Luxury’s other heritage challenge

“You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely take care of it for the next generation.”

This well-known Patek Philippe tag line tells its customers that the brand’s heritage could be part of their own as they bequeath their Patek timepieces to their future generations.

Patek Philippe Generation Ad campaign

One can, of course, buy pre-owned Patek Philippe time pieces from dealers, or at auctions where the brand commands huge prices, which Patek no doubt monitors. The presence of complete documentation, including owner history and service records, adds to the heritage angle, hence the price tag. Patek also supports collectors’ clubs and offers to service any Patek, no matter what its journey to the present owner has been.

Brands such as Vacheron Constantin engage actively with not just the customers, who already own their watches but also those, who aspire to own a Vacheron timepiece one day.

That said, there are brands, who do not really do much for, or with, collectors.

Hermès comes to mind.

While active in developing, protecting and promoting its own brand image, Hermès famously does not support collectors’ clubs. There is still a brisk trade in second-hand Hermès scarves, bags and other artifacts. It is often difficult to verify if these goods are authentic or counterfeit, or even stolen (although the latter may be rarer).

Most established luxury brands’ own stories focus on the brand heritage. It is fascinating — and puzzling — however to see how little luxury brands do to honour (track?) how their customers create a story about these brands, steeping the luxury goods in their own family’s heritage.

This is a missed opportunity.

To create a luxury brand with longevity beyond the next season has to go beyond the brand extolling its own heritage. The stories that live on have to make sense, and be meaningful to those, who own and wear the products created by that brand.

And while everyone can participate in the democratic medium of the web, oral traditions and stories of familial heritage can still help preserve exclusivity for luxury brands, most of whom are still struggling to make up their mind on the matter.

Indeed one has to ask whether the idea of a heritage driven European brand of luxury has economic viability now that most of their growth is coming from Asian countries, many of whom boast a rich heritage going further back than any European brands!

Can lazy — even arrogant — brand marketing as luxury marques, reliant on their European heritage legacy, do now continue?

Don’t mind me though!

I have a simple curiosity.

I am just keen to hear from someone, whose family bought Hermès equestrian gear and riding equipment 300 years ago, and who is still wearing Hermès couture or carrying Hermès bags today.

(Thanks to Barbara Houdayer for the Twitter conversation, that sparked this monograph.)

Authenticity, genuineness and the luxury brand

A friend of mine is a genuine, passionate Porsche fan. Awaken him from deep sleep and start asking him about the Porsches he has owned through the years, and you begin to see how deep his fountain of knowledge, and his genuine affection for and attachment to the brand run.

Porsche North America Welcome KitHe showed me the letter that he received with his car. The opening paragraph talks about how Porsche is an exceedingly rare breed of automobile and continues to extol its virtues as follows:

“One born in the art of hand craftsmanship, with sporting bloodlines as genuine as the exhaust note. Every Porsche we build is a monument to authenticity … and the kind of unflinching performance that transforms the daily driving routine into one of fun, freedom and pure excitement.”

In the above, the bold is mine, the ellipsis theirs.

This is how the OED defines “genuine”:

1. Truly what something is said to be; authentic:
2. (Of a person, emotion, or action) sincere:

As I sat rifling through the pristine, understated luxurious contents of the welcome boxes  — he keeps them all — the conversation turned to engine sound enhancement technologies. My friend told me about the Porsche sound symposer, an intake sound amplifier now fitted into the new 911 and the Panamera. Intake sound amplifier to them, fake engine sound enhancement technique to you and me.

I cannot speak for anyone else. But two months on from that conversation, I am still reconciling “as genuine as the exhaust note” with the “sound symposer”.

How authentic or genuine is the latter?

Is it ok to use it because customers demand a quiet cruise and yet the primal pull of the sound we have all come to recognise as the Porsche engine?

Indeed my friend’s car doesn’t have this amplifier. When I am visiting him and am at home, that engine sound is how I know he is back. To that extent the signalling effect of the Porsche brand of cars does lie in its exhaust note.

Of course, I realise that the car itself is a manufactured artifact.

Given that, does sound enhancement detract from the authenticity of the engine roar?

Or should it be seen as just another way to make the customer happy by addressing his or her changed needs, and indeed, in case of hybrid cars, a way to address the critique that their quietness is potentially hazardous on the roads?

Signalling is often of the key functions a luxury brand serves. And brands know that.

