Sunday, May 11, 2008

A World of Privilege

Luxury Brand Management
Michel Chevalier, Gerald Mazzalovo
400 pages

What is luxury? While the word may evoke an existence marked by languorous leisure, in reality, it is a multi-billion dollar enterprise with strong sociological and historical roots. In the past, luxury was the preserve of the ruling classes, the aristocracy. The sense of a privileged existence among the land-owing gentry symbolized European luxury in the medieval age. It played a demarcating role in society, and in this respect at least, luxury brands continue to battle with the tag of exclusivity.

Which is why, when Orient-Express, the British luxury hotel chain, refused any association with the Tatas' Indian Hotels on the ground that it would result in an erosion of the brand and business value of Orient's global portfolio of luxury hotels, cries of racism wrung the air. Was Orient-Express unjustified in its stand, or was its reaction, while harsh-sounding, grounded in sound business logic?

Michel Chevalier and Gerald Mazzalovo, writers of the book under review, would agree with Orient's decidedly elitist response. According to them, "when a Korean woman enters a Gucci store in Seoul, it is with the expectation that the atmosphere will be evocative of Italy, whether it be through the sophisticated use of colour, the music or the store fit-out. And when she enters an Yves Saint Laurent boutique, she expects to get a subtle whiff of Paris."

Certainly, the decision of the Orient-Express emerges in a different light when viewed from this psychology, and this is what luxury is about. A luxury brand is not just an entity, it is a state of mind, an object of aspirational value, governed as much by the prejudices of the age as by any real worth. Any surprise then that the Tatas, who have been eyeing a number of global iconic brands, could acquire the Jaguar only at a time when the car maker's global luxury attractiveness is on the wane?

The luxury market has exploded with such ferocity in the past few decades that luxury management is now a well-established academic discipline. And who better to guide us through its inscrutable, yet enthralling, boulevards than Chevalier and Mazzalovo, old timers of the luxury trade? This is their second joint venture after 2003's Pro Logo, an unabashed defence of the social, cultural and economic advantages of brand identity, which, right from its title, is a mirror image, of Naomi Klein's anti-brand diatribe, No Logo, but of course, with the arguments reversed.

Luxury Brand Management is a sprawling work that covers the gamut of the luxury industry. It starts with a description of the trade activities that inhabit this universe—from haute couture and accessories to perfumes and wines. For someone like me who has often wondered about the origin of those luscious-sounding names, the chapter on luxury sectors offers a delightful tour of la vie en luxe.

From here the book moves into the branding of luxury products, focusing on how semiotic tools shape their shopping and consumption patterns. This rests on the premise that "brands are systems that produce meanings." So, a brand is anthropomorphized into an entity that possesses a distinct "physique" and "personality" with a concomitant system of ethics and aesthetics. For instance, the highly successful slogan of Spanish shoe manufacturer Camper, "Walk don't run", promotes not just the product but a way of living, an ethic that is endearing to potential customers.

There is an interesting description of luxury logos that carries forward the discourse initiated by the authors in Pro Logo. Could you have imagined that perceptions about logos vary greatly from one place to another? "While a majority of Europeans refuse to wear a necktie printed with the acronym of a brand, Americans have no problem with it, and the very same necktie might well become a genuine fad in Japan," say the authors.

The book then moves to the managerial aspects of the luxury business, including retailing and logistics. Throughout, the emphasis is on explaining management models by linking them to real-life success and failure stories. This makes it both entertaining and informative. One discussion that had me hooked pertained to outsourcing in the luxury market—how brands such as Louis Vuitton which have made a virtue of maintaining direct control over merchandising and design functions are grappling with the proliferation of cutting tools and cheap labour in China and India.

The initial thrust on the psychology of luxury, which makes for pleasurable reading, is diluted somewhat by the purely academic push of the latter part of the book. In spite of this, it is indispensable for a student/practitioner of luxury management, and also for anyone who wishes to get a behind-the-scenes, nuts-and bolts view of a glamorous trade.

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