“Everything has become more experiential”
- Dante D’Angelo, brand and consumer development director at Valentino
It is an odd state of affairs indeed for the retail sector at the moment. On the one hand, consumers are flocking to digital devices like never before, particularly for their shopping. Conversely, this means that the physical experience of shopping becomes rarer, creating more opportunities for specialism. An article in the Financial Times a few weeks ago read as if a commercial plague had swept through the UK high street over the past few years. With 4,000 stores affected, 2012 was, according to data from the Centre for Retail Research, the “worst year since the start of the credit crisis in 2008″. Names of erstwhile stalwarts like Woolworth’s, Jessop’s, Peacocks and Clinton Cards have all fallen under the knife. As we wrote at the beginning of last month, what little salvation there is lies in embracing digital technologies.
The luxury sector however has its own special, gilt-edged cards to play. In St. Tropez, the Christian Dior boutique’s ample courtyard has recently been made use of with an all-day restaurant. Louis Vuitton have a cinema screening classic Italian films in their Rome boutique. It’s no wonder such brands have also branched into the hospitality sector, the former working with the St. Regis to develop branded rooms, the latter into full-scale hotel management. Ferragamo have been involved in the hotel sector for years. Two recent examples show how companies can extend the experience for visitors, and help drive revenue at the same time.
The auction house Sotheby’s will tomorrow auction a rather large collection of surrealist art. One of the few things that definitively puts it ahead of Christie’s is that it has its own cafe, which, last week and this week, is pushing the surrealism theme into its catering (see above menu). It’s a simple, creative idea that creates a cohesive brand, celebrates a big event, and ultimately hopes to drive revenue from peripheral streams around the auction. The RA’s current Manet exhibition is taking a leaf from this tactic, opening later but charging double the usual rates for a special experience, including a drink and a guide. The other interesting news of note was a new tactic being employed by the fashion company Valentino. Not content merely with having a major exhibition at London’s Somerset House, the label is also tinkering in an innovative way with its event structure. As detailed last week in Bloomberg Businessweek, Valentino is opening a new boutique in New York later this year, during which the typical glitterati will be in attendance. However, the new idea comes in the form of the company inviting prized customers to the opening for the chance to rub shoulders with said VIPs, for a steep price. Similarly, Gucci is offering its non-VIP customers tours of its Florence workshops for the first time.
Something that Zeitgeist has been noticing for a couple of years now, recently echoed by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) senior partner Jean-Marc Bellaiche, is the importance, particularly for those in their 20s – like Zeitgeist – that people place in defining themselves by what they’ve done rather than what they own: “In an era of over-consumption, people are realizing that there is more than just buying products… Buying experiences provides more pleasure and satisfaction”. On a macro level there is significant bifurcation in the retail market; not everyone will be able to afford in creating extraordinary experiences for their customers. A recent BCG report helps illustrate this, noting that while the apparel sector as a whole saw shareholder returns fall by 1.3% for the period 2007-2011, the top ten players produced a weighted average annual total shareholder return of 19%. Expect then for retailers – those that can – to increasingly provide exclusive experiences to their customers, beyond the celebrity, whether it be early product releases, tours, or events. Just don’t expect it to come without a pricetag.
Luxury brands have found it hard to come to terms with the shift in consumer shopping habits from retail to online. For several years they have dipped their toes in the water of digital, but with little commitment and much hesitation (until recently). This is understandable. Often for luxury products, the justification for higher prices is only evident upon seeing the item in real life, or it can sometimes be intangible. These assets are hard to replicate when seen on a computer screen. A store’s retail environment allows the company to control every aspect of the brand experience. Someone checking out the Louis Vuitton website could be using a slow computer in an old browser; the experience will suffer, and there is nothing the brand can do about it. Much more sensible then to invest in concept stores, such as the recent one in Selfridges. But there needs to be a focus still about managing the brand and courting attention beyond the four walls of the shop.
