Roland Iten Calibre R2 Mk II Double Ardillon Buckle

By approaching brand building like the stages of a love story, Philippe Mihailovich argues in his yet unpublished book that luxury branding is more about human relationships – passion, desire, love, and trust than the mass market theories often used by companies today. The last of his monthly series covers aspects of continual love and desire.


Fairy Tales

For many of us, Disney is our first luxury brand. It makes us dream of a better life. We learn that there is someone somewhere who will love us, that if we are good, good things will happen to us and we learn that we should hold onto our high standards because that’s what will help us to find the ever lasting love and happiness that the world has to offer. And why should we stop believing in this?

Too often though in the luxury branding field, we don’t find the customer or customers that we seek. We don’t get the acclaim that we deserve and we end up doing something completely different to survive.

Here’s where the tools of Brand and Marketing Management come into play. They may seem like the ugly sisters of the luxury world but they are often in fact, acting as the fairy godmother that passionate creators need. The ‘tools’ may be imprecise but they are derived from real life situations and lessons learned from pioneers who followed their intuition and either succeeded or failed as a result. We have learned something from them and continue to dream of living happily ever after.

Anyone can succeed in creating a great brand, with or without any knowledge of brand management however it certainly helps to be pre-warned of the pitfalls that may await you. It is far safer to know these things before starting out. The branding tools are there to help in three stages: before, during, and after your life.


We will have a relationship beyond my life?

In the past, people had a family jeweller, and many still do today. These are relationships that have endured decades and dynasties but they all began somewhere, often by a visionary person who made something to the best of his/her abilities as a gift to attract someone in particular. It’s always easier to create a gift for someone we know such as Fabergé or Cartier creating something to surprise and delight the Empress or the Tsar. It’s the thought that counts before the creation. The most important stage in the brand’s life is the preparation stage. This entire series has been primarily about that, about planning your luxury brand’s life and love story, even though things rarely go according to plan – there are always those evil predators out there aiming to steal your lovers away.

The pre-birth stage is where all the most important branding work takes place. Just as Architects and Engineers do all the planning before building the house, we should too. The last thing we want is to start building the house only to find that we need a skyscraper in ten year’s time. Think it through thoroughly before starting. We may have a wonderful super-talented designer or craftsperson making wonderful wow items. Our visionary could already have become famous. Perhaps it is all we need to start out with but there is still no excuse for ignoring market trends, what our competitors are doing and what consumers are buying or looking for.


Before Birth

To the small luxury business, market growth is the most important factor. A simple observational study as well as a review of global press reports and the additional input from key buyers will quickly tell us what people are buying today. If we also know what they bought yesterday, we should be able to forecast what they will desire tomorrow. When we analyse the similarities of what people are buying from our successful competitors as well as identify the commonalities of brands that they have abandoned, we will be in a better position to know what we should or should not be doing. The ‘should not’ is more important than the ‘should’.

The toughest challenge lies with brands that are created by innovators or visionary creators, for the pure love of the creation when there is no obvious market trend or need for the item. The high-end Roland Iten mechanical luxury brand for gentlemen (backed by Richmont’s Johann Rupert) provides a great example. Iten carved a new niche in the luxury goods industry, but how big is the market, where is the market, and how many James Bonds are out there? When there is no obvious need for something, it must be pure luxury, Haut Luxe at its griffe and atelier stage. Perhaps Iten should be exhibiting the work as a piece of art, but where? Would the brand be better off adding watches, desk luxury or high-end sex toys in pure plantinum or gold? Roland Iten is pure indulgence, driven by creation not by commerce, or is it both? Fun can sell, but how to be discovered remains the challenge for Iten. It doesn’t help that Iten is not a household name and no-one is seeking the ultimate belt buckle.


You understand me!

Segmentation is a great marketing term that is always mentioned in marketing plans but is rarely used properly. For example, for decades the hair care companies segmented hair types into Normal, Dry, and Greasy and with an Anti-Dandruff problem-solution aspect thrown in. This industry standard was derived from the laboratories where cosmetic chemists were busy formulating for these hair types. These scientists would perhaps have preferred to segment by fine, thick and frizzy hair, but the market slavishly followed without question. Along came London hairdresser John Frieda who was dealing with hair complaints on a daily basis. He saw that consumers did not see themselves as Dry, Greasy or Normal. They were more tribal in their thinking. A blonde saw herself as a blond, a brunette as a brunette and those with frizzy hair related to frizz problems first.

Before the world had noticed, Frieda had rolled out a line of sub-brands appealing to each of these tribal groups and the rest is history. Within a few years Frieda was a success across the world selling at three times the price of his large competitors and before long made millions by selling the brand to the Japanese cosmetic giant Kao. Frieda understood the principles of segmentation. It was simply the groups that his customers identified with and not one that was dictated by the big hair care groups. Segmentation should be about the consumer’s vision of the world. It’s about understanding their reality. Had Roland Iten undertaken such an exercise at the outset, would he have developed the mechanical belt buckle first? Clearly he found an unusual niche but convincing us that we need mechanical belts is not as easy as selling shampoos made for blondes.


