The HAUTeLUXE™ series: Step 5 – Meet the Family and Friends


Philippe Mihailovich | April 13, 2010

The fifth edition of this monthly series explains how the ‘maison’ approach to luxury can enhance brand affinity

By approaching brand building like the stages of a love story, each extract from Philippe Mihailovich forthcoming book 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. The fifth in his monthly series explains how the ‘maison’ approach to luxury can enhance brand affinity.

Throughout these extracts we have insisted on the importance of building a one-to-one relationship with your client, just as in any long-term relationship. Clients obviously prefer to be in direct contact with creators or owners than have some barrier in the middle. The human way to build closer relationships is to invite one to your home to meet your family and friends. To be invited to a great artist’s studio or home is a far more intimate experience than to meet in a gallery or worse, an office. So why do we create fake name brands as a barrier between our customers and ourselves?

From Person brand to Maison brand

As someone who resonates with the Costume National brand, I felt compelled to ask Ennio Capasa, the creative talent behind the label why he chose not to use his own name as the brand. “ I chose the name from the title of a book on Russian uniforms that I liked”, he explained,” and decided to stay behind the brand, but one day a famous New York Times journalist told me that I have to show myself, so now I’m starting to.” He is no doubt referring to the brilliant Suzy Menkes, who like many of us, is very sensitive to the personal touch, griffe and soul of a brand.

When we visit a creator in his home, we may expect a house with family or friends inside. True luxury brand architecture begins here. Historically the creator would either visit the customer or customers would visit the creator at the maison, which would be an all-in-one boutique, showroom and workshop. There the client would experience the quality of the personal service, craftsmanship and creation throughout the process. The distinguished Parisian maison de lingerie Cadolle, said to have invented the bra and established in 1889, waits for clients to discover it and to visit its rue Saint- Honoré premises in Paris on appointment. Madame Poupie Cadolle is the fifth generation family member to continue running the maison in its true tradition with craftspeople working upstairs. It is not a factory brand and does not feel like one either. Clearly, it is a very intimate experience.

A Hierarchy of House Brands

It is important to note the perceptual differences of having a Maison to represent the luxury brand instead of a corporate trading name. Here is where many start out badly by not thinking this through. Should your ‘house’ feel like a workplace or a home or both? Should it be a Palace, a Chateau, a monastery, a farm, an atelier, an apartment, an art gallery, a showroom, shop, office or factory? In which environment would your clients prefer to experience your brand? The top hotels in France are known as Palace hotels, and top wines are considered to derive from Chateaux (not wineries or wine farms). Louis Vuitton still uses the original “Maison de Famille” and its adjoined workshop at Asnières, to reinforce its heritage. It feels far more personal than their huge retail shops, some of which are called maisons.

The Maison becomes the destination brand, the place to meet the creator or head of the household and rest of the family by personal invitation. It houses the expertise. As such, high-end luxury brands tend to build on the good name of their master’s house where family reputation is paramount and must ultimately be upheld for decades across dynasties. Clearly to have one maison in one place cannot generate as much income as many products in many places and unless you control the places it’s hard to control the total experience of your brand, hence why many luxury brands evolved from manufacturing to retailing.

Reaching out

1) More homes: Second and more homes become interesting options and ways to reach out to clients saving them the effort of coming to you, hence the need to open retail spaces in different places. These ‘homes’ do not house manufacturing or the product creator but offer a place to experience the brand universe. Louis Vuitton, Hermès and others have followed this route. It’s quite a personal experience but one step away from visiting the main family home. To avoid a cookie-cutter feel, each home remains unique in its own way, adapted slightly to local conditions, but the products sold represent the core quality and expertise of the house. When the main home is replicated identically it runs the risk of feeling impersonal and corporate i.e Hilton London, Paris, New York. A bigger risk of store expansion may be that of over-exposure and being seen everywhere as are McDonalds and Starbucks.

2) Building villages: For those who aspire to your marque but cannot afford it, lower-cost housing is an option. Here’s where second and third level brands come into play. Armani offers Armani Privé, Giorgio Armani, Emporio Armani and so on as different homes at lower prices and quality but he remains head of the village controlling the design aesthetic. The sub-brands are not sold in the same houses. These brands could be seen as poorer cousins of the family. The lesser quality puts clients further step away from the head of the household. Again, the more it is replicated identically, the more it feels industrialised, corporate and impersonal.