So it should be of little surprise to see that recently luxury has been looking to broaden its horizons in the physical space, aiming to brand experiences that seamlessly fit into the lifestyle that they think is associated with their brand. This was evident in no small part when Zeitgeist took a trip recently to St. Tropez. Before even entering the town, visitors were greeted with the sight of mega-yachts and enormous Gin Palaces, and – on one of the days Zeitgeist visited – evidence of the relatively recent collaboration between Gucci and Riva (see above picture). Such a partnership probably helps the former more than the latter. It certainly helps validate the clothing company’s brand, which sometimes fails to leverage its relatively strong heritage. Walking away the port – past the recycling collections strewn with empty bottles that had once contained vintage wine and champagne – toward the famous Place des Lices brings you face-to-face with the hotel White 1921. This is one of LVMH’s newest incarnations, an eight-room hotel.
It was a beautiful hotel to behold, and had just opened the week Zeitgeist was visiting. Though much in need of a lunchtime glass of champagne – the brand here makes the most of its ownership of several champagne labels – the dining area was sadly not open until the evening. White 1921 is not alone as a recent example of hospitality being managed by a luxury brand. LVMH’s first such hotel was back in 2010 in Courchevel, named Cheval Blanc. More recently, Bulgari have launched their own hotel in London’s Knightsbridge area, close to the Mandarin Oriental hotel. The St. Regis hotel in New York now has a small collection of fashion-related suites, including the Dior Suite. All this is about embracing a certain idea, a crystallising of what it means to be living a particular lifestyle. The question for LVMH begins to arise as to whether, strategically speaking, having one arm of your company (Dior in this case) having a room owned by St. Regis creates any significant competition between the hotels you are opening elsewhere in the world. The more they open, and the more branded suites appear under competitor’s names, the stickier this situation could get.
Releasing products that compete for the same consumer type is never a good idea, and is a mistake General Motors made. A very good essay on this is available in Richard Rumelt’s ‘Good Strategy / Bad Strategy’. The market is becoming crowded. Hermès has side-stepped this by designing luxury apartments in Singapore. Some companies have thought at a more granular, perhaps relevant, level. Trunk-maker Moynat have teamed up with the famous Le Meurice hotel in Paris by providing French chef Yannick Alléno with a roll-in trunk so he could cook breakfast for guests in the comfort of their own room. It’s an inspired idea that retains the original idea of what makes the brand special and heightens it by creating a unique experience for the consumer. The New York Times reports,
The chef’s breakfast trunk is genuinely designed to travel, its porcelain plates held upright with leather straps and its cutlery in drawers. Mr. Alléno already has plans to send it to hotels where he has connections, first in Dubai in September, then to Courchevel in the ski season and on to Marrakech. At each destination, he will make a personal appearance and demonstration.
Similarly, Prada has thought about how best to showcase its ready-to-wear line, in this case including its clothing in the sumptuous film The Great Gatsby, due out next summer. The highlight of Zeitgeist’s time in St. Tropez was in visiting one particular boutique. Christian Dior, while not be a brand one immediately associates with good food, featured an open courtyard that hosted a cafe dedicated to indulgent delights. Mr Alleno was also responsible for the food here. It was an impressive exercise in brand management… and excellent profiteroles.
Zeitgeist has written before about the luxury goods company Yves Saint Laurent. Then-creative director Stefano Pilati opined, “[I]t’s such a contradiction, because we want to be luxurious and have 300 shops all around the world, but you can’t be luxurious with 300 shops around the world”. It’s always difficult to introduce dramatic innovation to a company that conversely prides itself on provenance and tradition. In trying to adhere to past methods, what starts out as a respectful outlook can lead to stagnation. It was evidently with this in mind that incoming designer for YSL, Hedi Slimane, has decided not only to personally redesign all retail environments – as he did at his last post at Dior Homme – but also to change the name of the brand itself, to Saint Laurent Paris.
It is not the first time a luxury label has grappled with a name change. “Gianni Versace” was similarly shortened some years ago to “Versace”; more recently Dolce & Gabbana’s more affordable “D&G” brand, announced it is to be shuttered due to consumer confusion over nomenclature. YSL’s name change is actually a return to tradition of course, as the brand used to be known as Saint Laurent Paris. This news was overlooked though on Twitter, where a lot of the knee-jerk reactions to the news were far from positive. The move will allow Slimane to stamp a real sense of authority on the brand, much as he did while at Dior, where many objective observers rightly claim he revolutionised contemporary menswear.
