I recently spent a couple of days visiting Paris, to help run a workshop for one of our agency’s clients. It was for a session with Chanel.
I’ve worked with them quite a lot and they’re lovely people. What I love about them is their integrity when it comes to their custody of the brand, even when, or perhaps especially, when it results in decisions that would be anathema to other businesses.
They’re unafraid to limit the distribution of their products, as they don’t want consumers to see the brand everywhere. The opportunity exists for them to make a killing by allowing airport outlets to stock their sunglasses – but they feel that to make impulse purchases more accessible would make the brand less untouchable. Anyone could buy them!
They’ve so far resisted the knee-jerk move into e-commerce, as it necessarily compromises the way the brand adds value through excellence in customer service and the shopping experience. Exclusivity lies in the experience, not the product.
They have set up the Chanel Academy to ensure all their retail staff are versed in the ways, heritage and expectations of the brand. They don’t merely recruit their staff, they help them to become qualified.
People’s relationship with luxury is a complicated affair, of course. This is especially the case, I think, in the UK, where it’s inextricably tied up not just with image, but also with class and status. I once sat in on a focus group, where one middle-aged women revealed she owned a Chanel bag – a classic symbol of the brand, and a key entry point for women who want to something by Chanel, and feel it should be substantial (as opposed to, say, some make-up or a fragrance).
The lady said she never really used it, or took it out with her.
The reason she gave?
That other people might think it was a fake.
That answer has stayed with me in the five or so years since I heard it. It denotes just how powerfully effective something as intangible as perception can be.
It tells us a lot of people’s fears around their self-image. It tells us that merely being able to afford brands and product isn’t enough to make you feel worthy of them. And it tells us that people’s propensity to use brands as a passport to an identity comes wrapped up in a very very complicated set of values and desires.
But this week I started to realise this is equally complicated for the brands themselves.
Brands in this sector are part of their own rarified bubble, where like attracts like. A Business Class customer gets all the free stuff thrown at them, when they’re the people who least need impressing (since they can afford it anyway). You might argue that that’s what they’ve paid for, but entry into the luxury world might also entail other freebies and perks, like corporate hospitality or money-can’t-buy access – and those kind of experiences cluster round the people who can already afford them, or wouldn’t ever be paying for them anyway.
Chanel’s challenge might be this: that when you define your world so perfectly, and you proscribe entry into that world for the majority, how do you ensure people feel like they should be there once they finally arrive? How do you strike the right balance between impressing and intimidating your consumers?
And, when you’re talking about a new generation of consumers who have grown up expecting brands to let them in, how does a luxury brand remain relevant, on the right side of aloof?
Or to put it another way, when does being a c’losed’ brand stop adding mystique and start being a millstone?
It’s going to be fascinating watching how luxury brands respond to the OPEN brand imperative without demeaning their exclusivity. As advertising becomes less and less able to impress, marketing is becoming dominated by brand-curated experiences, or ideas that consumers can participate in. What does this mean for the brand that’s already dedicated on providing the best, most luxurious, possible experience for its customers? How to allow others to sample this without devaluing it?
Brands with the legacy and heritage of Chanel have a fantastically involving story to tell that need not require a diminution of their appeal. ‘Control’ can remain a central note of the brand, but the emphasis might shift away from the untouchability of their product, and towards the sustained obsessive fastidiousness and craftsmanship of their production. Tell the story not what they make, but of the way they make it. Focus on the provenance, and the handmade, accept-no-substitute perfection of what they create.
Of course, you need the evidence that backs up the narrative. But if you do, the communication opportunities to invite people in become very exciting indeed.