Unflattered by imitation

Luxury marques trade partly on the tangible benefits of craftsmanship, provenance and history, and partly on exclusivity (i.e. some can only aspire to them not afford them) and the brand name’s signalling value.

While discussing the face-off between the democratic web and the exclusive nature of luxury, in an earlier post, I wrote that the democracy-exclusivity divide may belong in a debate about sales targets but it certainly does not belong in a discussion about building a brand’s long-term value.

Luxury brands like to connect with the fans of their brands on social media but they draw the line at being flattered by imitation such as offered by counterfeit, fake or knockoff goods that some “fans” of the brand may purchase. There may be uncertain brand building gains but there is potentially certain revenue loss. While in most cases, it is expensive and time-consuming to go after sellers of counterfeit or knockoff goods, in other cases, such as the litigation LVMH brought against eBay, it is possible to make a concerted effort to suffocate the trade in fakes.

Museum_of_Counterfeit_Goods_Wikimedia_CC3.0Who buys these counterfeit or knockoff goods, with intent, anyway?

Some are bought by people, who aspire to but cannot afford the brand, yet nonetheless wish to signal their worth to others. In that sense, one could argue, that knockoffs do not really devalue the original brand. They serve a different market. They serve aspirers. These aspirers may or may not have real social influencer status, so their purchases may not matter either way.

A knowing few (hipsters?) often deliberately choose fakes. Someone I know socially, who can afford to buy the real thing, wears a fake Patek Phillipe Calatrava. It is a topic of gossip amongst those, who don’t know him well. On the other hand, a person, who knows Patek Phillipe craftsmanship well can tell immediately and won’t be impressed with his fake watch. His defence was, “I wear the fake ironically.” That makes it alright then.

Amongst those, who knowingly choose to buy fakes, some find social embarrassment mortifying. If you carry a fake Birkin, but move in circles where many have the real thing, that embarrassment will find you sooner than later.

Some others I know socially first bought counterfeit goods because of the aspiration value of the counterfeited brand, and because they coveted the brand’s beautifully made products. But then they found the quality satisfactory for their purposes and have continued buying those counterfeit products.

This is where it gets tricky for luxury brands.

How do luxury brands then stand out so that they can bring these people seeking quality into the fold or at the very least make the genuine article stand out so dramatically that the aspirers move away from fake goods altogether?

I see three flavours of a new kind of exclusivity emerging.

The first kind, that has been running for a few years now, is to make the brand aura accessible via collaboration with a high street brand, as Alexander Wang, Isabel Marant and others have done with fast fashion H&M. Such collaborations create a kind of desire and exclusivity within the mass market milieu, satisfying some aspirers while probably nudging others into exploring the real thing.

Then there is the use of technology to create and enable an inclusive form of exclusivity, such as Burberry enabling customers to buy off the catwalk and have goods personalised for a limited period after a fashion show.

But above all, luxury turns to its roots in craftsmanship, the exclusivity of custom-made novel fabrics and materials, such as practised by Mary Katrantzou, who is having a special kind of lace and embroidered jacquards specially made in Swiss mills. This is near-impossible to knock-off and the goods are certainly far from anything the mass market can access.

Luxury will always have an uncomfortable relationship with the democratising effect of the web and emergent technologies. In exclusivity lies its allure.

What will emerge is innovation in ways of keeping that exclusivity alive. And in ways of influencing the intent of fans and potential customers towards the real thing and away from fakes.

Craftsmanship is the reliable foundation luxury can always turn to.

But will that suffice?

Pretty and other things about tech wading into luxury

I see a lot of chatter on Twitter about how some lollipop/ icecream/ sundae update on Android doesn’t work on this device or that from different manufacturers. Then there are the workarounds, the fixes that one needs to learn, and consequent boasts on Twitter. And the many exhortations to do factory reset and start from scratch.

And I wonder.

This is 2015.

I have been using a mobile phone for 20 years now.

A technology that is pervasive and unarguably central to our lives, like water and oxygen, needs to be easier than this Android malarkey. It needs to be low cognitive load. I think often and a lot about cognitive load because I research and teach masterclasses in better decision making. That is my beat. The decisions can cover a vast scope — from organisation design, to product design, to making it easy for a customer to find, buy and use the product.

My iDevices — the iPhone and the iPad in particular — are low cognitive load. The UI is intuitive, and the capacitive touch screen is sensitive and easy to use for older and younger persons alike.

Some may say these iDevices are dumbed down, and use derisive words such as Mactards (!) for people like me. Frankly I would rather use my cognitive surplus (thanks, Clay Shirky, for that wonderful coinage!) on things more productive than making my mobile phone work.