Most importantly though, the renaming should help move the brand away from the vestiges of any remaining cheap associations (evinced by the above person wearing a YSL polo shirt). In the 1980s, the company sold licenses to use its name to over 200 different companies, which led to poor-quality clothing being produced under the YSL marque, and a significant erosion of brand equity. A similar situation befell ’70s doyen Halston. Hedi Slimane’s Saint Laurent Paris has the opportunity to breathe new life into the company, while still maintaining a distinct sense of style that the eponymous designer would have been proud of.
In a quest to be all things to all people, brands can sometimes lose their way. They become lost in a miasma of dilution as they try to stretch their brand equity to appeal to every consumer, or branch out into new markets. Some, like Virgin, have managed this fairly successfully – let’s forget for the moment about Virgin Brides – while others, such as Cisco (which we wrote about recently) have fared less well. Virgin’s equity relies in part on the man behind the company, Sir Richard Branson. His affable qualities have appealed to both consumers and investors. The balance he maintains is a delicate one, driving the essence of the brand without ever overwhelming it.
In the world of luxury, companies have often used brand ambassadors. The watchmaker Breguet has long claimed that luminaries such as Napoleon, Churchill and Marie Antoinette wore their brand. Each of these characters had their flaws of course, not least the megalomaniacal Frenchman. However, when the person personifying the brand is also at the rudder of the ship, the situation can prove more complex. This was evident in March this year when master designer John Galliano was fired from his creative directorship at Dior, as well as from his role at his eponymous label.
Similarly affected by ramifications at the top has been Lagardère Group, run by Arnaud Lagardère, who inherited the company from his father. As well as owning a range of media assets, it also has a 7.5% stake in the defence contracting firm EADS. Recently the 51 year-old has taken up with a 20 year-old model by the name of Jade. A cutesy video for a glossy magazine shoot made its way online (see below). Any semblance of dignity the man maintained – already in question prior to this video – was lost. This may decide future business directions at the company. Arnaud is a keen sports enthusiast, at one point mulling a bid for the rights to the Tour de France. Any such wishful thinking must now be considered just that as shareholders are keen to refocus on existing assets. His overt publicity has cost him dear; Arnaud may now be at risk of losing some of his control over the company. Writes The Economist,
“Executives at EADS are dismayed to see their future boss behave like a nincompoop. “In Germany any manager who shot such a video would be finished in business,” says a person close to the company.”
And so we turn to Apple, which has been recently hit with the news that Steve Jobs will be stepping down from his current role. He will remain at the company as chairman of the board, and his ideas and personality will affect the company’s direction for several years still, but after that the company’s direction, and its brand equity, will be at a crossroads. The company has, even relative to its own stellar performance, recently been enjoying great success, briefly becoming the world’s largest public company. In managing this feat, it overtook Exxon Mobil. As The Economist pointed out, however, “oil remains a vital raw material” (though not for a great deal longer, admittedly), whereas Apple’s appeal is in “delighting customers”. A company that serves such a fickle master so directly is in danger of losing said appeal at any given moment. Last week, an editorial in the FT pointed out that an Apple without Steve Jobs at the helm will be a less irascible but also a less happy place, and hence perhaps less appealing to customers. The New York Times echoed such sentiments that weekend, with an article headlined “For Apple fans, departure of Jobs is personal”,
“…[P]eople love Apple products in a way that they do not love other products they use every day. And Mr. Jobs as chief executive has been uniquely connected to Apple’s creations.”
The article details personal consumer reactions to the news, which range from tearful incredulity to concern over future business inspiration and product innovation.
All of which goes to show that having an impresario at the top can benefit a company hugely for decades. Could Steve Jobs have made Apple as popular, while taking a slight back seat, a la Bill Gates, Howard Stringer, Howard Schultz or Jack Welch? Probably not. If he had, Apple wouldn’t be the company it is today. But one thing’s for sure, what it is today will not be what it is in the future, when Jobs’ influence has left and the company has to decide which path to take.
