In the first of his series of monthly extracts, Philippe Mihailovich argues that luxury branding is more about human relationships, passion, desire, love, trust, family, kinship, honour and heritage than the mass market theories often used by companies today. By approaching brand-building like the stages of a love story, each extract from his forthcoming book provides useful insight that can be used as a checklist to ensure a sustainable relationship with the luxury connoisseur.


Love at first sight

The rules of immediate attraction

It’s great to discover a person by seeing them first. The first impact counts a lot. We often discover a luxury brand by seeing its stunning product first. As in any love-at-first-sight situation, we may experience the “Wow “The word could even be considered to carry an ‘I want it now!’ tag on the back of it. The dream of living with the item has been instantly born.

This is crucial to a luxury brand. Most brand books will tell you that the first step in a brand’s life is ‘awareness’ i.e. you must become aware of it for it to begin to live in your mind. It normally implies TV exposure followed by other media. Not with luxury. Luxury is more reliant on high impact. TV is traditionally considered the best medium for creating awareness however if it’s on TV, it implies an attempt to seduce the masses. TV is populist and the opposite of discreet. Most luxury brands need begin their lives with a great product that attracts you immediately through some ‘wow’ point of difference. Attention, desire and interest all at once. Just as with art, if you are attracted enough, you may want to know more about the creator but first the ”Wow! I love it, I want it, where can I get it?” thoughts need to be activated.


What do you do?

When you are attracted to someone whom you meet for the first time, it normally comes with a ‘who are you?’ question in mind. This often means ‘what does he/she do? ( job, status, possible interests in common). In other words, name and expertise may need to be presented together, just as on a business card or storefront. Not surprisingly, the retail specialist stores of old used to have the expert’s name and expertise of the maison on the signage for instance JOHN HATT, Milliner. When discovery and awareness come from a great product, the ‘what do you do’ question is answered at once. The expertise often precedes the name.

When the creator’s full name is presented with the product or creation, we feel that a true personal touch must’ve been applied. When we hear a made-up brand name, no matter how trendy or prestigious, it could feel like a faceless industrial brand and less so if ‘by (creator name)’ is added. As with art, if the artist does not wish to sign his/her own work, we may assume that the artist is not proud of the work and is ashamed to risk his/her reputation by association. However should the artwork be so distinct and unique to one artist’s personal touch, the need for the signature is of lesser importance. For instance, Van Gogh’s brush-stroke is instantly recognisable. Here is where the French term ‘griffe’ becomes interesting in the luxury realm.

Technically the term is derived from the metal claw used by craftsmen to scratch their mark into leather but the word is less commonly used to describe the tool than the mark that is made from it. The French know what griffe means but struggle to explain it to non-French. A dictionary will offer ‘claw’ or ‘signature’ as a translation. It is and it is not. The closest meaning that we can find in English is perhaps the ‘brush-stroke’. An art expert can tell an original Van Gogh signed or unsigned, by its brush-stroke. We could also use the word ‘touch’ as in ‘the French touch’, the personal touch. So to have a griffe, we need a creator, a person – not a factory. Griffe is not brand.

It’s a unique form of mark that only one person, the originator, can do. As with a great painting, the best Persian carpets can theoretically be traced back to an exact village and an exact person or group in that village. This is what many luxury brands were and are still, born with. No griffe, easier to imitate. Otherwise it may simply be an industrial brand born in a mechanised factory rather than in a workshop. Faceless with no personal touch involved. It is no wonder that many great luxury brands bear their creators’ names such as Francois-Paul Journe, Franck Muller for watches, Christian Dior and Louis Vuitton for fashion or leatherwear and sometimes two founders such as the timeless greats, Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin and Rolls-Royce.


The Passionate Person with the Personal Touch

“I’m a real person making a real product, not a brand name hiding behind a corporation.” Stuart Weitzman (shoe designer)

At the heart and origin of many successful brands is a passionate person obsessed with creating a high quality service or product. This person is likely to have become the embodiment of the griffe. As such, the griffe has a face, an identity, and is a real person. Here lies a massive difference to mass brands. Most are faceless fake names, owned by faceless corporations, and produced in highly industrialised factories. How can you expect someone to trust you if you hide behind a fake identity? Be proud, stand up for what you believe in, put your name on your creation or at least your family name and thereby your honour.


The Aura of the Griffe

As much as we may seek discreet griffe-brands, we still like to feel that the creators are known and respected by connoisseurs. Unlike in the mass market where a brand will be advertised on TV to gain immediate fame, a luxury brand does not want to be seen chasing after everyone and anyone. It does not wish to be seen to be chasing the money either. It needs to be rare and discreet and prefers to be ‘discovered”. It’s always easier when someone wants to meet you first. The same applies to your brand. Here’s where the who becomes of interest but the ‘wow That ‘wow’ is what creates true buzz. It’s the difference that gets noticed.

In English, we rarely distinguish between designer and creator. For the French there is a clear difference. Designers are working for someone, normally to a brief. Good artists are creators and may put their name on their work. They create universes based on their own lives, personalities and vision are not necessarily making things that can be bought. Brand DNA is derived from the person and their unique insights, vision or touch which is summed up in the term griffe. This way of thinking may be easier for us to understand if we relate it to an artist such as Picasso. His griffe or touch is only partly what makes up his DNA. His personality, relationships and universe also play a major part in making up his DNA. Clearly then, a true blue-blooded luxury ‘brand’ should have a visionary at the helm. The more the creator becomes famous due to discoveries by press, high-end clientele, word-of-mouth and other forms of publicity such as awards, the more the creator develops an aura of respect and fame.


The Power of Physical Presence

Clearly succession to griffe is a critical decision. First one should even question the idea of succession. When it comes to true art, the idea of succession is ludicrous. Picasso’s children simply cannot continue to produce Picassos. Here is where art and craft are forced to split. There is only one Picasso just as there is only one Elvis, John Lennon, one Mozart, one Tiger Woods. Perhaps it is because Hermès never depended on a precise creator it is a far easier task for the family to continue the legacy than it is for the house of Dior.

In Asia, ‘Stand tall’ would seem to be the motto when it comes to luxury stores today. When the ‘wow!’ begins with the store, size seems to matter. The stores that fashion luxury brands are erecting in Asian cities all seem to be getting bigger and louder (in terms of visual impact). Many resemble more a Niketown mega-store than intimate luxury houses as found in Europe where we may even find separate specialist boutiques for each speciality of the house for instance, one for kids, one for bags, one for jewellery and so on. The luxury ‘cathedrals’ in Asia seem to be saying, “Our God is bigger than theirs”. It simply adds aura to the original creator and to the product itself. This is a far cry away from the idea of one-to-one intimacy that is advocated in this paper, however if you no longer have a face, at least have a ‘family-run’ maison.


Philippe Mihailovich

About the author

Philippe Mihailovich

Professor and Brand Consultant