Viewpoint by James D. Roumeliotis
With the proliferation of Italian and French luxury brands bearing the ‘Made in China”, ‘Made in Turkey’ or made elsewhere remote from their land of origin, it makes one ponder whether the brands are diluting their image for the sake of lower prices and higher profits. This begs us to revisit the question of what constitutes an “authentic” luxury product and whether manufacturing in a country unknown and unfamiliar for evoking luxury is a good long term strategy for the brand with heritage.
Luxury vs. Premium vs. Fashion: Clarifying the Disparity
Definitions of “luxury” vary enormously and depend on with whom you discuss the topic and in what context. The term “Luxury” has never been something easy to define. It is relative, mysterious and elusive. In essence, it revolves around subjective criteria in the mind, which creates a mood and what is generally referred to today as lifestyle.
The proliferation and marketing misuse of the word “luxury” on many products across sectors is quite evident. Brands either do it out of ignorance or to enhance the desire for the consumer to purchase their products.
Gary Harwood at HKLM, one of the founders and directors of a leading strategic branding and communication design consultancy, affirmed:
“A luxury brand is very expensive, exclusive and very rare – not meant for everyone. When it ceases to be these things, then it’s lost its exclusive cachet. Commoditizing luxury brands and making them more accessible to the middle market puts them at risk of becoming ordinary, common and less desirable. And the more available a brand is, the less luxurious it becomes.”
Authentic luxury brands compete on the basis of their ability to invoke exclusivity, prestige and hedonism to their appropriate market segments not the masses. There is a classic litmus test:
- Is the product manufactured in artificially limited quantities? (i.e. the rarity factor)
- Does the firm have a story to tell? (i.e. history & pedigree)
- Is the firm portraying a unique lifestyle?
- Is craftsmanship the hallmark, which delivers products that only High Net Worth individuals can purchase without question?
- Does the brand offer authenticity?
- Does it implement an absolutely no discounting policy?
- Is the product (and at least most of its materials/parts) manufactured only in its country of origin?
Luxury is not premium – and premium is not luxury. They are two dissimilar categories catering to different market segments.
Luxury Product Roots and Perception: Key Factors of Authentic Luxury
A luxury product is rooted in a culture and comes along with a small fragment of its native soil, of its heritage. This proposes that in order for a “luxury” product to remain true to its origins, as one of its main criteria, its production shall remain in the country of origin ‒ whether that is France, Italy or elsewhere (most notably in Europe). Tempting to relocate production elsewhere can cause the brand to lose its lustre and character.
Professor Jean-Noël Kapferer, an author and lecturer at the Kellogg Business School (Northwestern University, USA), as well as at HEC Paris, Europe’s premier academic research center on Luxury, clarified his views on this subject matter by stating that:
“Looking at luxury companies’ own attitudes, there is a clear segmentation, based on their brand positioning and business model. A first group (such as Louis Vuitton, Hermès, Chanel) emphasize quality and heritage as the main sources of their incomparability. They are patriots. For them, a country of origin is a homeland, much like the soil in a vineyard – a miracle made of earth, nature, sun, rain, and sophisticated human labor, loaded with culture. For them, ‘made in…’ tells a whole story, tying production to a long heritage.”
He further affirmed that:
“To remain a true luxury brand, following the luxury business model, entails sticking to local production. This is not an easy task for many luxury brands. Those that comply must create the conditions that are necessary to sustain this production. This is why they often buy their local sub-contractors in case the latter go bankrupt, to be sure to keep alive a historical know-how that might otherwise disappear.”
France and Italy are considered the leading countries for luxury and trend setters for clothing and accessories. Luxury watches (better known as “timepieces”) are manufactured in Switzerland ‒ the undisputed leader in this category. London, is considered to be the luxury spirit capital of the world with Burberry as the most prominent luxury brand. Whereas, Germany Italy, as well as the UK are for luxury automobiles. However, what they do produce elsewhere in the world are not ‘luxury’ but rather their lower priced “premium” derivatives (think BMW, Mercedes and Audi). Other illustrious automotive names, such as Ferrari and Rolls Royce, continue to manufacture solely in their native country.