Zeitgeist was asked at the end of last year to write an article on retail trends for the coming year. The following is an altered excerpt of the original article…
It’s surprising to read editorial describing us as still being in a recession. If you’re going to use economic terminology, then you have to listen to economists when they say the recession ended months ago. The trouble now is dealing with the aftermath – impending cuts and taxes. Evidently it’s not all gloom though, as new stores Dior, Mulberry and Miu Miu join the salute to capitalism that is Louis Vuitton’s Maison on London’s Bond Street.
Look for more brand collaborations. Disney’s venture with Tesco is bold and innovative… Savile Row’s Gieves and Hawkes recently installed a space for barber Gentleman’s Tonic, and vintners par excellence Berry Brothers has a concession for Lock and Co. Both instances suggest a deep insight into who their shopper is; useful for the brand, flattering for the shopper. With empty high street retail spaces, the time is right for sage collaborations, bringing brands added security.
Digital integration will become more widespread, aiding both in brand building and simplifying the customer journey. More people are expected to be surfing via phones than computers by 2015. This swing constitutes an immediate opportunity for retailers and marketers. Since helping Obama to victory, crowdsourcing has only gained in popularity. The Louvre recently fundraised through thousands of individual donations online to buy a coveted Renaissance painting. The power of many, prognosticated in “The Wisdom of Crowds”, is driving ideas like Groupon, as well as its subsequent offer for purchase by Google.
It’s going to be a make-or-break year for Foursquare et al. There have been interesting campaigns by all sorts, from Marc Jacobs to McDonald’s. What’s missing is seamless integration of these services with retail environments. ‘Checking-in’ has got to become a utility for shoppers outside London, New York and San Francisco. Currently, opportunities to create conversations are being missed.
Twitter’s retail presence will continue to grow, evinced by Best Buy’s Twelp Force and Debenham’s Twitterers flitting about stores. Multi-platform interaction can be enhanced by the physical retail environment: Diesel pulled off a fun gimmick last year with a screen outside the changing room allowing customers to upload a photo of themselves to Facebook to query friends on their clothing choice. Neiman Marcus recently merged online and in-store inventories, a great idea that others should emulate. Allowing people to browse products in-store on an LCD screen without the pressure of exasperated sighs from sales assistants can make shopping enjoyable and convenient. Chanel’s Manhattan flagship has such functionality; it could be of equal use at B&Q.
Getting someone to linger in your space and mention the experience to others is what counts. Pop-ups, if they serve a purpose rather than being a gimmick, can be a tremendously effective – not to mention fun – tool. Don’t underestimate fun. Emphasising convenience alone means most people – especially when the odd flurry of snow arrives – will shop online at home. There must be an element of excitement, innovation. This can be escapist, like Secret Cinema, or pure enjoyment like Muji’s vending machine (see top photo). Pop-ups can provide an excuse for an otherwise serious brand. They help in getting a message to new audiences (Gagosian’s pop-up), or taking the store to the customer (Natwest’s mobile truck).
So, more collaborations, more digital and more pop-ups; so what’s new? As William Gibson once said, “The future is here, it’s just not very evenly distributed yet”. Embracing digital won’t stop people price-checking and tweeting negative remarks, but it would be worse to keep it – and therefore the customer – segregated. If that happens, and you promote on convenience alone, that customer never comes to your store and never sees a physical embodiment of the brand. Last November, as Zeitgeist previously reported, Ralph Lauren was one of the latest brands making use of 4D projection mapping. People cheered at animated handbags and ties. In 2011, Mintel advises, “brands may need to get more creative to lure consumers into stores, offering more than just retail and be a venue, not just a shop.” I’ll leave you with that thought while I go and cheer at a sandwich in my local “venue”.
Both parts of Zeitgeist may be out of the office at the moment, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t kept our nose to the grindstone, our ear to the ground, our eye on the ball, our finger on the pulse and our foot wedged in the door.