If one wishes to create a business or a product for high frequency or pervasive use, making it easy to use is essential.

Then there is designing for human follies. And real world use. And end-of-life considerations. In business speak, these are considerations for process and incentive design.

Have you ever lost an iDevice? Then again, have you ever lost any other mobile phone or connected device? Let me know how you got on with the latter!

Recently I have misplaced a device, and had a device stolen. The lost one was found because I could locate it and track its movement from the time the loss was registered with the authorities in charge to the time it was found and returned. The time one was stolen, at least I could trigger the remote wipe as soon as the thief tried to get in.

Insurance companies replace the device not they can not replace the data, which is far more valuable.

Which brings me to back-up and synchronisation.

Yes, the iTunes UI could be much improved. It is far from being the best showcase for user friendly design. But the back-up and synchronisation happen easily. Without much effort (or cognitive load, see above).

Then there is seamless recycling for old or end-of-life devices. Apple’s recycling partner agrees a sum of money during the online registration process. I wipe the data on the old devices and ship it free-of-charge to the recycling partner and receive the money. Apple is in compliance with the WEEE Directive in Europe. As a consumer, I am happy not to have old devices cluttering my shelves, and as a citizen, I am pleased I am not contributing to environmental garbage in the world.

JeanPaulGaultier_Barbican2014

Then there is pretty.

The iDevices are pretty. There is no getting away from it. I work in luxury. Pretty is luxury’s calling card. The iDevices fit the bill.

When a consumer spends a considerable chunk of money on one’s product, it behooves us as businesses to deliver a seamless, satisfying, low effort and pleasant consumer experience all round.

It is harder than it looks, it costs money, it needs a lot of imagination and profound understanding of the consumer’s journey with the business.But above all it takes commitment.

For the tech companies looking to play in the luxury or premium markets, there is a lot to learn from Apple. As well as from the fact that the best regarded luxury sector players demonstrate that serious commitment at every step of the customer’s journey with them. Those that don’t may not and often do not last. More’s the pity.

Wearable tech’s luxury and fashion challenge

“Here’s the only thing you need to know about wearable punditry: No one knows anything. Zip. This is a market that barely exists.”, said technology columnist Christopher Mims recently.

Google Glass, a high profile early avatar of wearable tech, had made an appearance in New York Fashion Week in 2012’s showing of Diane von Furstenberg’s SS ’13 collection. More recently it debuted in London at Selfridges’s YSL makeup counters. Neatly making progress with fashion and luxury brands.

Yet it was withdrawn, retired from public view last week.

Cue, much discussion about its tech wizardry, privacy challenges and use cases.

To test wearability, Google Glass flirted with fashion and luxury. Yet, it has to be said it was ugly as sin. Aesthetically unacceptable. There is no disagreement on that.

Historians and scholars of luxury have argued that early human clothing was not about the need for protection against the elements or about emergent norms of decency, but about the need for ornamentation, adornment of the self.

As far back as 850BC, Homer describes in The Iliad, how Paris or Alexandros, as he steps forward to combat, bears a panther skin on his shoulders.

“When they were close up with one another, Alexandrus came forward as champion on the Trojan side. On his shoulders he bore the skin of a panther, his bow, and his sword, and he brandished two spears shod with bronze as a challenge to the bravest of the Achaeans to meet him in single fight.” – from Samuel Butler’s translation of The Iliad, Book III.

Historian François Boucher, author of 20,000 Years of Fashion: The History of Costume and Personal Adornment, suggests wearing such ornamentation “identified the wearer with animals, gods, heroes, or other men”.

In other words, “wearability” has always been about more than utility.

Wearable tech, as it exists now, is failing this very first test of “wearable as adornment”.

Utility can not be divorced from the beauty that well-crafted objets embody, and expect wide success.

Consider this early example of wearable tech — a Qing dynasty era (1644-1912) abacus ring.

Miniature Abacus Ring, Qing Dynasty

The beads could be moved using a hairpin a woman would pull out of her hairdo, enabling some rapid day-to-day arithmetic. But boy, is it an hommage to beauty in miniature!

Yes, I know women don’t use hairpins any more. But to fixate on that is to miss the point.

Unless the aesthetic and craftsmanship game is raised, and unless it fits in with the aesthetic and craftsmanship discourse of these industries, wearable tech will just flirt around the the edges of luxury and fashion.

Without getting the patronage of those who seek excellence in making and craftsmanship, that effortlessly combines beauty with utility.

Here’s hoping Google Glass is not broken and they are just polishing it.

Digital (and the) luxury consumers

The web, as I see it, is Ginger Rogers to the world’s Fred Astaire. Just as she did everything he did, but backwards and in high heels, the web does/ has everything the world does/ has but visibly, frictionlessly, faster.

