What would make you put your name on a six-year waiting list for a handbag? Or pay five times as much for a product for its brand name? Luxury brands occupy a special place in our minds that keep us wanting them or buying them. But why is Hermès more desirable than H&M or Apple more than Dell?
Luxury branding agency SO is often approached by new clients asking how to create a luxury brand. Before anything else, you must first pinpoint the features that most luxury brands share:
Luxury has been around since the beginning. Around 100,000 years ago, Stone Age women were draping themselves in mollusc shells to indicate their status in the tribe; we’ve moved forward a step or two, choosing to display our spending power by buying luxury products. And while fifty years ago, only the wealthy could afford luxury brands, now they’re desired – and within the reach of – most people.
So, you want to know how to create a luxury brand and what exactly makes luxury brands so special? It’s down to half-a-dozen specific features:
Quality materials and high standards of hand-crafting that is hard to reproduce by machine are the embodiment of true luxury. This artistry, craftsmanship and durability appeal to the connoisseur and set it apart; it’s why Louis Vuitton boasts that one of its suitcases or handbags goes through more than 1,000 stages before it ends up in your hand. And Ermenegildo Zegna runs their own factories that weave the fabrics that they use in their suiting.
Often luxury brands started life with teams of skilled workers in small workshops, so artisan craftsmanship becomes central to their identity. Gucci emphasised this in their 90th anniversary advertising campaign, where they featured black and white photos of their workshops from the 1950s, pointing to the consummate crafting knowledge passed down from generation to generation.
A rich heritage
Luxury brands usually have a long history, emphasising staying power and the knowledge they’ve accrued along the way. Sometimes their mystique revolves around an exceptional founder, such as Coco Chanel or Salvatore Ferragamo. Often they’re firmly rooted in a country’s sense of self: so Savile Row tailors and Rolls Royce play on their Britishness; Veuve Cliquot and Cartier are unmistakeably French; and Bulgari’s logo references ancient Rome in its typeface. It explains why luxury brands often reinforce their founding date, their history and what’s happened during their lifetime: so Wolsey underwear was worn by both Captain Scott and the Norwegian Roald Amundsen on their race to the South Pole in 1911 gives gravitas and legitimacy that newer brands can’t claim.
An element of scarcity
The point about luxury is that everyone shouldn’t be able to afford it, so many high-end brands ration their products and accessibility. The six-year waiting list for the Hermès Birkin bag is legendary: if it’s worth waiting for, it’s worth having. At the other end of the spectrum is Pierre Cardin, a once highly respected couture brand that flooded the market with more than 800 licenses in 94 countries by 1990, losing control over quality and design, and ultimately devaluing the brand’s reputation.
The 2000s have introduced the idea of high-end brands reaching new audiences by collaborating with high-street chains, producing limited editions that customers fight to get their hands on for just a few weeks. It combines scarcity with a mass approach that drives desire but safeguards the brand from overexposure – and makes the product, service or experience seem more valuable.
A strong brand identity
A luxury brand’s identity must capture its excellence, as well as its unique personality, aura and attitude, so they are careful to ally themselves with a specific cause or outlook. Tiffany has come to stand for the most romantic symbol of love, Liberty as a collection of the exotic and eclectic, Lamborghini as the playboy’s ultimate toy. Each tries to establish a personal connection with their audience, reflecting their dreams, desires and need for recognition.
Sponsorship is popular, whether sports (Rolex alone sponsors tennis, golf, sailing and motor sports), film (Omega, Aston Martin and Brioni are all associated with James Bond; Chopard sponsors the Cannes Film Festival); and Burberry reaches to young audience by giving a platform to young British bands.
Some establish their pre-eminence by creating a foundation (DvF and Zegna) or allying themselves with high-brow pastimes (Chanel and art, Cartier and Polo); Prada, Ferragamo and Rolls Royce have even opened their own museums.
It’s these associations that generate interest and create more depth and texture to a brand’s story.
The use of public figures
Vivienne Westwood, Donatella Versace and Richard Branson play an important role in communicating their brands through their own personalities, but others rely on associating with carefully chosen public figures, who transfer their qualities onto the brand – and drive attention and credibility. So there’s widespread use of film stars (Keira Knightley for Chanel, Jude Law for Dunhill), sporting figures (Rafael Nadal for Lanvin, David Beckham for Armani), singers (Madonna for Smirnoff, Britney Spears for Virgin Mobile), designers, brand owners and even politicians and royalty. Louis Vuitton did it with style: they developed gravitas through using experts in their respective fields, such as Francis Ford Coppola, Mikhail Gorbachev and astronaut Buzz Aldrin.
It’s also interesting the number of high-end brands that have moved into film-making. Chanel began the trend in 2004 with a three-minute mini-film directed by Baz Luhrmann and starring Nicole Kidman, costing a walloping $42 million to make. Tom Ford even directed his own movie, A Single Man – where everyone wore his creations, naturally.
A superlative store experience
Luxury brands have always relied on exclusive and exceptional shopping experiences to create a more intense connection with consumers and leave positive associations. It’s why many struggled with the concept of online shopping being non-personal and accessible to the masses.
Buying a ring from Cartier, a gown from Valentino or food from Fortnum & Mason is not just transactional, but a way of brands providing a higher emotional reason to buy. So Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister hire topless male models, Burberry installed state-of-the-art interactive technology in the Far East, and Alfred Dunhill pioneered the gentleman’s-club-style brandhome, with its private dining room, cinema, barber and spa, allowing customers to immerse themselves completely in the brand.
It’s these features that provide the framework to give luxury brands the weight and texture they need to command respect, attention – and the ability to charge sizeable prices.