorite) William Safire on Fridays. After that, I went to the arts section, and finally back to page one to see what the bad news was for the day.

The order of my reading habit was formed by a few different things. I had a need to know the Big Picture so I scanned the headlines first. I loved to read the columnists so they claimed my first focused attention. I wanted to do something on the weekend so the arts section informed me. And then, in the end, I went back to the beginning and read through the whole thing. The process usually took about two espressos and three Gauloises blondes. Time invested: 30-45 minutes.

In the prehistoric pre-Internet era, the daily paper was my chief source of information and reading entertainment. Television was also there, but I was a reader more than a watcher. And while this morning habit was deeply ingrained, on some days I threw down the IHT after about 10 minutes. On some days the headlines would be dull, a substitute columnist would appear, and nothing was going on that held my interest. On such a day, I usually would get to work early…

Jumping ahead to today, it’s the same thing, only different.

I still spend about half an hour on my news and reading, but I have countless choices for sources. Instead of my paper that was limited to about 38 pages (that’s a guess by the way), I now have everything that has been written on earth as of this morning. So my morning coffee sees me whizzing past Facebook and LinkedIn, making incursions in several news sites, setting up a bivouac alongside a few bloggers, and finally slipping around the corner and back to Facebook to see if anyone liked my new profile picture. It is a flurry of clicks and scrolls and shifting attention. On most days, I am lucky if I come away knowing anything more than I did before booting up.

And I miss William Safire.

Herein begins our discussion of “content.” Content is the stuff that either grabs my attention or does not. It is then either worthy of my time or it is not. It might be a photo or a video, a big headline or provocative title, or a short, Twitter-style, 140 characters of pith or drivel. When I compare it to the leisurely days of reading the IHT on a sunny balcony in Paris, I am confronted with a particular irony: I have so much information that I never get enough information.

The IHT, within its printed limits, had to be good quality writing. Why? Because I could choose to buy any of 26 other papers instead, and it was in their interest to keep me each day. Once I bought it or subscribed, I was stuck, and I read what I had in front of me. Online, however, with everything available, I am much more discriminating. I will not spend more than a nanosecond on something that has a whiff of boring or irrelevant to me. And if something looks good, I will skim it and move on to see what else is good. In plain speech, I just do not have time to read everything. No one could.

Moreover, the IHT had something that the Internet does not – an editor-in-chief. A newspaper was good or bad according to the skill of the editor in curating my reading choices. The web is just a free-for-all. I pick and choose on my own content (despite the efforts of algorithms and bots that try to steer me around). This is an absolute boon to writers – no matter what they write they can publish it – and a curse to the reader who may not have the time or inclination to form a reasoned information habit online. No practiced hand is there to separate the wheat from the chaff. I end up chewing on a lot of chaff.

Clean Copy

Good content is good writing.

Leaving aside the viral videos and cat photos, the best content on the web is the well-written article, long or short, informative or funny, truth or alt-truth. Grammar mavens like me will bounce away from sites that do not edit themselves well enough to make their content readable. What we read online must be so much better than what was printed on paper, and this is precisely because we can run away from it so much faster. Our competition is there, lurking on another tab, waiting to swoop in and steal our attention.

We also must define what is meant by “better.” Writing for the web is slightly different than for print. A copyrighter must be aware of keywords, cross-referencing, and imbuing each line with the temptation to read on. Whereas journalism majors will have learned about the “pyramid” style – writing the story in order of importance with the least relevant information being near the bottom so an editor could chop it off if needed – web writing must hold your interest from top to bottom. Even at the end of the article, there must be something that tempts you to click on and over to something nearby and keep on going.

Things websites have in common with Las Vegas:
They will never let you leave if they can help it.

One of the metrics that is used to measure the “success” of the website is the duration of the visit. If you are in and out in a flash, your visit is not regarded as valid. It’s a bounce. If you stay for one article, let’s say two to three minutes, you start being interesting. What keeps people on the website is compelling content, good writing, interesting stories, and a good dose of humor.