Last week, Zeitgeist was fortunate enough to attend the International Herald Tribune’s Heritage Luxury conference at the InterCon on London’s Park Lane. While the Missoni clan waxed lyrical on the importance of keeping it in the family, after such luminaries as Paul Smith and Alber Elbaz had already spoken, the real highlight was seeing the legend that is Karl Lagerfeld, designer for Fendi and Chanel, as well as his own eponymous collection. Karl spoke on a variety of subjects. He even offered his take on the LVMH / Hermes debacle, which Zeitgeist wrote about recently, suggesting that Hermes keep their earnings private, as Chanel does, so as not to encourage hungry buyers by “putting the milk out”.
Host Suzy Menkes asked Karl to talk about Coco herself, which he did with no subjectivity, criticising her knee-jerk dislike of blue jeans and miniskirts, and failing to adapt. It is this same failure to adapt that is causing many businesses – or even entire industries, such as books and music – to suffer massive losses, with Chanel itself a “dowdy dowager”, as the Wall Street Journal once described it. Indeed, when the managing director of the reputable Brown’s stores asked Karl what how important he thought the digital world was for luxury brands, Karl was unequivocal, saying Chanel the brand ignoring digital would be like Chanel the lady ignoring miniskirts and blue jeans. He was also talked about the increasing binary pull of fashion, where inexpensive and expensive rule, with no middle ground. Businesses in that middle ground – think FCUK – will not fare well in the future he intimated. If one thinks of this from a branding perspective, it is perfectly understandable. Selling your product as the best you can get, or, conversely the best you can get at the cheapest price, is a robust selling point. Anything between becomes undefinable and wishy-washy; at exactly what point has quality been sacrificed for expediancy in x product? Chanel have done a fair job so far of embracing the digital world, with an engaging iPhone app as well as an e-commerce section on their site.
Of course, some brands – especially luxury ones – revel in their heritage, and so it was on Tuesday night when Zeitgeist attended the evening preview of Dior Illustrated at Somerset House. Illustrator Rene Gruau was still drawing adverts and couture dresses for the company long after other labels had switched to photography. Of course, it is when one can combine the worlds of heritage and keep the brand contemporary that is most impressive. So it was with Ralph Lauren’s 4D presentation, also last week, shown in New York and London, recorded by a friend of Zeitgeist’s. Enjoy.
Contention, Controversy and Criticism, the three Cs that no brand wants to hear (unless they’ve intentionally brought it upon themselves in an incredibly well-orchestrated way). The Gap recently tried this, in an effort that Brandchannel called a “Gapocalypse”, i.e. not well-orchestrated. Mea culpas followed hard upon.
Last month, the Daily Mail reported that Dior was being similarly torn apart; “slammed” for its apparently racist imagery. The images in question, shot by Quentin Shih as part of the ‘Shanghai Dreamers’ campaign commissioned for the new store opening in the eponymous city, show a woman draped in Dior finery, surrounded by Chinese people who all look exactly alike. The campaign has been called racist, but Mr. Shih says, “I wanted to show the power of Chinese people standing together and a kind of socialism in Chinese history (only in Chinese history not China now)… The Chinese models are not people. They are symbols of Chinese history between the 1960s and 1980s.” According to the article, The Guardian’s Jenny Zhang wrote “[They] should have sent Chinese models for Shih to shoot, and should understand that the modern Chinese Dior customer will not recognise herself or himself in these photographs.” Dior could be forgiven though for playing on the well-known admiration that the Chinese have for luxury, exotic Western brands. Actress Marion Cotillard was similarly used in an international campaign for Dior recently, highlighting China’s rising prominence.
The ‘Shanghai Dreamers’ photos, intentionally glazed to give the appearance of those family photos from bygone days, remind Zeitgeist of old school photos… just not theirs. As always, your thoughts and raging tirades are always welcome on what you think of this campaign, and how well it treads the line of being at the cutting edge – which is what haute couture fashion is all about; pushing boundaries – while maintaining cultural sensitivity.
A sad day for Zeitgeist today as car manufacturer Daimler announced the beginning of the end for the luxury brand Maybach (courtesy of the excellent Luxuo blog). The Maybach is an incredibly expensive, incredibly indulgent, ridiculously large and ridiculously powerful car. It’s exclusivity is second to none, to the extent that actually too few of them are being sold. Despite risqué attempts at brand activation with cutting edge artists like David LaChapelle and despite manufacturing only a hundred cars for some lines, the dream is over. How does luxury struggle onwards as the world crawls out of the recession?
