Luxury is an ill-defined concept. There is no specific line or limit of price, quality or availability that separates the luxurious from all that is not.
However, like other similarly intangible attributes such as power or grace, we all immediately recognise luxury when we experience it.
In fact, experience — vague as that may sound — is key to differentiating luxury, more than the tangible product being consumed. It’s not just the person’s own direct sensory experience, but also the prestige and status granted by others around her or him that creates the luxury experience.
Surely, with such intangible notions of experience, power and prestige, luxury brands should be among the most influential in the market. They should be pioneers that set the tone for change in improving retail management practices, upping customer service standards, driving quantum leaps in quality.
But is it so? The response from the rest of the retail sector may not quite be “meh”, but I suspect that it would not be far off.
There are strong reasons why luxury brands would have a lower influence as benchmarks in India and why, in fact, they may draw in more influence from the market themselves.
Market presence and location
As an example, in physical presence, luxury brands seem to demonstrate a delayed response to changes in the market, both in terms of market entry and location selection.
Prior to the entry of global brands, luxury products and services in India were naturally defined by niche, largely owner-managed businesses. Business scale was curtailed by internal limitations, and due to the small size, its market reach was also limited. While there were some designer brands that would occasionally get copied by mid-priced retailers, by and large luxury brands lived in their own separate bubble, with little or no influence on the heaving mass of the market.
In contrast, in the Western economies, from where many of today’s luxury brands originate, they are looked up to for inspiration. So, it is natural to expect Western luxury brands to lead the charge into the newly emerging modern retail economy of India. However, according to Third Eyesight’s research of international fashion and accessory brands in India, in the last 25 years it is mid-priced and premium brands that have opened the market. It is only in the last 10 years, well after the economic and retail growth was underway, that luxury brands stepped up their presence.
Sure, during the so-called “retail boom” from 2004, luxury brands went up to one-quarter of all international fashion and accessory brands present in the market. Then, when practically the whole world was in a recessionary mood, and mid-priced and premium brands took a call to defer their India launch plans, luxury brands pushed ahead. In 2009, luxury fashion brand launches accounted for two-third of all foreign fashion brands launched in India. Maybe the brand principals felt that this market could take on the burden of slowing growth elsewhere, or perhaps it was their Indian counterparts who were the source of optimism. Either way, the optimism took a hit in 2010 and 2011 when it was luxury brands that became cautious.
In terms of store openings and location selection too, luxury brands seem to have waited for the overall market to upgrade itself, and have then latched on to that growth. Previously luxury brand stores, such as there were, largely restricted their presence to five-star hotel shopping arcades, while a few took up non-descript sites as they were confident of being destinations in their own right or clustered together to create a precious few bohemian locations in surroundings that were far from luxurious. As modern shopping centres emerged in recent years, these presented an environment where rich consumers — especially the ‘new’ rich — could flock to buy globally benchmarked lifestyle statements. While these were mainly targeted at mid-market to premium brands, some of them are now even attracting designer brands such as Canali at Mumbai’s Palladium mall rubbing shoulders with Zara. These new luxury stores in mid-market or premium locations are performing better than the original “luxury” sites.
Thus, in terms of expressing confidence in the market, luxury brands seem to be following market trends rather than leading them. And far from being the anchors to create demand, they seem to be following where the demand goes.
Design and product development
The most important impact that luxury brands could have on the market is by influencing product design. This fashion trickle-down is supposed to work in two ways: one, through “inspiring” knock-offs by cheaper brands; two, making luxury customers act as opinion leaders and trend-setters for other consumers.
However, various factors dilute the luxury brands’ product and design influence in India: the preponderance of domestic (“ethnic”) style and colour, especially in womenswear, the existing domestic variety in products, the flood of premium (non-luxury) international brands and a customer base that is oblivious to the difference between the premium and luxury segments. In spite of their small size, Indian luxury and designer brands possibly have a larger direct impact, not to mention the massive Bollywood machine that drives mainstream fashion trends on a day-to-day basis. The international luxury giants are conspicuous by their small influence.
In fact, increasingly the influence is flowing the other way. A few luxury brands have attempted to create India-specific items to give the customer what they might want. Some of these may be indulging in superficial pandering such as putting an Indian image on a global product, but others have created Indian products that genuinely reflect what the brand stands for. While some use India as a production sweatshop to minimise the cost of high-skills jobs, others are now beginning to use Indian crafts to design products that are relevant to other global markets. A few examples, without passing judgement on which category they fit into, include: Lladro’s Spirit of India collection, the Hermès sari, the Jimmy Choo “Chandra” clutch bag, Louis Vuitton’s Diwali collection and Canali’s nawab jacket.