With all the competition and background noise buzzing online, your brand’s content is hugely important. If consumers bounce away from your home page because they were lulled to sleep by your droning content, you will have a hard time getting them back. They will consider your site a Sleep Zone and avoid it. This redounds, obviously, to the severe detriment of your brand.

content machineAnd we call it content, which makes it sound like a sack of potatoes or so much meat through the grinder. I am constantly asked to “provide content” for the brands I work with. But to me, this word demeans the process and the product. What a brand needs is a story. A gripping tale to get caught up in. There are many stories to be told – even including the story of why you want to leave your email address and join a mailing list. Every written word about your brand should aim at achieving an emotional connection with it. This is not a sack of potatoes – it is the aroma of home-cooking wafting in from a family kitchen. That familiar scent will lead you to follow it into the kitchen and begin to imagine the taste, to dream of the meal, and to whet your appetite until nothing else but Gratin Dauphinois will do.

And like all good stories, it must be clean and clear. It must not only be easy to understand but also alluring and seductive. It must have a beginning, a middle, and an end, just like Uncle Aristotle taught us. A story must satisfy the need for posing a conflict, facing it, and bringing it to a resolution. These are not prescriptive guidelines, of course, but they do describe the way we get involved in the stories we read. The best ones captivate us fully.

But Aristotle was also very alive to yet another aspect of storytelling. If it is great, if it is art, then it points away from itself to something much more fundamental: “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.”

This is a message for brand storytellers everywhere. The more we talk about the brand in direct terms, the less people will be enchanted by it. Another ancient grammarian whom I admire, Servius, warns us that “ars poetica est non omnia dicere” or the art of poetry is NOT saying everything. What is not said is of greater importance sometimes than what is.

QED.

Can a Leopard Change?

Personal branding cannot change who you are, but it does change how people perceive you.

CHANGE IS NOT easy. Any time we want to try something new or try to change something about ourselves, certain people are only too happy to smile and say: “A leopard cannot change its spots.”

In saying this, the clear meaning is that people do not change. That maybe we cannot change. And if we could change, it would be incredibly difficult – so much so that we would most certainly give up. That we are what we are, and we shall ever be thus.

Personally, I am not sure how much I believe that. People are changing all the time, but often we do not perceive it. The function of personal branding comes from this idea: that we can affect the perception people have of us, in order to help them understand us as we would like to be understood.

Same leopard. Same spots. But another point of view.

HAVING A PERSONAL brand today is almost obligatory. The need comes from social media and the online culture in which we have immersed ourselves. When someone wants to check us out, or find out who we are, they open Google. What the search engine spits out is the sum total of our existence online. Many HR departments and recruiters insist on perusing the social media sites of prospective candidates, asking the candidate to friend them, follow them, and link with them, and the candidates assent to be “browsed.”

Some recruiters, moreover, take a pass on anyone who either a) has no social media footprint, or b) refuses to share it out of privacy or other concerns. The mere act of writing that sentence made my skin horripilate and break out in goosebumps. The idea of being browsed is bad enough (it sounds like stalking), but being punished for refusing to submit to the prying eyes of strangers? It feels like a sci-fi plot – and a fairly predictable one too!

Nevertheless, this is how we size each other up today, and all the crying in the world will not change it.

If we like you, we swipe right. If not, thanks for playing.

The question we are looking at now, however, how we can manipulate the perception of our personal brand, especially if we effect a major change in our lives or in how we would like to be perceived. This could be as dramatic as looking for a new job, moving to a distant country, or running for public office. Or it could be much subtler: new interests, new friends, breaking old habits, changing old associations.  

Whatever the extent of the changes in your life, you will need them to be reflected in your social media presence, your personal brand. This is especially true if you are a “public” kind of person, posting often about your life. But it is also applicable if you are more discrete, if only to ensure that people know how to stay in touch with you.

Altering Perceptions

THE IMMEDIACY OF being online is both a gift and a curse. On the one hand, it allows you to be in constant contact with many people all at once, imparting rather personal and sometimes intimate information in a rather impersonal way. It overlays a gossamer net of trust over you and your “friends” – they share with you and you share with them. It is a new kind of trust, one that is quite easily given and lost, that the internet and social media engender. Psychologists aver that online chat and communications give rise to a false sense of intimacy among people who do not really know each other. This happens because we project our own feelings and opinions onto the others whenever there is an information gap.

Your personal brand, therefore, is a kind of “persona” that you create for others. People will like, follow, or connect with you because they are attracted in some way to your persona. Because faith in your persona is based on relatively little – some pictures, information, videos, or thoughtful posts – changing any part of it needs to be done carefully. Your online personal brand (excluding people you know in real life) will not include any of the shared experiences that help to create real bonds between people.

