Thoughts 05.11.14

Maintaining luxury brand equity: Showing not saying

Our executive creative director, Ryan Newey, discusses how brands can maintain luxury equity.

‘Luxury brand’ is always a difficult concept. Any superior or super-premium brand prospers only in relation to other brands in its sector, be it clothing, cosmetics or cars. The moment a brand is perceived or more importantly presented as ‘luxury,’ is the moment its equity becomes more difficult to maintain. Luxury, like ‘quality’ is an attribute that has to be conveyed to consumers not just communicated.

Every ‘luxury’ brand has to continue to reiterate its origins both in terms of product attributes and philosophy. Whilst the product may continue to evolve and expand its range, it is vital that this evolution is understood as just that, an evolution that can trace its obvious DNA to an original manufacturing concept. This may be a formula, a recipe, an aesthetic, whatever, but being able to ‘refer’ to this heritage provides consumers with a unique vocabulary with which to understand the brand’s difference in relation to inferior products in its sector. It’s how this pedigree is referenced that shows the brand’s true equity not merely shouting it.

This is perhaps the most challenging aspect of maintaining prestige brand equity. As particular prestige ‘cues’ become established as just that, be they photographic style, copy strategy, art direction, sponsorship or packaging etc, so they become increasingly ‘borrowed’ by the rest of the sector they inhabit or they pass into general ubiquity. (Even Heinz Baked Beans carries royal warranties as official supplier to the UK royal family).

The challenge lies in assessing what is ‘iconic’ about a particular brand. It might be a bottle shape or car marque and ‘ring fencing’ these, whilst being ‘brave’ enough to keep refreshing the surrounding communication in such a way as to suggest the brand continues to lead where others can only follow. This should not only continue to drive differentiation but also reiterate exactly the difference in delivery and prestige that consumers look for. This does mean that to manage a prestige brand is a constant conversation; it is a race that is never over. The same care that goes into the evolution of product experience through new lines etc, must be extended to the brand’s communication. ‘Lazy is no luxury’. It requires a constant monitoring of a brand’s visual language to move it on before it is compromised by inferior alternatives imitating it. This can mean an on-going consumer re-education and may have to be subtle enough to reassure. It is also why understanding the brand’s essential iconography is so important.

Prestige or ‘luxury’ brands must not be thought of as ‘museum pieces’ or perfect artefacts that are to be admired from afar. Their benefits, their essential superiority must continue to ‘work’ in an up-to-date context. Whether their proposition is primarily aesthetic, functional or both, their ability to deliver must continue to resonate. This means being clear about the 21st century world that the brand inhabits: where it is seen, what activities it wants to be connected with, its point of view and attitude and, ultimately the kind of consumer it is for long term. Maintaining brand equity can demand this discipline and extends to limiting the brand’s appeal to a recognised consumer segment only, even at the potential cost of volume growth. Protecting value at the cost of potential volume can be one of the most essential levers for maintaining equity. Growth is then focused on frequency of purchase across a range by this recognised consumer typology.

The role of communication is to continue to articulate this brand world, to continue to drive contemporaneity whilst maintaining exclusivity. As an example, take our work with luxury skincare brand Erno Laszlo, made famous by Hollywood icons such as Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn. We were challenged to build on the glamorous heritage of the brand’s heyday, and position it to engage with today’s urban professional women. Evoking the art deco styling of the brands 1930s heritage, we balanced a sense of iconic glamour, and fresh, modern design that would be suited to the luxury stature of the brand, making it accessible to the modern consumer. We activated the new positioning across all aspects of the brand, including print, retail, online and outdoor. After a 40-year hiatus, we were also instrumental in helping to revive The Erno Laszlo Institute, attracting the modern woman to Laszlo’s historic approaches to long-term skincare. Even if a brand has a rich and long heritage, it is important that any existing or desired consumer can ‘see’ the merits of this heritage in a modern context.