Luxury

Experience counts by Mark Izatt

As a brand and communication specialist I make an effort to experience as many brand activation events as I can.    It serves two important purposes - the first is obvious; seeing what a brand is communicating, how they do it and the second; how the target consumer reacts to the experience. On Tuesday I had the opportunity to attend two such events.   The first I knew very little about in advance - it proved to be one of the most exceptional efforts I've experienced, engaging and on-strategy.  The second....well let's leave that for now.

It has been hard to avoid the advertising for the watchmaker Patek Philippe "Watch Art Grand Exhibition" in the Saatchi Gallery in London.   A 10 day exhibition to celebrate their 175th anniversary,  walk up Bond Street and Patek Philipe stockists all had the exhibition flyer to hand, open up the Financial Times and there was an ad, hail a black cab in Mayfair and there was a moving ad.    For me this raised the question just how interesting could a watch exhibition be ?

I didn't even need to walk in to have that question answered.   I've never witnessed such spontaneous plaudits for a brand event as people walked out of the Saatchi Gallery and into the London sun.     

This was a powerful exercise in brand immersion.   A self guided tour (although headphones were available) winded through over 16 rooms.    Attendants punched your 'Visitor Pass' to keep you on track as you moved from environment to environment - it had that trademark Swiss efficiency.

Historical context and brand values were to the fore throughout brought to life with an eye for detail (something which you would expect from a precision craft).  You didn't just sit on regular seats to watch a little film about the founding of the company you sat on replica red velvet, hinged movie theater seats.    The light and background music matched the message and provided the optimal conditions to learn about the brand.    Turn a corner and you felt you were in Geneva looking over Lac Leman.

But ultimately Patek Philippe is about watch making and as the exhibition turned more 'technical' they had spared no expense.   The settings were certainly appropriate but the human resourcing transformed this to a different level.   Actual Patek Philippe watch makers and technicians were there - no question was too small or too obvious.  Their pride at being both employees and to have the opportunity to  represent the company in London was to the fore.     All of this meant we ended up staying for 90 minutes when we intended only 30 and even then we didn't want to leave, stopping for coffee in a contemporary environment they had created at the end of the exhibition.

Patek Philippe is not a mass brand but their aim to create an experience where a relatively large number of trade specialists (I'm sure they will have hosted private events for their trade customers), owners, enthusiasts and the owners of tomorrow could be immersed in the brand was achieved.

Luxury brands need a strong underpinning of aspiration - others must want what few can afford in order to help maintain that allure.   Patek Philippe have found a way of delivering that on their terms. That's indicative of a confident brand.   The only question which remained unanswered despite us asking was where the exhibition goes next - I hope it goes somewhere, it's too good not too.

In summary, they got these things right;

- an experience which reflected their values

- strong focus on the supporting details which created a memorable environment

- tech that worked but with the opportunity for human interaction

- support collateral such as the punched ticket and the gift bagged catalog to take home ensured the experience endured.

This certainly was not an inexpensive effort but these endeavors should only be contemplated if they are going to be done well.

PS I said at the beginning that Tuesday was about two brand experiences.  Indeed it was.  The second (which had an admissions fee payable in advance) was over-hyped, superficial and with a tired approach to consumer engagement.   Shuffled between a couple of rooms one had ample time to enjoy the architecture of the surroundings and that was about it.    I'll spare the brand further embarrassment, suffice to say the experience provided a checklist in how not to deliver a customer experience. 

Cash rich, time poor - Apple Watch by heathrowkennedy

I'll start, upfront, by stating that I believe that the Apple Watch will be a commercial success.  They will sell huge volumes at all price points. The Apple juggernaut will continue to speed along. Now that's out of the way what do I really think ?

Firstly, there can be zero doubt that Apple is now a fully fledged luxury brand.  Back in September 2013 after Apple launched the iPhone 5c and 5s I wrote that "Apple should have gone for a wider price point range accelerating growth in new markets (getting more users) and doing more to create a genuinely more luxurious top offering with real material differentiation, commanding a much higher price (retaining HWI and opinion formers)."    I didn't get everything spot on in that blog post but I've been proven right with my thinking on Apple becoming a more luxurious brand with bold vertical range expansion.

That vertical expansion came alive yesterday in San Francisco.   It raises revenue, expands appeal and enhances the entire brand proposition at the moment when it seemed that everyone owned an iPhone.  There can be no doubt that Apple is now a luxury brand.

Up until now their pricing could become stratospheric but this was based on tangible and rationale things - screen size, memory size, speed.   With the Apple Watch Edition Collection and an model priced at $10,000 Apple have made it clear that they are determined to win a share of very discretionary spending.

Over the coming days and weeks there will be many reviews of the Apple Watch from people with much more technical insights than me but I would like to address what I see is the principle weakness of Apple Watch.   Battery life.

