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« The Art & Science of Shopping: Souvenirs | Main | Brand Duality: The Consumer’s Request for More »

Learning from Luxury

Do you have a favorite brand? One that you feel so attached to, that if it went away for some reason, you’d feel like a part of you was missing? That’s exactly the kind of emotional connection that brands strive to achieve with their customers: a relationship so strong and so loyal that it feels human.

I believe luxury brands—companies like Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton, Hermès, and Chanel—achieve emotional connections better than most other brands. Luxury brands were cited, after all, for their post-recession recovery ahead of the rest of the market. Though never formulaic, I believe there is actually a relatively straightforward recipe for luxury brands’ success that other brands can learn from:

Authenticity + Storytelling + Innovation = Emotional Connection

When BrandKeys, Inc. released their 2011 Fashion Brand Index last summer their executive vice president Amy Shea was quoted in WWD: “In a world overrun by commodities, true brands provide meaningful differentiation, which is why so many of the brands consumers feel most engaged with are luxury brands that have built their houses on emotional meaning. Price isn’t their strong suit; they stand for something.” I couldn’t agree more.

So let’s start with the element of authenticity. Being authentic is all about being real, true to one’s own personality or spirit, so the details will (and should) always be different. But for luxury brands in particular, authenticity is based on each brand’s unique heritage, craftsmanship and legacy. Consider examples like the Gucci Artisan Corner, or the Hermès Festival des Métiers, where customers and brand enthusiasts have the unique opportunity to sit with the craftsmen and women who delicately create each product by hand. No longer are we simply shopping, but we’re a part of the creation experience; and no longer is the product a leather handbag, but rather a work of art.

The second ingredient in the mix is storytelling, which for luxury brands is all about elements of theatre, surprise, and drama through curated products and experiences. One of my favorite examples of theatre and surprise is Louis Vuitton’s catwalk show during Paris Fashion Week this past October. Their reveal of Marc Jacobs’ spring/summer 2012 line wasn’t a traditional catwalk at all, but rather a dramatic white horse carousel—the perfect way to tell the story of springtime fantasy and fashion. Perhaps less literal in its theatrics but equally dramatic is the way retailers like 10 Corso Como curate the shopping experience into something bigger, more experiential. Visiting their Milan shop, you’ll walk through a café space first, and beyond that, products are displayed like museum collections that become destinations of their own.

The final element in luxury brands’ recipe for emotional connections is innovation, or a willingness to take risks and try new things. Recently we’ve seen innovation achieved through customization, co-creation, personalization and service. For example, with a very active online presence and events like "Tweetwalk," Burberry is often recognized as one of the more successful luxury brands to integrate technology and social media into the shopping experience. Taking it a step further, Burberry Bespoke uses interactive media to allow customers to design their own Burberry trench—to create their own exclusive one-of-a-kind luxury.

The list of luxury brands’ best practices is almost endless, and I’ll go through several more case studies in our Conversations in Design at this week’s Interior Design Show in Toronto. But the point is short and simple: luxury brands are experts at creating genuine emotional connections with their customers, and it’s for this reason that luxury brands have the most loyal, most engaged customers of all—a goal that’s attainable for all of us if we just pay attention to the recipe.

John Bricker is a principal in Gensler’s New York office and a leader of the firm’s global Brand Design practice. With Gensler for more than 30 years, John’s holistic approach to the design process encompasses brand development, retail environments, branded workplaces, showrooms, exhibition design, identity, print, and environmental communications. Contact him at john_bricker@gensler.com.

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