“We are not selling watches to tell the time. We’re selling them to people who belong to a certain social class, who want to show off.” — Dominique Perrin, President, Cartier (in 1987)

Luxury brands also seek to deliver a wholesome sensual experience encompassing sound, sight, smell and touch. Porsche’s sound symposer, one could argue, just serves to enhance the audio experience and the signalling function of the brand.

Are existential questions such as this surplus to the conversation about brand building, or integral to it? What then is the source of a brand’s claim to authenticity?


Respectful design, contemptuous design

Conversations with many friends, who are building communities for social businesses or are in other customer-facing roles, reveal a shared frustration. It appears that community builders and customer facing persons, and designers in a business are singing from different hymn sheets. Often, once the beta or whatever the business deems a shippable version of the product (web, mobile, app or a physical product) has shipped, some sit back thinking the job is done.

Customer feedback, that then comes in, is often sidelined to make good of the already existing technology infrastructure. Worse, it is sometimes disregarded altogether.

As the face of the business, community builders find themselves in a tough spot.

“It is as if we not only fail to care, but that we are actually contemptuous of the customer,” one said to me.

The contempt for the customer shows in the design of the customer experience with the business. From web design, to the product, to packaging and in all other ways the business and the customer interact.

Often the customer cannot find the information she wants, or she cannot find the product she intends to get to know a bit more, or the worst, she cannot really buy your product. And as seen in the case of frustrating clamshell packaging, sometimes she just cannot get to the product!

Why does this happen?

Because not enough attention is paid to understanding the customer’s journey or her desire behind engaging with the business. Insufficient work goes into testing how the customer might feel while trying to do business with the company. Efforts are made to defend the costs already incurred, not to acknowledge that that investment was not producing any returns.

In other words, not nearly enough respect is accorded to the thought that the business wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the customer.

This is what I call contemptuous design.

Contemptuous design privileges technology and sunk cost over customer journey, experience and engagement. Respectful design, on the other hand, privileges the customer’s desires and experience over everything else, so the business can continue to exist and possibly thrive.

No checklists are required to distinguish contemptuous design from respectful design. As customers, we know how we are being treated when we make first contact with a business.

As business owners, we need to be honest about the conversations we are having or enabling or hearing about our customers. If the customer is seen as an encumbrance, we are squarely in the realm of contemptuous design.

But if we feel the customer’s pain and want to deliver a good experience to her, we are making strides towards respectful design.

It really is that simple.

Customer service stories from America

I just got back from a few days in the Mecca of start-ups. They do things differently over there. Well they used to, till globalisation made us all the same.


Last week, while making a cardholder-not-present transaction with an American business, my card was declined. Twice. I told the customer service person at the other end that I would call her back right after having a word with my credit card issuer.

Meanwhile I received a text and an email from my issuer, alerting me to possible fraud and asking me to call them back.

After identification, my call was put through straight to the fraud team of my issuer in America. The lady confirmed the transaction with me, then said the card was now being unblocked and I could go ahead and complete the transaction.

At this point, I said I was glad that their big data system actually worked and flagged things in real time; and that as a customer, I appreciated it so much that I have stayed with them across countries, for a very, very long time!

The lady was speechless.

I could hear her struggling with words that were appropriate to say to a customer, who actually just praised you.

In the end, she managed to say, “Well, we appreciate your loyalty.” and hung up.

This isn’t the first time I have found a company representative stumped by unexpected words of kindness or praise.

I once rang British Gas in the UK to say how good and patient a young engineer had been while at my house sorting a tough problem that required him to remove and wear frequently his protective socks, because, well no matter what, you aren’t bringing those shoes on to my pale carpet!

The CSA sheepishly told me she didn’t know where to direct my call. I finally ended up recording my message on their complaint system and then I got a letter back from them thanking me etc.

Both experiences have made me wonder about how we design organisations and how businesses see their customers. And indeed about how customers interact with businesses.

Pretty much every CSA has a script to deal with a customer, who calls in raging and angry about some inadequacy or another. Not just the CSA, I have written letters to the CxOs of businesses and got long letters thanking me, explaining the challenges, and offering me a solution. One of them still sends me updates based on a complaint I made in 2005!

So why is there no script for dealing with praise or gratitude?

Is the customer only expected to call in raging and never to call in with praise?

Is the business designed only for liability avoidance and damage protection, and not the possibility of building or strengthening a customer relationship?

Is there no scope for iterative redesign or tweaking in CSA scripts, or any degrees of freedom whatsoever for them to deal with a happy customer?