Private vs. Public Luxury Purveyors
For the good of their distinguished image and cache, top-tier luxury brands should remain small privately held, with no pressure to sell and family run beyond the reach of speculators. These companies are managed, and their equity held, by those families. Consequently, management of brands, people and profits are done with the long term in mind, not necessarily the next quarter, which most investors would not have the patience to deal with if the luxury brand was publicly traded. In essence, the privately held have the luxury of taking risks as they desire and staying the course when they don’t. They have the freedom to invest for 5-10 years without receiving a financial return. In comparison, the publicly traded ones, which are accountable to their shareholders, are constantly under pressure to trim production costs and increase revenues and profits which lead them to cater to a larger audience ‒ the mass affluent. So much for all the elements of ‘genuine’ luxury purveyors which are doing away with scarcity and exclusivity.
The most prominent smaller and privately held ‘authentic’ luxury brands which fulfill every criteria ‘luxury’ truly exudes are as follows:
Soft Luxury Goods (high-end apparel, leather goods and exclusive fragrances) include: Hermès (70% owned/controlled by the Dumas family ‒ the descendants of its founder), Chanel (100% ownership by the Wertheimer family) and the niche perfume house, Creed Fragrance Company founded in 1760 (100% ownership by the Creed family ‒ descendants of its founder).
Hard Luxury Goods (products such as watches, jewellery and pens) include: Rolex, Chopard, Patek Philippe amongst others.
According to the Millward Brown luxury brand survey, which includes the large luxury groups, Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Gucci, Chanel, LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton), Rolex, Cartier, Fendi and Tiffany & Co. respectively, are the most successful family owned luxury brands. Moreover, research done by SDA Bocconi, renowned for providing world class luxury education, revealed that unique characteristics of most family-owned or managed business fit almost perfectly with the competitive logic of hard and soft luxury approaches. Needless to say, their management culture, retaining the mystique (crucial in the ultra-luxury domain), and long-term decision approach are all instrumental for cultivating and preserving their brand heritage.
In the Final Analysis
There should be no confusion between luxury and premium or even a fashion category. When someone buys a luxury object, he/she purchases craftsmanship, cache, pedigree, made in limited quantities, a special place in the world of lifestyle and exclusivity (made for the few). The premium business model is based on the manufacturing of best-in-class products, with an image of style. Fashion is a general term for a popular style or practice, especially in clothing, foot wear, and accessories. Fashion references to anything that is the current trend in look and dress up of a person. Usually not timeless. A “luxury” and a ‘premium” product can be both – as in a tailored made fine wool suit for example.
Therein lies the major differences between a luxury product and a premium product. It’s legitimate for a premium product to seek out the most suitable and most economical manufacturing location, so long as quality and service levels can be maintained.
Brands such as Nike, Adidas, Ralph Lauren, Hugo Boss, Tommy Hilfiger, amongst others, are doing an exceptional job of selling solely an image to the masses. Indeed, far from being a genuine ‘luxury’ brand, most of their products are manufactured in low labor countries such as China.
The ‘made in’ label plays a significant role for luxury aficionados who hold higher expectations including a value added quotient to ‘luxury’ brands who produce their products in their respective country of origin – mainly France, Italy and the U.K. For categories other than apparel and accessories, production should be elsewhere in Western Europe.
In the article “Building a Luxury Brand Image in a Digital World” by David Dubois, INSEAD Assistant Professor of Marketing and Debbie Teo, INSEAD MBA, they quote the following:
“Hermès has no desire to become ‘masstige’ (a mass producer of prestige goods) the company’s CEO Patrick Thomas stated in 2009. In essence, he asserted that his brand was not in a position to dilute its image and compromise on quality in the interest of short-term results. This is truly one of very few authentic “luxury” brands befitting the model and criteria in the sense of the word.
Privately held luxury brands are prone to view business with long-term vision and remain rigid with quality over quantity. Comparatively, their publicly traded counterparts go out of their way to please their shareholders which may dilute their “luxury” status for the sake of volume and short–term gains.
Good business decisions are not the domain of tactical “bean counters” — exploiting the luxury brands for all their worth. They may also come from strategic planning and overall financial leadership.