Slow, but not yet steady
Another issue with India is the sheer numbers, or the lack thereof!
China’s GDP is about four times the size of India’s but its luxury market size is estimated to be six times that of India. There are 1.7 million households in China that meet the high net-worth criteria, as compared to 125,000 in India. What’s more, according to industry estimates, only about 30 per cent of luxury consumers in China are actually wealthy, while the overwhelming majority are people with mid-market incomes who are given to conspicuous consumption, whether buying luxury goods for themselves or as gifts.
Indian consumers also have a penchant for buying overseas rather than shopping from the same brands’ stores in India. This is not just due to higher costs and import duties in India, but because of wider and more current selections of merchandise in stores overseas. Indians’ luxury shopping destinations include the usual suspects: London, New York, Paris, Milan, Singapore and Dubai. This has meant that while luxury brands recognise Indians as a large, emerging base of customers, for most brands India itself remains an operating market for the future.
Having said that, when compared to any other sector of business, luxury brands in India probably get the most media coverage for every rupee of sales earned. Although they are a small fraction of the sales, luxury brands rule in terms of column centimetres or telecast seconds. The coverage is not restricted to consumer-oriented media such as lifestyle magazines or mainstream newspapers, individual luxury brands are also extensively covered in business media.
One may argue that such is the nature of luxury: this disproportionate visibility and share of mind happen because luxury is not just aspirational, but inspirational. However, that inspiration and influence is yet to become apparent in the business at large. Until we see significantly larger numbers of upper-middle-income customers in India, luxury brands will find it difficult to expand their reach beyond the small base of ultra-rich consumers. The aspiration and price gap is just too wide for the Indian middle class, and there are very few who will emulate their Chinese counterparts and save up a year’s salary for a single luxury item.
One thing is beyond doubt: the luxury sector in India is undergoing significant change. We could even say it is in active ferment. There has never been so much interest among so many people, or so many brands so widely promoted, as now.
The question is still open on whether it is a good ferment such as the one that produces wine from raw grape juice and fine cheese from plain curds, or the unguided rot that results in a putrid, smelly mess unfit for consumption.
My bet is on the first possibility. In the short term, the luxury business appears to be a mess, littered with fractured partnerships and bleeding financial statements. But the brew needs time to mature. Gradually, as the luxury segment matures along with the rest of the market, we will see the influence trickling down into other segments. But remember, the finest brews do not only impart their flavour to the cask, but imbibe the cask’s characteristics into themselves. So it is with luxury and the Indian market. The message that we have given many other international businesses seems to hold doubly true for the global purveyors of influence, the luxury brands: “As much as you think you would change India, India will change you.”
The entertainment business suggests that nostalgia is a very powerful driver of profit.
It is quite clear that retro is “in”. The movie business worldwide is full of sequels, prequels, re-releases and remakes. The music business is ringing up the cash registers with remixes and jukebox compilations. Star Wars and Sholay still have a fan following. ABBA has leaped across three decades, Hindi film songs from 30-60 years ago have been given a skin-uplift by American hip-hop artists, while Pink Floyd is hot with Indian teens along with Akon and Rihanna.
As copyright restrictions are removed from the works of authors long-gone, the market gets flooded with several reprints of their most popular writings. Of course, we know that classic literature survives not just a few years but even thousands of years. Examples include the still widely-read 2,500-year-old Indian epic Ramayana by Valmiki, the Greek philosophers’ works that continue to be popular after two millennia and the Norse legends that have been told and re-told for over a thousand years. Spiritual and religious leaders’ writings are also recycled into the guaranteed market of their followers and possible converts for a long time after their passing away.
On the other hand, the basic premise of today’s fashion and lifestyle businesses is that silhouettes, colours and design-cues will become (or be made) obsolete within a few weeks or a few months, and will be replaced with new ones. This principle is true not just of clothing and footwear, but is applied to home furnishings, furniture, white goods, electronics, mobile phones and even cars. In fact, the fashion business (as it exists) would find it impossible to survive if customers around the world chose only classics which could be used for as long as the product lasted in usable form.
What Fashionability Means for Brands
Other than individual styles or products falling out of favour, as fashions move and as the market changes, it is evident that some brands also become less acceptable, are seen as “outdated” and may also die out as they lose their customer base.
Of course, that some brands become classics is quite apparent, especially in the luxury segment where brands such as Bulgari have survived several generations of consumers, and continue to thrive.