If you are looking for a new job, for example, you might consider the kind of people who will be seeing your online persona. Your current boss and colleagues might be shocked to see it, and prospective new bosses might think it a little indelicate. On LinkedIn, there are hundreds of profiles that state LOOKING FOR A NEW JOB in the headline, some of which on profiles of people who are still working.

A subtler way to approach it would be to change your headline from “Sales Representative at Acme Sales” to something like “Proven sales professional in pharmaceuticals”. The fact that you do not refer to your employer, Acme Sales, any more is a clear signal to HR people but perhaps less of a slap in the face to Acme.

What people remember is also something to consider. Last year, with the idea of starting up somewhere new, I announced to the world that I would be moving to the Philippines. When things did not work out as I hoped and I ended up NOT moving, I neglected to alter my persona. Because it felt like a setback, I failed to communicate it – but I have been answering questions about the Philippines for the past year now!

YOU MAY NEVER be able to change a leopard’s spots into a zebra’s stripes, but by curating your personal brand you can make sure that people interpret your spots in the right way. Our online culture pushes us to make snap judgements about each other based on images, but the tools exist to create a full personal brand online, as long as we do not neglect any part of it.

By paying attention to the details, introducing changes slowly and subtly as opposed to bluntly and suddenly, then you can effect a total transformation of your personal brand in very short order.

Spots aside, the leopard is still a leopard.

How to Sell Your Brand

When you want your brand to sell, consider first what branding will not do for you

Branding is not about selling.

Branding is about attraction, about creating affinities, and about earning a place in the hearts of your consumer. At best, we want people to feel very personally about their brands. We want them to feel like their Pumas, their Alfa Romeos, their Crest toothpastes, and their Lavazza coffees are integral parts not only of their lives but an expression of their personalities.

Branding is first your consumer’s identity, then the product’s.

This having been said, a brand is also a product and has to be sold. If no one is out there buying your brand, it means that you do not have a brand that people like. Easy. People do not like it (or worse still – people do not even know about it) and therefore they buy something else. And therefore, you start working on your CV and thinking about a career in waiting tables.

The title of this chapter, I will now tell you, is therefore based on a wrong premise. It should not be How to Sell a Brand but rather How People will Buy a Brand. It is a subtle difference but the difference is everything.

I will also tell you, while we are on the subject that you should never try to sell your brand.

The Art of Selling

In a sense, everything must be sold.

Manufacturers sell products to wholesalers. Wholesalers sell products to distributors. Distributors sell products to consumers. But we also sell ideas and opinions. We sell plans and strategies. In each case, one person is expounding more or less eloquently on the price, features and benefits of something and attempting to convert the listener. The conversion is a transactional process, at the end of which the buyer either shells out his money, changes his mind, or commits his time and effort. One person sells. One person buys.

Marketing spends a lot of time to understand as much as they can about what leads up to sales. They specifically target a certain group of potential clients as being the most likely to buy, based in most cases on mind-numbing rows and columns of numbers and statistics. They will check the age, gender, jobs, incomes, locations, marital status, ethnicity, nationality, religious affiliations, and many other demographic details. They will look at buying patterns, money spent on what kind of products in what retail outlets and when. They will check on lifestyles, hobbies, interests. The marketing people will examine the consumer to death by demographic, psychographic, behavioral, and geographic information until ideal consumers drip out of the small end of the funnels and a target group is formed.

They then work on how to make people in that target group decide to buy their product. The group may spend up to $3.50 on toothpaste, but may balk at paying more than $10.00 for a bottle of wine. They may like to shop in supermarkets better than corner shops. They may be willing to travel up to 10 miles to get to a mall every week but never travel 12 to get to a bigger one. Marketers will hone consumer profiles to a very fine point. Their job is to ensure that all the conditions are perfect for pushing a sale.

Then comes the critical moment. This is the moment when the consumer is faced with a pair of tube socks at the exact right price, in the exact place where they love to shop, and even at the right height on the shelf so as to be in their fields of vision – and they walk on by. They will not even look. They fail to react according to the numbers.