But then those two too were role-playing. In the make-believe world of celluloid. With its own rules, relationships, frictions and language. The web, a virtual world, is no different in that sense.

A vast majority of luxury consumers have, unsurprisingly, taken to the web to consider, evaluate, buy, and well, show-off. They are choosing convenience, breadth, quality, and where available, personalised delivery. They seamlessly move between the physical world of stores, and the online world of discount-retailers, consumer review sites, official brand pages and web properties, secret and public groups discussing shared interests in a brand.

Brands and businesses, however, are slow to catch up. With such fragmentation of the consumer’s journey with the brand, it is hard to demonstrate hard numbers or directly attributable sales gains. So a traditional ROI led case for investing in social and web channels cannot be made easily.

It seems to me however that particular to the luxury and the creative sectors, some challenges are bigger than others.

The face-off between the “democratic” web and the “exclusive” nature of luxury

How do some of the well-established luxury brands deal with it? It is quite simple. They peg their expectations from the members of their various online communities correctly.

Not all fans are customers. In fact, as the Vacheron representative pointed out in Paris last week, most fans aspire to the brand and are therefore very valuable. Vacheron also has an owners’ club where current and future owners of their fine timepieces engage, converse, ask questions, answer questions, and indulge their passion for the brand.

The social media director of another aspirational luxury brand said to me, during the coffee break, that he finds questions about this “divide” offensive. After all, he went on to say, people may start with something small with us and grow with us. Of course, I agreed, having first bought just a belt from the brand when I was a young professional at 26. I have grown to admire the brand for their craft as well as cultural stewardship, over time.

It is safe to say that the democracy-exclusivity divide is short-sighted, parochial and patronizing. It may belong in a debate about sales targets but it certainly does not belong in a discussion about building a brand’s long-term value.

After all, aren’t half the advertising dollars wasted, as John Wanamaker pointed out? Why should luxury and creative brands be daft enough to expect half our social media dollars won’t be?

Finding the authentic voice of the brand

Aka how not to shill, plug, sell, cross-sell, up-sell at every opportunity?

My friend Euan Semple has written a book with a wonderful title – “Organisations don’t tweet, people do”. A succinctly stated, seminal piece of wisdom for all who wish to engage with their fans, prospects and customers on various social media properties or channels.

And people don’t just sell. They gossip, they share their joys, they show off things they bought, they share stories. Sometimes they complain. These are the moments where a brand has a great opportunity not just to be authentic but to showcase its authenticity. How would you feel in the customer’s shoes with a terrible product or service experience? Would you like to be sold-at or dismissed or barred from the community or the store? No? Then don’t do it to the customer! How hard is that?

It is kind of difficult to pick the best story about an authentic brand voice from the ones I heard in Paris. But Kenzo stands out in how it retains the spirit of the brand, while being playful, inventive and engaging all the same.

Finding an authentic voice does require brands to be comfortable with their own identities and their own DNA and their own values.

In others words — what do you stand for? And are you willing to speak up for it?

Influencers and the shades of grey

This is the most fun part. It is an open secret that luxury brands pay well-known faces and people with large social media following considerable sums to promote their products. It is however easy to see the payment dynamic when it is a celebrity talking about an overcoat or a handbag named after her.

What happens when it is a person on whom people rely for expertise and knowledge? Do brands pay her too? If they do, where is the disclosure? And what is her trade-off? Is she willing to trade-off her own brand’s hard-won reputation to build a luxe brand’s reputation? Does a full disclosure hurt or harm her “recommendations” and her influence? How does a consumer trust the “recommendation” of someone who is being paid to say nice things about a brand? What if there is no full disclosure? What about trust?

Then there are the mass influencers. Brands don’t give straight answers about them. Some say they pay these bloggers in kind. All very nice, but when did anyone last pay their rent in perfume bottles, or pay for their grocery by swapping a handbag or a pair of worn-only-once shoes? This is an unreal and unsustainable – and dare I say, arrogant – way for brands to think.

I asked some of these joyful (read: squirm-inducing) questions in Paris last week. Um, no joy. The jury is out, it appears. Brands must consider the hard choices carefully and in my view, plump for full disclosure from influencers.

So here is what I think about this “digital consumer” thing.

In the pre-web world, brands could tell their stories and consumers would listen passively.

Now it is a conversation and like any conversation, there are disagreements, segues, detours, tangents as well as commiserations, empathetic moments, Aha-moments and moments of sheer joy.

I think things have changed for the better, don’t you?

PS: For my full notes from the Luxury Society event in Paris, please see this.