However, the past is of relevance to the fashion sector because, other than planned or forced obsolescence, the fashion business has also long worked on another principle – that trends are cyclical.
Skirts go up and down, ties change their width, and the colour palette moves through evolution across the years. A style formula that was popular in the summer of a year in the 1970s might be just right in another summer in the first decade of the 21st century.
So, the question that comes up is whether the same logic that is applicable to individual products, styles and trends, could also be applied to brands.
The answer to whether apparently weak, dead or dying brands could be brought back to life is provided by brands such as Burberry’s, Lee Cooper and Hush Puppies. Sometimes innovative consumers create the opportunity – as with Hush Puppies in the 1980s – while in other cases (such as Burberry’s, Volkswagen’s Beetle, or Harley Davidson), vision, concerted effort and resources can make the brand attractive again.
The question then is not whether brands can be relaunched – they can. The more important question for brand owners is: should a brand be relaunched. And using the logic of the fashion business, rather than being left to linger and then dying a painful death, could brands be consciously phased-out and later brought back into the market as the trends change?
The Brand Portfolio – Diversifying Opportunities and Risks
These questions are particularly important for large companies, or in times when market growth rates are slow, or when the market is fragmented. Organic growth can be difficult in all these scenarios, and companies begin to look at developing “portfolios” by acquiring other businesses and brands, or by launching multiple brands of their own.
The car industry worldwide has lived with brand portfolio management for long. Even as companies have merged with and acquired each other, the various marques have been retained and sometimes even dead ones have been revived. The companies generally focus the brands in their portfolio on distinct customer segments and needs (such as Ford’s ownership of “Ford”, “Volvo” and “Jaguar”, or General Motors with its multiple brands), and then further play with models and product variants within those. When things go right portfolio strategies can be quite profitable, but the mistakes are especially expensive. Sensible and sensitive management of the portfolio is absolutely critical.
In the fashion and lifestyle sector, the players who already follow a portfolio strategy are as diverse as the luxury group LVMH, mainstream fashion groups like Liz Claiborne (with brands in its portfolio including Liz Claiborne, Mexx, Juicy Couture, Lucky Brand Jeans) and LimitedBrands (Limited, Victoria’s Secret, La Senza etc.), retailers such as Marks & Spencer (with its original St. Michael’s brand having given way to “Your M&S”, and also Per Una) and Chico’s (Chico’s, White House | Black Market, and Soma Intimates) who wish to capture new customer segments or re-capture lost customers. Some of these companies have launched new brands, some have relaunched their own brands, and some have even acquired competing brands.
The issue is also relevant to the Indian market, whether we consider Reliance’s revival of Vimal, the new brand ambassador for Mayur Suitings, or the PE-funded take over of Weekender. As the market begins evolving into significantly large differentiated segments, branding opportunities grow, and so will activity related to existing or old brands being resurrected and refreshed. An additional twist is provided by Indian corporate groups such as Reliance, Future (Pantaloons) and Arvind that are looking to partner international and Indian brands, or grow private labels to gain additional sales and margin.
The issue also concerns those companies whose management is attached to one or more brands owned by them which may not have been performing well in the recent past, but due to historical or sentimental reasons the management may not like to close down or sell them.
It is equally critical for potential buyers who would like to take over and turn brands around into sustainable profits. This is a real possibility in this era of private-equity funds and leveraged buyouts, where a company or a financial investor might find it cheaper and more profitable to take over an existing brand and turn it around, rather than building a new brand. This is already happening in the Indian market. More interestingly, Indian companies have also already acquired businesses in the USA and Europe, and the potential revival or relaunch of brands is certainly relevant for these companies as well.
When to Recycle and Reuse
Relaunch or acquisition of an existing active or dormant brand can be an attractive option when building a portfolio, or when a company is getting into a new market.
For the company, acquiring an existing brand is often a lower cost way to reach the customers, and also faster to roll-out the business. The company may assess that the brand already has an existing share of positive customer awareness that is active or dormant, and that the effort and resources (including money) needed to build a business from that awareness will be much less than that to create a new brand.
The risk of failure may also be lower for a relaunched brand than for a new brand.
This is because the softer aspects, the hidden psychological and emotional hooks, are already pre-designed. This provides a ready platform from which to re-launch and grow the brand.
From the customer’s point of view, there is the confidence from previous experience and usage, and possibly also nostalgia and comfort of the ‘known’.
‘Age’ or vintage is respectable and trustworthy. This is especially powerful during volatile times or in rapidly changing environments when there is uncertainty about what lies in the future, and makes an existing brand a powerful vehicle for sustaining and growing the business.