Is this the world we are designing and living in? One where we expect interaction only when something goes wrong, and nary a word of praise expected if we are doing things right?

Where is Pygmalion in all this?


For my sins, with far better choices available, I agreed to meet someone at Starbucks (although how 750 Castro is next door to 650 Castro in Mountain View, I am yet to figure out, but I digress).

“I’d like an iced Americano, please,” I said.

“What’s your name?,” she asked.

Loathe to have my name mangled into Shelley, Chefaly or the worst, Shirley, I said, “Just call me Al.”

The man behind me in the queue, probably my vintage, smiled broadly.

The barista called out, “Iced Americano for Al!”.

The joke died a painful death.

Paul Simon, I apologise. There must be fifty ways to avoid having coffee at a place that insists on being on first-name basis with me before I can get my caffeine dose.

Men in women’s fashion — the gender imbalance we don’t talk about

A few weeks ago, rumours abounded about Tom Ford possibly returning to Gucci, after Frida Giannini’s departure. While there is no doubting Mr Ford’s all-round creative nous, from couture to perfume and makeup, and film making, it would have been disappointing if he did return to the role. In the event, Ms Giannini was replaced by Alessandro Michele.

The technology industry isn’t the only gender-imbalanced industry in this world. Women’s fashion world redefines the imbalance between the customer base of women, who spend but where value appropriation is disproportionately made by men.

It is men, who overwhelmingly own stakes in, invest in, and lead companies that serve the women’s fashion market. For instance, Richemont, that owns Net-a-Porter, Chloé , Azzedine Alaïa, Van Cleef & Arpels and Cartier amongst others, fields, at the time of writing on March the 8th, 2015, a board consisting of 18 men and one woman! Doing better is Kering (formerly PPR) led by Francois-Henri Pinault with a board of 11 of which 4 are women. Kering owns, to varying degrees fashion brands such as Gucci, Saint Laurent Paris, Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen, Bottega Veneta amongst others.

Men are also overwhelmingly the creative leads in many of women’s fashion brands. Here is a roll call for the uninitiated — Nicolas Ghesquière at LVMH, Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel and Fendi, Christopher Bailey at Burberry, Alexander Wang at Balenciaga, Hedi Slimane at St Laurent Paris, Jean-Paul Gaultier at the eponymous brand which is fair enough but he was at Hermès 2003-10, Rodolfo Paglialunga at Jil Sander, Alber Elbaz at Lanvin, John Anderson at Loewe, Olivier Rousteing at Balmain, and John Galliano having recently returned with Maison Margiela (he was earlier at Dior).

Which makes it worth celebrating Miuccia Prada at Prada, Donatella Versace at Versace (with Anthony Vaccarello at Versus), the incomparable Vivienne Westwood, Jenna Lyons at J Crew, and Hermès’s 2014 appointee Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski.

The magazines that serve women’s fashion market, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar to name but two, are owned by corporations – Condé Nast and Hearst respectively – where almost all board directors and senior executives are male. Hearst has one female board director, Condé Nast‘s imbalance is tipped by the presence of Anna Wintour, the well-known industry heavyweight.

In fact only a minuscule 3% of creative directors in advertising, that drives women’s spend, are women. A staggering minority no matter how one looks at it!

I should however point out that mainly British women are in charge of some of the most influential fashion magazines including Glenda Bailey and Justine Picardie at the Harper’s Bazaar respectively in the USA and the UK, and Anna Wintour and Alexandra Shulman at the Vogue respectively in the USA and the UK. Thank goodness also for Vanessa Friedman, Suzy Menkes, Jo Ellison, Christina Binkley who witness, document and report on the fashion industry from the front row and beyond!

So why is it that when we talk of gender imbalance, we get stuck at the technology industry and Silicon Valley?

Why not start at the obvious — where women are spending money but where the value appropriation is overwhelmingly not made by women?

It’s not the pipeline for sure. A good 71% or more of the graduates of Central St Martins, the alma mater of late Alexander McQueen, and a reported 74% of the graduates of London College of Fashion are women. The number is 77% for women students at Parsons The New School for Design.

The industry is also traditionally not seen as no place for women.

But the industry does keep up with the tradition of notable wage gap between men and women, so much that there are no women in the top-20 highest paid executives.

So while we sit in the middle of Paris Fashion Week and mark another International Women’s Day, we ask yet again — what gives?

And more importantly, as we seek that elusive goal of gender equality — can we make it happen?

The theme for #IWD2015

The theme for #IWD2015