Battery life is the curse which bedevils all of Apple's smaller devices.   Take the iPhone 6.   A slightly improved battery performance but sill nowhere near to meeting the needs of a busy professional.   I defy anyone to take it off the charger at 6am and still be going strong at 6pm.   And for many people there is still another 6 hours before they get home.

My work around ?

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A suite of external battery packs which I select depending on what my plans are for the day / evening.   In actual fact what that really means is I now don't let my new Anker pack out of my sight.  It's heavy and wieldy but with 10 full iPhone 6 charges in it I can relax and come to the assistance of lesser mortals when the need arises.

Usability and addictive qualities are two of Apple's biggest strengths......and weaknesses.   They, and the developer community, have created game changing apps and functionality which result in high usage.

A few years ago, in a different guise, I can clearly recall a spirited discussion with a product manager when I asked about the battery life of a pending new product.  He kept quoting the 'standby' stat and I kept asking what that meant in terms of real use.   If a device is not switched on or used it has a battery life you can measure in days and weeks !   But that's not the point.

You switch it on and use it.

Which makes Apple's heavily caveat-ed Apple Watch Battery page deeply concerning.    The phrase "actual results may vary" is applied to every statistic. That combined with personal experience makes me sceptical of the published "18 hour" battery life - which is based on a minimum of usage.    So let's be generous and say that with moderate use the life is 12 hours.    Your busy entrepreneurial high net worth will hit the gym at 6am - which means by dinner time, just the moment he or she might want a discrete communication and information device on their wrist (more subtle than checking your phone during a business dinner) the battery makes the thing as useful their first Timex.

People put on a watch in the morning and they take if off at night.   They are not in the habit of charging it during the day.   And, remember a tethered Apple Watch to an iPhone will also drain the iPhone battery.   So now your busy wearer has to worry about charging two devices at some point.    I just don't think the world is ready to see $10,000 gold watches hanging from a spare mains outlet in a bar, restaurant or airport lounge.

As I said at the beginning I do believe they will sell a lot.  I just reckon that a lot of them will end up discarded in the bedroom drawer after a few months.

Although there is one solution.   You can buy two and swap them over during the day. Maybe that is the plan all along.  Why spend $10,000 when you can spend $20,000 ?!

A perfect serve  by heathrowkennedy

On a recent flight this print ad jumped off the page and not just because the drinks cart was heading in my direction. Now firstly I have to declare a historic interest,   The Glenlivet is a brand I used to work on and indeed still drink (particularly the 18 years old).  However back to this ad.

Why do I like it so much ?

Most importantly it's beautifully shot - this creative is ALL about the liquid and that shines out brightly.   Authentic with not a trace of artifice - something which is also reflected in the product itself - which makes this simple but effective advert all the more powerful.

Over the last decade many whisky brands have played fast and loose with liquid credibility (what's in the bottle).  Dropping age statements and using layers of marketing to distract attention from what is invariably younger whiskies as they have endevoured to keep pace with demand.   That compromising for short term commercial gain has invariably chipped away at equity.

Not so here.    I've marked out all of the key designators on the bottle - each important and together giving a comprehensive picture of exactly what is being purchased and hopefully drunk and enjoyed !

This is an expensive purchase which requires nothing but clarity - here The Glenlivet let the bottle do all the talking and it works.

Bremont - keeping perfect time through passion and consistency by heathrowkennedy

Whenever you get the chance to meet with or listen to a creator.  Do.   It's an experience which never fails to inspire or motivate as you hear, first hand, the unique story behind their product and brand.    It's a reminder that brands are built with blood, sweat and tears - even when it appears, retrospectively, effortless. And so it was on Wednesday evening with a talk by Giles English one of the two brothers who co-founded The Bremont Watch Company back in 2002.

The experience was heightened because it was in the intimacy of a private club and there was ample opportunity for candour and questions.   However, I suspect that such is the authentic and honest approach that Bremont make to their work it's a very consistent message !

Afterwards over dinner my guest (he is both a fellow brand expert and a lovely of all things horological) and I discussed what makes the brand tick.

Firstly, it's important to recognize that what the English brothers have achieved is nothing short of miraculous - it would have been hard enough without being set against the backdrop of economic downturn and competitor brand consolidation into the mass luxury maisons.    And all without the financial backing of a parent brand.  But turn those facts on their head and you can see that those negatives are a contributing factor to the survival and success of Bremont.

Successful brands require three things;

- a credible product proposition  (watches hand-built in the UK)

- a clear set of defining principles (precision, durability, aviation, mechanical, British)

- passionate consistency

Bremont has all three but more than anything I put their success down to passionate consistency.   The individuals that had the idea, founded the company and continue to run every aspect are the same.  That ensures product consistency but also executional consistency.    Ironically a few days later the UK marketing news covered another luxury brand I follow which is on its third creative agency in two years.     It almost seems to be a truth that the bigger the budget, the bigger the egos and the more need to "chop and change"  leaving the consumer confused and the brand in question becalmed.