On the Downside
However, when handling brands it is also wise to keep in mind the cautionary note that mutual funds issue: “past performance is no indicator of the future”.
In re-launching active or dormant brands, there is also a downside risk. While the brand may have been strong and relevant in its last avatar, it may be totally out of place in the current market scenario. The competitive landscape would have shifted, consumers would have changed – new consumers entering the market, old consumers evolving or moving out – and the economic scenario itself may now be unfriendly to the brand.
Also, the “awareness” or “share of mind” may only be a perception in the mind of the person who is looking to re-launch the brand, and the consumer may actually not care about the brand at all. There are instances where the management of the company has been so caught up in their own perception of the brand that they have not bothered to carry out first-hand research with the target segment to check whether there is actually an unaided recall, or at worst, aided-recall of the brand. They are imagining potential strengths, when the brand has none.
It is also possible that, during its last stint in the market, the brand may have gathered negative connotations – consumers may remember it for poor products or wrong pricing, the trade may remember it for late deliveries, vendors may remember it for delayed payments…the list goes on. In such a scenario, it may be a relaunch may be a disaster.
So how does one know whether to resurrect a brand, or to reincarnate it in another form, and when to just let it die? The answers to that lie in answering the question: what is a brand? And then, what is this brand?
A Critical Question: What is a Brand?
Even in these enlightened marketing times, many people believe that the brand is the name. They believe that once you advertise a name widely and loudly enough, a brand can be created. Nothing could be further from the truth. High-decibel advertising only informs customers of the name, it cannot create a brand.
If we put ourselves in the customer’s shoes, a brand is an image, comprising of a bundle of promises on the company’s part and expectations on the customer’s part, which have been met. When promises are delivered, when expectations are met, the brand develops an attribute that it is defined by.
The promise may be of edgy design (think Apple), and the customer expects that – when the brand delivers on the promise and meets the expectation the brand image gets re-affirmed and strengthened. However, these attributes are not always necessarily all “positive” in the traditional sense. For instance, a company’s promise may be to be low-cost and low-service (think Ikea, or “low-cost airlines”), and the customer may expect that and be happy with that when the company delivers on that promise. The promise may be products with a conscience (think The Body Shop), which may strike a chord with the consumer.
What that brand actually stands for can only be created experientially. Creating this image, creation of the brand, is a complex and step-by-step process that takes place over time and over many transactions. Repetition of the same kind of experience strengthens the brand.
The brand touches everything that defines the customer’s experience – the product design and packaging, the retail store it is sold in, the service it is sold with, the after-sales interaction – all have a role to play in the creation of the brand.
For instance, to some it may sound silly that market research or how supply chain practices can help define a brand, but that is exactly how the state of affairs is for Zara. Changeovers and new fashions being quickly available are what that brand is about, and it would be impossible for Zara to deliver on that promise without leading edge supply chains, or a wide variety of trend research.
Similarly, it may sound clichéd that your salesperson defines the brand to the consumer, but even with the best products, extensive advertising, and swanky stores, for service-oriented retailers everything would fall apart if the salesperson is not up to the mark. This is indeed a sad reality faced by so many of the so-called premium and luxury brands.
Of course, brand images can be changed or updated, but the new image also needs to be reinforced through repeated action, a process just like the first time the brand was created.
Reviving a Brand: the New-Old Seesaw
Given that a brand is created over multiple interactions and repetitive delivery of certain attributes, it is only natural that the older the brand, the more potential advantage it would have over a new brand. Just the sheer time it would have spent in the market would give an old brand an edge.
An old brand can appear to be proven, experienced and secure, while a new brand could be seen as untested, raw and risky. An old brand may have had a positive relationship with the consumer, but may have been dormant due to strategic or operational reasons. In this case, reviving the brand is clearly a good idea. There is already an existing awareness of an older brand, which can act as a ready platform for launching the same or a new set of products or services. Often, there may be a connection with the consumer’s past positive experience of the brand.
On the other hand, a new brand may appear to be fresh, more up-to-date and relevant, and vigorous, compared to an old one that may be seen as outdated and tired. Certainly, if nostalgia had been all that brands needed to thrive, then old brands would never die and it would be difficult to create new brands.
Clearly, there is no single answer to whether it is a good idea to re-launch an existing or old brand. If you are considering whether it would be a good idea to revive an old brand, or to acquire and turn an existing brand around, ask yourself this:
If the answer is “No” to any of these questions, then one needs to think again. However, if the answers are all “Yes”, then a resuscitation is just what the doctor might have ordered.