This happens all the time and that is also why marketing-driven companies like Proctor & Gamble, Unilever, and Mondelēz play the game of large numbers and volumes. With many products available in many places and at many price points, they still manage to rope in a massively large number of consumers who will hand over their money for Tide, Rexona, and Ritz crackers every day. The names are familiar, the prices are familiar, and the consumer – by eliminating other choices in a heuristic process – gravitates to them.

The whole process of sales and marketing is a push, pushing the consumer into the decision to buy. It is posited on the idea that if you know enough and act on the information, the consumer will decide to buy your product without thinking too much about it. It is a process of manipulating needs and desires while constantly pushing your product to the front of the line so that it will be chosen.

But none of this is branding.

The Power of Attraction

Branding is the opposite effect. It is not a push, but rather it is a pull. The brand will pull people toward it, attract people to it because it corresponds with who they are and how they see themselves in the world. Branding does not seek to sell – it seeks to have meaning and significance to consumers. Of course, once we identify with a brand as being the one for us, we will buy it – but that is just a natural movement and secondary consideration. The primary consideration for any brand is to mean something to the consumer as an individual and to acquire a place in his or her life.

The brand buys people.

Before you take this sentence into a board meeting and watch all of the finance, sales, and marketing people roll their eyes in disbelief, a little more explanation is required. We are in business to make money, right? We invest in manufacturing our Doo-Dads so that people will buy them, right? And now you are saying that we need to spend money to buy customers for our Doo-Dads?

A brand is a mix of different elements that are combined together to form a specific identity. This is not the identity of the product but of the consumer. And when the consumer is evaluating a purchase, he or she is not really looking at all of the manipulative tricks that marketing has prepared for them. They will be looking to see if it is a brand that resonates with them, that they would be proud to buy, that they would happily display or talk about or recommend. Contrary to popular belief, price is not dispositive in these decisions. People simply do not always buy the cheapest product in every category just because it is cheap.

We have to feel a kind of attraction to a brand, an attraction that is not dissimilar from that which we feel for certain people in friendships or in romances. Part of this attraction – and this is equally true with people, unfortunately – is the judgment on appearances. We swipe left or right based on a quick visual of the brand or person. In this way, brands must pay close attention to the colors they use, the fonts they employ, the packaging they choose, and the slogans they repeat. The attractiveness of the visuals, in fact, is a function of how well they conform to our expectations.

Imagine if you will a bright orange package with garish circus-like lettering across the front. In the top right is a big red star showing the price emblazoned in giant numbers. On the bottom left is a cartoon figure of a man with a preternaturally large smile pasted across his cartoon face. We can see it on the shelf from nearly 300 feet. It calls attention to itself. We can hardly avoid going to check it out just because it is so loud as not be ignored. So we approach the shelf with confidence to see what the fuss is all about. And it is a package of condoms.

Oh.

Even the most permissive of societies and most open-minded of consumers consider the purchase of condoms as a kind of intimate act. Packaging that cries out for us to see it is at odds with our expectations. We expect to see a smaller, more discrete package. We also expect to see more subdued colors, such as blues, burgundies, or violets. Such colors evoke romantic settings and moods. Bright oranges and reds are more public colors. An illustration of an ecstatically happy man, while potentially having the virtue of being a true reflection of using the product (one hopes!), is not how we see ourselves buying the product. Some people may still feel somewhat sheepish about buying condoms, others more comfortable with it, but in the majority of cases, it is not something that we want to announce to our fellow shoppers or the check-out clerk.

We just want to buy them. We do not really need to tell the people in line behind us, “Hey, I am planning to have sex!”

In this somewhat extreme case, the brand has fully mismanaged the consumer’s expectations for the visuals. Many people may laugh and move past the circus-brand condoms, but some may still buy them out of a sense of fun. Surprise or irreverence or shock may be values that this company wants to get across. One of the brand’s underlying values may be to demystify sex and to promote safe and healthy attitudes toward it. The slogans that we read could be all about making the purchase of condoms a reflex – like the 1980s American Express advertising campaign: “Don’t leave home without it.”

Suddenly, the garish orange pack of condoms has a sense and a reason. There is more behind the surprising packaging than a need to call attention and try to sell more. This company is making a statement about social responsibility and public health.

Ah, ok…

In the next days and weeks, we start seeing banner ads and billboards – in the same loud colors and big print – for the condom brand. We see it on television and as an advertisement on dating apps and then nightclub sites and then on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. We start to read articles talking about how brave this company is to take on a social taboo and make it their own. We read blogs that praise them.