The pleasure of Zeitgeist’s company was requested for ‘Artisan’ afternoon tea at Christian Dior on London’s Sloane Street this week. Luxury was front and centre. More than playing on the bling nature of the brand name, the idea was to present the fantastic workmanship that went on behind closed doors.
At the event, with the help of an Italian translator, Zeitgeist was able to speak to one of the aforementioned artisans, who was responsible for making handbags. The Florentine, wearing an immaculate white labcoat with the Dior logo above the breast pocket, said he had no quota for how many bags to produce per day or week, that Dior demanded absolute perfection instead in every bag, no matter the time taken. Though each person will have his or her own speciality, they will work across both the Dior and the Dior Homme brand. Elsewhere in the store, people worked meticulously on Dior jewellery and watches with incredible patience. The work pace of those in the jewellery and timepiece department was similarly dedicated to quality over quantity. From a branding perspective, not only does this ensure a higher rate of product satisfaction, at the same time it also helps to enforce scarcity.
While all this was occurring, waiters roamed the boutique with tripled tiered treats, ranging from caramel pastries and petites tartes aux framboises to mini cupcakes with swirls of icing. The whole affair felt very similar to that of the recent Miss Dior Cherie campaign, directed by Sofia Coppola, who coincidentally directed a very similar scene in Marie Antoinette. Dior definitely had its thinking cap when it came to integrating retail environment and through-the-line campaigns. The event next goes to Tokyo.
Elsewhere in the fashion sector, Louis Vuitton streamed its Paris Fashion Week collection over Facebook (again), and Burberry’s collection in London was broadcast in 3D. And what of luxury in general, how will it manage in a world of frozen credit? Zeitgeist recently listened in on a Datamonitor webinar called “Recovery from Recession”, (definite articles clearly not being a trend for this year according to Datamonitor). Consumption has slowed holistically because people no longer have the money, or access to borrowed money, that would allow them to make those purchases they otherwise would have done. This economic realignment – some might call it sanity – will hopefully be a relatively short-term affair. There is a worry for luxury brands however that these more frugal tendencies will become deeply ingrained in the buying habits of their potential or erstwhile consumers.
As such, there has been a trend by some brands to open up further to the masses. This has its advantages in that it can persuade people to trade up, especially concerning “everyday luxury items and treats” which are “a treat, rather than a representation of lifestyle”. “It is important that the long term image of the product is not hindered through aggressive discounting policies.” For Datamonitor, Grey Goose is a fine example of this, as it sells below retail price in the duty-free sector to great success. The fact that it is not discounted at a supermarket – where a shopper might see it every week rather than on infrequent trips to the airport – means the brand retains its premium image despite price cutting in some choice locations. Value added services, in this case a cocktail guide, also help. For those that are able to keep up their pre-recession spending uninterrupted, the trend is toward more arcane brands, such as Loro Piana. Shops like Escada, cognisant of consumer fears over reckless spending, have provided unbranded paper bags of late.
With the rather large hiccup of the recession seemingly over, luxury brands can certainly breathe a very small sigh of relief. Just how much people will want to spend on arguably frivolous products in the years to come, and, importantly, how discreet they will wish to be about it, will be a very important factor.
In the wake of New York Fashion Week, Mashable ran an interesting article on the fashion industry’s relationship with social media. Today, Chanel, not content with their formidable iPhone app, which puts it’s competitors’ apps such as Gucci and Dior to shame, confirmed they will be offering some of their products online.
Chanel sells amongst the most expensive ready-to-wear collections of any luxury label, with a beautiful raincoat for example costing well over £4,000. Other brands, such as Giorgio Armani and Yves Saint Laurent, already offer e-commerce functionality, it just remains to be seen whether Coco’s company can do something special with it. With e-tailers Luisaviaroma.com and Yoox.com already well-established, it will be interesting to see if online shoppers balk at the high markups that might seem more justified in the retail environment of the brand’s flagship store on Avenue Montaigne, especially in a recession. Brand Republic has more.