That passion also ensures that every penny is spent wisely - events, advertising, partnerships are not frivolous but sweated - there is always an opportunity cost to the activity so the right decisions are made.

Bremont is, thankfully, not the only example but it's the one which has made the most lasting impression on me.  It's a reminder that the limiting factors to success are passion and consistency - not investment.

All of us involved in brand creation and management would do well to remember that.

(Over) cooked goose ? by heathrowkennedy

A few weeks ago, when I was in NYC, I was struck by the sheer number of Canada Goose winter parkas which were being worn. True it was exceptionally cold but this was a 'bird' which usually stands out (the arm patch is almost as big as the polar ice shelf) because spotting an example was a rarity. Not any more. I gave up counting and, more importantly a bit of on the spot ethnographic work (a fancy term we marketers use for staring at people) made it quite clear that this expensive item was being worn by a wide demographic range. In essence it's gone from exclusive to mass in about 12 months.

That's a good thing right ? Especially for the owners of Canada Goose, Bain Capital, who must surely be contemplating a sale.

In the short term it has to be a "yes" but I would qualify that with the brand having the ability to sustain the impact of ubiquity. A few years ago the wearer made a signature statement donning one - now it's relatively mass attire.

That makes life tricky for a brand unless they can quickly side step into new items and develop their franchise. Louis Vuitton has been a master at this. It's obvious who has a historic purchase, or worse still a fake and who has the latest season.

Exclusivity is not the only foundation of luxury but it is an important one. The ability for a brand to achieve immense velocity has never been easier but that applies to ALL brands which have a winning proposition, including the NEXT hot brand. As fast as you climb the reverse is true.

It seems that no one is ever content with creating a successful brand with longevity only one which saturates the marketplace and then burns out just as quickly.

Perhaps Canada Goose can have it both ways and it could do worse than looking at Moncler which is establishing a bit of depth as well as breadth.

Meanwhile I'll wrap up.

China whispers by heathrowkennedy

It is hard to imagine what life would be like for many luxury brands if it was not for China. Put bluntly many of them would have ceased to exist if the financially empowered Chinese consumer had not developed an increasing appetite for luxury goods at the very moment the rest of the world was going into economic shock.    The baton of demand was passed and, other than the Lehman Brother's collapse "dip", most Luxury brands did not skip a beat. Indeed the last 4 years have been good ones for all brands with high sticker prices, all have floated upwards on a rising tide but to take the oft used analogy further - it's only when the tide recedes do you find out who has not been wearing swimming trunks.

The Chinese demand for luxury goods is not going to end - why would it - but there are some dynamic forces at play which will determine which brands will prosper and which will fail.

Assessing the state of the Chinese economy is beyond me, and I won't even try.   But last week there were a couple of indicators that I do understand.   The first were announcements by Pernod Ricard and then Remy Cointreau that a drop in demand for their high-end whiskies and cognac in China was impacting their performance.    The reason for a decline in performance is, to quote the Financial Times Louise Lucas "..distillers’ pricey spirits are falling foul of Beijing’s frugality campaign, as officials obey orders from the top to reduce conspicuous consumption – a move already denting sales at high-end restaurants and luxury goods makers. The new government’s anti corruption drive is also hurting gifting".  

The second was a report in the WSJ that the Chinese Air Carriers were experiencing a fall in profits, currency and fuel prices aside, due to a falling of in international demand which neatly links (are you still with me ?) to an illuminating article in today's Independent newspaper by Laura Chesters advancing the theory that Chinese HNWI are changing their buying habits and seeking not only less overt expressions of luxury but would rather purchase these closer to home.  She quotes HSBC’s luxury expert Erwan Rambourg as saying “Chinese shoppers have become more sophisticated and discriminating, which means some established brands may lose market share - we call this a ‘first-mover disadvantage.”

So what do I make of all this;

(1) With a new, more austere, government, overt luxury will be played down - that's apparent in the short-term but time will tell if it becomes a sustained change in behaviour - brands need to develop products and rituals which are less flamboyant.

(2) Take the Chinese luxury consumer for granted at your peril.   What sold yesterday, will not sell today.    (1) is obviously linked to this but so is an emerging sense of esthetic.   That's changing desires quickly.  Heritage brands have an advantage here and need to draw on their reserves of craft based legitimacy.

(3) Luxury brands, no matter where headquartered, should have marketing personnel from China working alongside the global team.   A quarterly "state visit" to Hong Kong and Shanghai no longer cuts it.  The same goes for new product development teams.

(4) Luxury brands who have grown overly dependent on Chinese tourists shopping at their flagship stores need to diversify their audience.  Reconnect with their European base.  Fast.