Later, the brand launches a campaign for smart behavior concerning sex and distributes little orange pins that say “SAFE” in stenciled red letters. Celebrities are seen with the pins at award ceremonies.

The condom brand that startled us a few weeks ago in the shop is now the biggest selling brand in the nation. Other manufacturers jump on the bandwagon and try to lighten the tone of their brand communications. The messages we are getting from all side – that sex should be both fun and safe – all originated with one brand that dared to be different.

That is the power of attraction. This brand presented an entire personality to consumers, not just an unexpected visual, and the result was that consumers began to rally behind a brand that represented both themselves and the way they wanted to be perceived. Buying the condom brand showed that they were not just thinking of themselves, that sex was not a dirty thing not to talk about and to be overly discrete about.

That one need not whisper about buying condoms.

Branding is a process and takes time. In the same way as people do not become our best friends from the first handshakes and hellos, so it is with getting to know a brand. It is important to realize that this is a long game. We need to get to know about a brand, to test it, to hear about it from people we know, and to see it around. The more this happens, the more the brand’s personality gets showcased and the more it can become attractive.

It does not happen overnight, but when it does, sales surely follow.

 

 

definition of luxury

The Elusive Definition of Luxury

 

“Luxury is multi-faceted and cannot be contained by easy one-sentence definitions”

 

Unpopular as it might seem these days, I prefer to know what I am talking about before I start talking about it. When discussing the topic of luxury, the challenge is to come up with a definition for it that satisfies it in the most comprehensive way possible.

I have read many definitions and seen their contradictions. According to HEC professor and author Bernard Dubois: “No systematic study has been undertaken to provide an in-depth, consumer-based, empirical definition of the domain of this complex construct.”

And yet here we are, trying to do just that.

For me, Luxury is an objective category of goods and brands intended for a privileged class of consumer. Luxury is exclusive, rare, and difficult of access. Luxury exudes craftsmanship, artisanal, aesthetic, and artistic design, and a rich cultural heritage. It is generally extremely expensive, and thus beyond the reach of the vast majority of consumers.

Luxury is something of which many are aware and aspire to possessing, yet remains elusive. Luxury is of the highest quality but does not strive for perfection. The aim of luxury can be to provide hedonistic pleasure or to confer high social status.

The reason I say “for me” here is due to wide disagreement on the definition of luxury. The word is flexible and is sometimes used to enhance more ordinary goods and brands. But it would seem evident that true luxury is a class apart and is not a relative value.

Sliding Scale

Because there are no exact criteria with which to measure or quantify luxury, it is often considered a subjective or relative descriptor of high-end expensive goods. For some people, luxury exists at the very top of the socio-economic reach of a consumer, regardless of the extent of that reach.

If the consumer is a blue-collar laborer, his or her definition of luxury will be set much more modestly than a Wall Street pentamillionaire and again different from that of an established and wealthy family whose social status may be considered aristocratic, noble, or hereditary.

According to many scholars of luxury – Jean-Noël Kapferer, Bernard Dubois, Michel Chevalier, Danielle Allérès – luxury is not defined by its high price tag alone. This would tend to create a super-stratum wherein luxury exists beyond comparison with otherdefinition - luxury product from a luxury housepremium goods.

American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen first identified conspicuous consumption as a mode of status-seeking, showing a tendency for the demand for luxury to grow as the price increases. This strictly economic indicator necessarily implies,however, that the underlying value of the luxury good increases as well – prestige, craftsmanship, aesthetic, quality, and an ongoing tradition of excellence from the luxury house that produces it.

In other words, a single product such as a suit, a dress, a watch, or a pen, could not be considered luxury in isolation. If it is a watch by Patek Philippe, however, it is classified as a luxury watch as belonging to a traditional luxury house. Luxury is therefore not a product description. Luxury is conferred by its maker. We attribute all of qualities mentioned here first to the creators (i.e., Patek Philippe, Chanel, Montblanc, etc.), and then by extension to the products or objects they make.

 

Globalized Luxury

Dubois and Kapferer, among others, speak of the dream factor or the dream equilibrium of luxury. That is to say that luxury is something that people dream about owning or experiencing because it is often very difficult if not impossible for the majority of consumers to purchase due to its high price. But in order for the dream factor to play a role, the luxury designer or house must be known almost universally.