3) Family ties: A corporate feel can kill the brand. The rise in boutique hotels was a backlash against impersonal hotels. In order to retain a sense of independence, they often downplay their group links. Examples are The Cotton House managed by the GLA group (symbolising the personal touch of Grace Leo-Andrieu) or The Balé, member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World as well as those linked to Relais & Châteaux, Design Hotels, Tablet Hotels and the like. These ‘family clubs’ can be seen to act as quality endorsements, awards or guarantees without diluting the personal touch of each hotel yet benefit from group synergies.

4) Entering new territories: The risks to the brand’s core reputation becomes greater when it ventures into an area beyond its core competence such as Armani and Bulgari Hotels and Resorts however when their design style or universe bring innovation and excitement to the category it can serve to add more value to the core reputation than lesser. (This will be covered in greater depth in Step 6).

How Luxury Differs to Mass Market

In the mass market, the product or person in the advert is often the star not the product creator or founder, with many exceptions of course. Products sold in supermarkets are often disassociated from their family names. Dove and Pantene are fine examples. The corporate names Unilever and P&G; are not seen to add much perceptual value to personal care brands due to the soap powder heritage of their houses. A ‘house of brands’ manufacturer (Master Brand) behaves quite differently to that of a ‘branded house’ (Maison Brand) even though there are major similarities in structure. These are outlined in the 5 brand architectural strategies below:

Brands that lie in Zone 1 of the spectrum represent a situation in which the Master Brand (MB) is the only brand name emphasised and the product or service is simply differentiated by a descriptor, such as a colour, a generic description or catalogue number i.e the Samsung E500 cellphone as it will soon be superceded. With the rare exceptions they create Product Brand names such as Sony Walkman and Sony Playstation. Asian brands traditionally use this strategy so that the Corporate Name becomes the ‘famous brand’. Luxury brands often do the same.

Brands that lie in Zone 2 of the spectrum are descriptive sub-brand-names subordinate to the MB that provides an umbrella for the new expertise i.e Virgin Atlantic – Virgin Galactic. This helps to minimise customer confusion as to what the brand represents. Their sub-brands have no value without the master brand and therefore cannot easily be divested ie Easyjet cannot sell off Jet as a brand on its own without selling part of the company name as Virgin had to do to some extent when it sold off Virgin Megastores. What would Nespresso be without Nestlé, Privé without Armani or No.5 without Chanel?

Zone 3 brands develop Product Brand (PB) names of relevance to a specific target market e.g Studio Line for styling, Recital for colouring grey. Each PB is targeted to a specific audience. Two brands (MB+PB) together provides double power and both are built simultaneously. Each provides a unique positioning and perceptual value i.e. Studio Line from L’Oréal, Elvive from L’Oréal. The branding of the PB always communicates the MB as the source. Each PB advert adds cumulative value to L’Oréal. In Luxury, the Kelly bag from Hermès may play the same role. Marc Jacobs for Vuitton and Lagerfeld for Chanel may also have the same effect as well as some other exclusive collaborations.

Zone 4 brands represent powerful PBs that feed more value to the MB than vice versa, which puts the MB in an endorsement situation. Kit Kat does that for Nestlé and Visa does that for many bankcards. Until quite recently, Angel perfume could be accused of following this mass-market type strategy to the point that the Angel name became better known than its star creator, Thierry Mugler. Had the designer’s brand been developed as a maison with Mugler as a bigger star than Angel in zones 1 or 2, it could well have succeeded in many categories including skin care as did competitors Dior, YSL, and Chanel.

Zone 5 brands represent totally autonomous PBs which have no intentional link to the MB. It is more commonly practiced when the MB is a ‘house of brands’ not intent on presenting its corporate name as a brand with consumer appeal in all categories e.g. Nestlé is not shown on the front of its pet food brands Purina and Friskies. This strategy works well for PBs that could dilute or damage the reputation of the MB.

Today mass brands are beginning to trade up to maison strategies i.e. Dove opening spas and looking more like a luxury brand than a soap factory brand found on supermarket shelves. We are more likely to fall in love with the spa experience than a visit to the Unilever factory that makes the products or the supermarkets that sell it. Nothing beats a good one-to-one relationship. Thanks to internet, the mass brands are getting even closer to their customers but beware of following their techniques!