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?

Is care in design exclusionary and elitist?

The monograph last week generated much conversation. And some observations that caring in design and craftsmanship was all about expensive pieces made for the few, not for the masses. Seeing the examples that I cited, it is not entirely inconceivable to think of caring and craftsmanship as the preserve of the few.

But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Because to think of care as something that only the few, the elite deserve is to believe that the relatively poor, the everyman does not deserve the respect that such care implies.

But isn’t such care expensive? I’d posit it is not.

Is it feasible to create an organisation whose fabric has caring woven into it? Yes, it is.

Mujifounded in 1979 — on the principles of minimalism in design and in wastage in production and packaging, recycling and no branding is a beautiful example. The philosophy is summed up as “no brand quality goods”.

Muji makes and sells a range of products from stationery, to utilitarian goods such as ear-buds and portable mirrors, basic clothing such as cotton dresses and t-shirts, storage such as bottles and boxes, kitchen articles and electronics. The products use very little, just sufficient packaging. The stores themselves are marked by a simple layout, minimalist shelving with goods on display, the absence of colourful or loud banners and “offers” or any other point-of-sale tools.

And the goods last, delivering the promise of low wastage (wrought often by the need for frequent replacement of often-used goods) and caring and respect in design.

A portable, foldable mirror in aluminium I bought from Muji 8 years ago, and the loyal companion in my handbag on all my travels every day, is still intact and looks good as new. An average Muji cotton t-shirt has last me 5 years. I feel a twinge of sadness when I have to retire a Muji t-shirt from active duty.

Muji mirrorThe mirror, seen in the picture, if bought today, would cost me a princely sum of £3.95. Two plain t-shirts can be bought for under £10.

This is inclusive, affordable and respectful design.

Of basic goods that anyone — you, me, anyone — can afford and be confident that it won’t unravel or break within days of our buying them, leading to further expense and material wastage.

The philosophy scales beyond small household goods too. While Muji keeps private the names of its designers and manufacturers, in line with its no-brand policy, it has collaborated to produce a fuel-efficient, low-emission car with Nissan.

Can anyone create products with care and respect, for anyone, not just the few, to use and enjoy?

I believe so.

It does take commitment though.

Commitment to asking “what if this were me?” at every step of the organisation’s design.

Commitment to treating the other human, as well as materials we derive from the planet and through manufacture, with respect and consideration.

Commitment to engaging mindfully with what we do, create and deliver.

Is that too much to ask?

Technology and taboos redefined – part two

A friend recently lamented on Facebook that she was unable to reach a client on any of the three available contacts she had for him. “Ah, modern communication!”, she quipped.

It set me thinking. About two conflicting phenomena in my life. First, that I have 5 separate email accounts on my iDevices. I separate different threads of my life into those accounts. I also have active Whatsapp, Skype and Viber accounts for other uses. Second, that I disabled voice mail on my phones about 2-3 years ago. I do not encourage anyone to leave me voice mails, preferring text based messages from emails to Whatsapp to iMessage.

Then there are friends in big-cheese type jobs. They seem to use their work emails for everything. But they never take a phone call, preferring instead to use their secretaries and their voice mails as gatekeepers to manage access to themselves.

Thoroughly curious, I scrolled to see some of the status messages of my contacts on Whatsapp and Viber. I noticed that the Viber status message of a friend, who absolutely detests phone calls, reads “only if you must”.

This isn’t a new problem though. As a relatively early adopter of everything from Amazon reviews (first review written in 1999) to LinkedIn (in 2004) to Quora (just about 4 years ago at the time of writing), I have often found struggled with this overload. And about related issues.

About 7-8 years ago, a friend and I were discussing the etiquette for Google Chat. What happens when the green light on their names indicates they are “available” but they don’t respond when you ping them? Are there opening niceties we must engage in, or should we keep it short and sweet? How do we sign off? Soon after we had that conversation, I got quite tired being pinged, no matter what colour the “light”. I have solved the problem by going invisible on nearly all networks and channels I use. With a few closer friends, I have evolved a sort of linguistic shorthand which lets them assess whether I am seeking a real-time conversation or just sharing something they needn’t read or respond to right away.

So what is going on here? Why do we sign up to all these channels of access, and then put up these roadblocks?

Is there real access, or is it just an illusion?

Or are we just trying to cope with communication overload, while balancing it with our FOMO?

As I ‘fessed up, I have often struggled with this overload. But I was often saved, so to speak by the slowness of network effects materialising on social networks and communities. In other words, few people I knew in real life were on these networks so early.

But there comes a moment when a network — or a platform or tool — jumps the shark. A new normal must then emerge. I recall writing in 2000 about how some Goldman Sachs traders were using (bootleg) chat windows to be real time with their clients. I happened to mention it casually in a conference to a gentleman sitting next to me. He turned out to be their head of security in London. Talk about being in the right place at the right time! A year or so later, authorised IM/ chat clients became mainstream. That is when the proverbial hits the fan.

Meanwhile we find ways to cope — we duck, go cold turkey, find other (emerging?) networks, or switch off our online lives temporarily or permanently.

There is a period of hyper-communication, there is a period of quiet. There is information overload, then there is information diet. Sometimes we go indiscriminately all-you-can-consume, sometimes we curate and retreat into filter bubbles of our own or of algorithmic making.