Luxury lectures, Jean-Noël Kapferer, HEC, 2017, Definition of luxury

Jean-Noël Kapferer, HEC, 2017

Despite the fact that luxury is marked by prohibitive prices, communication must be ubiquitous – ensuring that everyone possible knows the names of luxury brands. The more a luxury brand achieves this level of awareness, the more people can dream about owning it, and the higher the prestige rises for those who do.

Awareness of luxury around the world is therefore a key part of the luxury definition. A consumer must feel and perceive the brand’s consistency anywhere the brand is seen, be it in Paris, New York, or Shanghai. A Maserati parked in Belgrade or in Belgravia conveys the same messages of quality, craftsmanship, prestige, and tradition and must evoke the same allure and reveries in both places.

 

An Ineffable Definition

If there is no universally accepted definition of luxury, there is a preponderance of evidence to suggest that luxury is, at the very least, multi-faceted and cannot be contained by easy one-sentence definitions. In my view, trying to define luxury is very much like trying to assess art – analyzing brushstrokes and media do not do the whole job. We must take into account many other factors, not least of which is an emotional response that can never be quantified.

Although it falls short of becoming the last definitive view of luxury, this is what I am referring to when I use the word. For me, luxury remains an objective standard and we must continuously work to understand it better and its place in the universe. As a category, it is defined as an amalgam of different qualifying factors, none of which in isolation constitutes a prescriptive meaning, but which, in combination, becomes something altogether different and transcendent.

Nothing less will do it justice.

branding eyes brand visual

Branding is in the Eye

 

Branding is about first impressions,
memories, and falling love

 

We see differently when we are in love.

When we are in love, we are often overswept by the visual. Her eyes, her hair, her smile. When we are away from her, we remember her in images – still photos, remembering the time when we kissed in the fountain, when the pigeon landed on her head. The images and colors and experiences recalled evoke deep emotions and we are transported in our minds to the person we love. This is not about beauty – beauty is subjective and relative. And it is not about perfection – the eyes of love overlook blemishes, asymmetries, and morning hair. It is about visual cues that trigger an emotional response.

We behave the same with our brands.

A brand is, of course, much more than its visual identity, but we humans process so much through our eyes that it would be ridiculous to try to deny that the first impressions do not come from sight. We see. We remember. Branding adds depth to the vision so when we see a brand we recognize, many more images are brought to the surface all of which contribute to the full meaning of the brand.

The world of branding is intimately linked with advertising and marketing, and the use of images is an extremely common way to express a brand’s logo or likeness. And while a logo is not brand all by itself, it is often the first time we engage with the brand. We see a photo, an advertisement, or we see the actual product in use – but the common factor among these is that we see.

From Eye to Heart

The familiar red and white script of Coca-Cola, for example, does not make us think of the drink in our glass, it makes us feel love and belonging, of good times shared – all mental images that are part of the brand’s composition. In the same way, if we see a little blue thumbs-up, we do not think of our physical hands but rather of Facebook and ‘likes’ and our friends waiting there for us to share something with them.

The brand is beneath the image, supporting it, giving it meaning and life.

There is a deeply symbiotic relationship, therefore, between brand building and design. This is evidenced several hundred times a day when we are exposed to as many as 20,000 messages, usually visual, but only remember a few. We remember the ones that have a story behind them – either one told by the brand or one we intuit. Without these stories, we only see a pretty picture. The story is what allows us to stop and think about it. Why does Da Vinci’s “La Gioconda” or Vermeer’s “Girl with the Pearl Earring” fascinate us? It is because both paintings imply a story, which we fill in, consciously or not, with our imaginations.

target brand image visualA brand takes this to the next level by helping your imagination supply the narrative. The train of thought is easy to follow. When we see a red and white bull’s-eye, we think of Target, then we imagine the store as it was the last time we went there, then we remember what we were buying that day – and hey what did I ever do with those barbeque tongs I bought that day? We may even remember the slogan, “Expect more. Pay Less” or the song “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows” (sung by Lesley Gore in 1963 and used by Target in tv spots in 2010).

All of this from a red circle surrounding a red dot.

 

It Takes Two

The same is true if a brand has a well-developed backstory and creative messages but no visual images with which to link it. We need the visuals, not only as mnemonic devices, but also as the outward sign and symbol of the brand and its meaning. They help us keep the brand alive in our minds and hearts. The two, written content and visual design, work together to create a fuller image of the brand and therefore help us fall in love with it.

One of the effects of falling in love, with a person or with a brand, is that we transcend the visual images that may have attracted us to him/her/it in the first place. We need to go beyond what we see to know them more.

Think of “love at first sight.” It is an amazing and magical experience, to be sure, but if we do not get to hear the stories and enhance the first visual encounter, then it remains just a flash in the pan.

Luxury Brand Building: Trusting Time

Trusting Time: Cartier Tank, 1917Last month, Cartier’s iconic watch, the Tank, turned 101.

In 1917, this watch was designed to be unisex and gender neutral, words that may have had little resonance in the early 20th century, but today have risen nearly to the level of calls to action.

Louis Cartier said that the shape of the Tank was meant be… well… a tank, in a nod to the end of the Great War. But the military inspiration for this brand is not what we retain from the jeweler. Cartier has always stood for elegance, excellence, and refinement. And the shape of the watch is now much more akin to the Place Vendôme in Paris than it is to the Land Ironclads described by H.G. Wells.

Brands evolve over time. They take shape with the Zeitgeist. And the great ones remain ahead of passing trends and popular ideas. This is the genius of luxury brands. It is also one of the reasons so few new luxury brands are introduced.

Taking Time

In a discussion with a group of graduate students, the question was asked: Is Tesla a luxury brand? Tesla Motors and its sleek, high-priced electric cars qualify under many of the definitions of luxury. Although the company has introduced several more affordable models, they are still exclusive, they require specialized knowledge and appreciation, and they have the ambition of altering our perception of design, quality, and function. Established luxury brands like Porsche are now benchmarking themselves against the Tesla Model S, acknowledging that the new brand is a force on the luxury landscape and positioning themselves in relation to it.

Tesla has every right to be considered a luxury brand.

We cannot, however, run the true test of luxury on Tesla. The test of time and enduring value. Beautiful as they may be, we have no idea where the development of the electric car will be in 20 years. It may well happen that every automaker switches to electric by 2038, but it may also happen that electric cars could fade into the history of automaking as an experiment that never took off.

Who remembers the luxury experience of flying the Concorde? The unique look and experience of the Concorde (and its enormous price tag) were the pinnacle of air travel luxury from 1976 until finally closing down forever in 2003. Time was unkind to the brand, and it is now an aeronautical footnote in luxury branding.

It is unfair to tell the creators of luxury brands that their work will probably not be acknowledged as true luxury in their lifetimes, Making time: Lagerfeld enters Chanel, 1983but part of luxury its ability to survive the passing years with its value in tact.

Dior’s value as a luxury brand supersedes the flamboyance of John Galliano (creative director from 1996 to 2011). Chanel’s timeless elegance has now merged into the reputation and guardianship of octogenarian Karl Lagerfeld who has stewarded the brand since 1983. But Chanel remains Chanel, and Lagerfeld’s style, creativity, and design are fully subsumed into the brand. Time has protected Chanel. The jury is still out on Lagerfeld.

Making Time

Is it possible, therefore, to introduce a new luxury brand today? The answer is yes and no.

A new luxury brand will be judged by the precepts laid down by tradition in European luxury. There must be intrinsic value in the materials, artisanal work and craftsmanship, rarity and exclusivity of ownership, and a commitment to quality. Beyond that, a luxury brand must confer status and privilege on its adherents. It must engender a pride of identity for those that use it or wear it.

Luxury is an identification much more than it is a class of products. We identity with the luxury brands, choosing to use a Montblanc pen over a standard ballpoint, wearing an Armani suit over an off-the-rack knock-off, carrying a Hermès Kelly bag rather than a trendy Fendi.

The new luxury brand must be conceived with these values in mind. No matter what the sector, luxury has much more in common with art than it does with consumer goods. It is the artistic vision of the creator that will help ensure its place in the pantheon of great luxury brands. But this qualification will only be proved with the passage of time. As brands come and go, the luxury brand will be the last man standing.

Careful custodianship of the luxury brand over time is also vital. As Coach and Burberry are discovering, it is all too easy to allow your brand to descend into the mundane and banal.