The wheel will turn again. We will find new problems we cannot manage. Until we can.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W4ga_M5Zdn4

 

Technology and taboos redefined

Recently I met with some friends after a considerable hiatus. Meanwhile they had had a baby. I have kept up with the news and have watched the baby grow up through the pictures and updates the friends share on Facebook. Several times in the conversation, we all made casual references to what we know about one another’s lives through Facebook updates. Indeed they showed me some pictures of some big moments in the baby’s life that I had missed. It made me wonder about the role of pervasive technology in challenging behaviours deemed taboo before. In the pre-all-pervasive-tech world, we gossiped, got news through common friends, or phoned or wrote one another. Even so the signal called “life” was sampled quite infrequently and the transmission of the information could suffer fidelity issues.

But now that people themselves put out information about themselves, it has likely greater currency and respectability than gossip, which may have travelled through others. Indeed it is no longer taboo to know ambient information about the life of a friend or indeed, anyone who chooses to use the “global” setting on Facebook or indeed update on Twitter.

Has technology made other taboos acceptable too?

Like many others, I now know a fairly large number of people through my blogging and my use of social platforms such as Twitter or Quora. Often the opportunity arises to meet some of them too. It seems to me that checking someone’s background – using Google or LinkedIn – before meeting them for the first time is now deemed normal. I hasten to add though that my experience suggests it can still freak out the “non-intertubes” people, who are less frequent or less prolific users of the web. This needs to be used abundantly but talked about with caution. I sheepishly admit to not being able to maintain this caution myself. A friend recently invited me to dinner with a friend of his called R. Waiting for our table, R and my friend kept talking about cooking and eating fabulous meals. Then R turned to me and asked if I could guess what he did. Having checked out his profile on LinkedIn in advance, of course I knew he specialised in sanitation. When I said so, both R’s and my friend’s faces fell. I had committed a massive social boo-boo and I have never recovered from it. R never accepted my Facebook friend request, and the less said about the earache my friend has given me since then, the better.

Then there is the idea of flexibility. While in some cultures, it is still not uncommon to plan to meet friends way in advance, making last minute arrangements as well as last minute changes to a rendezvous seem to be common and acceptable now. This has been made possible by mobile phones, of course. And location based services such as FourSquare, where you may be able to locate friends in the vicinity.

This next point may resonate with those who live many time zones away from their parents or siblings. Rationing communication between time zones is a thing of the past. Earlier, when phone calls were expensive, we scheduled calls once a week or fortnight. Now with iMessage and Whatsapp on the one hand, and GTalk, Google Hangouts, FaceTime, Skype etc. on the other, continual and richer communication is possible at almost zero cost. It helps people keep in close contact, regardless of how far apart they may physically be.

As I write this I am aware that the most important social taboo that has been removed or modified beyond recognition is our expectation of privacy. Mainly because we ourselves now put out a lot of information about our lives out there for consumption by friends, families or strangers (the last one is that global setting on Facebook status messages).

The second social taboo that seems to have been removed is exhibitionism. There is now a blurred line between sheer exhibitionism, and self-promotion and advertising of one’s skills for professional gain. Accordingly, persons such as Katie Price in the UK and the Kardashians in the USA have “careers” deemed mainstream and bona fide, although they still successfully shock some in my parents’ generation (and mine).

Of course, individuals themselves are curating and broadcasting this information, portraying themselves not just in favourable light but also sometimes engaging in outright fabrication of a life that looks glamorous and glittering when the reality may be vastly different. Seeing all this, some have argued we are in the midst of a narcissism epidemic. In evidence are vanity and attention-seeking. How else do we comprehend the need for daily changing digital avatars? And their handmaiden, a feeling of entitlement. “You didn’t like my holiday photos on Facebook”. Then there is blame-storming and rages that follow.

We have probably only just seen the tip of the iceberg called technological intersubjectivity. Hopefully it will not sink the Titanic advances that can also be made with technology.

Craftsmanship in luxury

Craftsmanship is the cornerstone of the luxury goods industry. The obsessive focus on the art, the cultural roots, the societal context and the history not only preserves and enhances the heritage, but also helps tell a unique story and find markets for luxury goods, increasingly in countries far from home.

However as emerging markets not only demand goods as consumers but also slowly develop their own brands in luxury, how does the slow and steady pace of craftsmanship reconcile with the speed of globalisation?

The answer is deceptively simple: the historically well-established brands become evangelists for craftsmanship.

The craftsmanship and long heritage distinguish some of the most coveted luxury marques from the luxury upstarts. Such evangelism manifests variously: from Tod’s commitment to La Scala for the special project titled The Italian Dream, to Bottega Veneta’s opening of Scuola della Pelletteria to train the future generation of master leather craftsmen.

Is this bad news for emerging markets and emerging market brands?

Well, not really.

It does, of course, benefit immensely and strengthen the European luxury brands with a long heritage to showcase. But it also potentially levels the field, somewhat, for emerging markets — notably those with a rich history and creative treasures that are underexplored as sources of inspiration.

Think about what a Chinese brand could do drawing upon the history of the Tang dynasty to create beautiful products!

As some of you know, I am also a co-founder of the British jewellery brand, Livyora.  At Livyora, we created our Overture Collection by drawing upon Mughal Art and Architecture, that can be seen in India’s capital city and surrounding regions. We abstracted a visually stunning artifact of Indian heritage, to create stunning, handcrafted pieces in gold and precious stones. A wonderful story could once again be retold.

Craftsmanship still rules. All that is required is a new lens to look beyond the luxury marques of yore.