Trusting Time

If you are able to imbue your new luxury brand in deep-seated traditional values, mindful of the times in which you are living and working, and looking ahead to future generations, the only course of action you have is to trust in time to affirm your creation as luxury.

A brand’s value does evolve, and it is certainly never fully controlled by its creator, but if the core is solid and the values are respected as the years go by, then one can feel that a true luxury brand has entered the world.

Coco Chanel cannot know what her brand has become, but her aim was always on lasting value and she trusted in that.

 


I would like to extend my personal thanks to Julien Baland, Anna Chastel, Laura Farbos, Sarah Grondin, Matthieu Guisiano, Charlotte Hamelin, Diane Le Gal, Emmanuelle Malenge, Solène Rondelli, Mariapaola Saponaro, Fatima Ezzahra Zouheir in Luxury and Fashion Brand Management at Skema Business School, Suzhou, for their debate on Tesla and inspiration of this piece. The future is in your hands.

 

Website-less in Cyberspace

Branding and Your Website

Labrador has no website Since 1993, there has been a small and steady footwear manufacturer in Zemun whose rise to recognition has been less than meteoric. It is a boutique shoemaker, designing for both men and women, and bringing out new and interesting models each season. Reasonably priced and attractive, this brand should be taking the country, the region, and maybe even the world by storm.

But you will not find them on the web.

Labrador Shoes. Ask anyone around me and you will see that I have been puzzling about this brand for at least two years. I am puzzled by the strategy. I am puzzled by the existence of a website address that has nothing behind it (for at least two years). Worse still, it also shows a Wrong websiteweb address that belongs to another company! I am puzzled by the shoemaker’s ambitions and goals. Are they only interested in Belgrade? Only Serbia? Is there a reason? All things that this inquiring mind wants to know.

Labrador has a Facebook page, adorned with lovely photos of the shoes, listing retail outlets, but not referring us to any kind of headquarters. Perhaps they have the market they want. Perhaps they are happy with organic growth – after all, they have been in business now for 24 years even if I only discovered them relatively recently. Clearly, there is a reason for it. I would very much like to understand it.

It makes me think a lot more about the nature of today’s brand and business environments. There was a day when having a shop on Main Street was your ticket in. You opened your doors, you had a listing in the Yellow Pages, you perhaps took out a few ads in local papers, and Voilà! You’re a brand!

Almost.

In those days, no one could imagine a low-cost vehicle that placed you immediately in front of the entire known world. Dependence on word-of-mouth was high and, if supplemented by advertising, would be just about all you could do to get your brand out there and understood. Brands were built more slowly before the Internet: people grew to love them over time, with experience, and by testimonials.

Fast-forward to today, however, and the story is completely different. People use the web as a first resource in learning about products and brands, and even people. How many times has someone mentioned a name in a meeting and you have Googled them? Or checked them out on LinkedIn? We have developed an info-reflex that we trust more than our own brains and memories.

In this environment, it is a mystery to me how a company like Labrador – ostensibly a brand that wants to sell and wants to win hearts and minds – can be happy not having a working website.

Sine Qua Non

The reality is that a website is all but indispensible. You may not use it to sell your brand online, but it is a showcase for your brand and its messages. All the stories, the values, and the character of your brand can come out of your website. It encompasses all the value of word-of-mouth marketing in one place.

From the days before a websiteVery importantly, having a website is a legitimizer. A company without a website will not be taken as seriously as one that does. A business that only uses social media could be regarded as “cheap” or untrustworthy. Just like the Yellow Pages once was, when you can set up a website for the price of a good meal, it makes people wonder why you do not have one.

But a word of warning – your website must also be good. Since everyone else is out there online, you have to cut through the dross of bad content and poor resolution photos. You must make your website into your Brand Ambassador, always dressed for the occasion. Writing for the Entrepreneur, Tim Knox puts it nicely:

“It’s actually better to have no website at all than to have one that makes your business look bad. Your site speaks volumes about your business. It either says, ‘Hey, look, we take our business so seriously that we have created this wonderful site for our customers!’ or it screams, ‘Hey, look, I let my 10-year-old nephew design my site. Good luck finding anything!’”

– Tim W. Knox, Entrepreneur

Cyberspace, once a word reserved for Sci-fi films, is now the place where our businesses live. We owe it to ourselves and our brands to give them life and fill them with everything necessary to get to know us.

Being without a website in cyberspace is just not an option.