I connect with you

Competitive analysis is not only critical for the understanding of consumer behaviour; it is imperative to understand what your competitors are communicating in order to get their clients to resonate with their brands. We have to know this to make sure that we don’t do the same unless it’s required, and to ensure that we make a difference where possible. Go to web forums to find out why they love those brands, or why they dislike those brands to help you to gain insights. You should then be in a position to plan your ideal brand identity communication model to provide you with a competitive edge.

Word-of-Mouth or buzz should be activated before launch, either by press or buyers being involved during the creation process or by becoming a star through other collaborative work before launching the brand. Launching with a boutique also helps to draw attention to the brand with windows that essentially act as billboards and a maison experience for customers who walk in. As you will need to generate as much press as possible, it would be preferable to roll out activities that would establish different newsworthy aspects for people to relate to, step-by-step thereby building certain key attributes in people’s minds over time. Note, we are still at the before birth stage and the storytelling stage (not telling tales or lies) but the brand should already have its strategy in place, play discreet and aim to be discovered. There is no point starting a buzz when the brand story is unclear.


Reinvigorating your love story

As in any relationship, a brand story needs to grow and be reinvigorated over time. Like water, if it does not move, it goes bad. A brand must be constantly nurtured in order to remain relevant. Love is the great ideal that we seek but even when love is unconditional and beyond threat, desire is something else. We may love someone wholeheartedly but no longer have desire. Likewise we can love a brand but no longer desire anything from it. Transparency, integrity, responsibility, and authenticity provide an essential foundation to the brand’s internal essence but it won’t be enough to keep the relationship alive. There are many predators out there. Even the mass brands are trying to woo your customers away from you. You have to keep reinventing your brand. No desire, no reason to buy.

As in any relationship, a brand story needs to grow and be reinvigorated over time. Like water, if it does not move, it goes bad. A brand must be constantly nurtured in order to remain relevant. Love is the great ideal that we seek but even when love is unconditional and beyond threat, desire is something else. We may love someone wholeheartedly but no longer have desire. Likewise we can love a brand but no longer desire anything from it. Transparency, integrity, responsibility, and authenticity provide an essential foundation to the brand’s internal essence but it won’t be enough to keep the relationship alive. There are many predators out there. Even the mass brands are trying to woo your customers away from you. You have to keep reinventing your brand. No desire, no reason to buy.



We now move beyond storytelling to story-building. Here is where brand reputation factors come into place. Sicco Van Gelder (1) has identified six major aspects that tend to be used to provide brand reputation and thereby support the brand’s authenticity, credibility or reliability. They are: Pedigree, Origin, Quality, Promise, Professional and Celebrity Endorsements. This series has used the analogy of a tree, how we should find the ideal place to plant the seed and the solid roots we should grow, as shown in the diagram below.




The During phase is when your communication and client experiences start to build up, story-by-story, root-by-root, branch-by-branch. Never all at once. Clearly not all the roots can be laid down from day one but it’s strategically useful to have a clear idea of what your tree will need to be and what roots it will need to support it. Then, you start with your tree-growing activities building branch-by-branch, flower by flower, from season to season.

The key is to know whom you want to attract and keep as a customer. It is here where the rest of the brand and marketing Ps come into play such as Passion, Personal touch, Product/Physical Evidence, Place, Positioning, Promotion, and Perishability.



In the During phase, it about what you do to give your customer the ultimate experience whilst they are shopping. Location, convenience, surprise, impact, innovation, presentation, range, clarity, impulse, the personal service, kindness, mood and intimacy all come into play. All the senses need to be activated. Art helps as may a subtle signature fragrance, music and attractive and happy staff. In terms of our love story, these are the touch moments, the first kiss with the brand, the beginning of what could be a relationship for life.

Suffice to say that if you are clear about the universe that your brand represents, everything else becomes easy. It is here where successful retailers are grand masters however nowadays, the website is often the key driver of personal contact. In many ways, it has become the brand. Your site becomes your flagship maison whether you sell directly from it or not. When we are in it, we are ‘chez vous’, in your home. Treat us as welcomed guests. Show us that you love us and that you care.


I’m leaving you!

“I was your Customer!” is the name of the South African best selling business book title written by Peter Cheales (2). “I never moan, I never fuss, I never criticise, I’d hate to make a scene like I have seen others do. I think that’s just awful. No, I’M A NICE CUSTOMER. But I’ll tell you something else too: I’m the customer who doesn’t come back,” he writes. “You don’t care? What does one more or less matter? But multiplied…I CAN RUIN YOUR BUSINESS. That’s why I can sit back and laugh when I see you spending all that money on advertising to get me back, when you could have kept me in the first place with a smile, a few kind words, a little service,” he concludes.

The affluent are often connoisseurs and expect your staff to be equally knowledgeable, kind, caring and sophisticated. In most instances, loyal customers only leave because of your wrongdoing. If you choose a new direction that your clients cannot relate to, your brand may no longer be considered a soulmate. You will have grown apart. However, if you don’t evolve, as has been the case with Cardin, how can you maintain desire? You must evolve with your clients, innovate and lead the way. The best way to destroy a good brand is to destroy it yourself.


Forever After

How do you keep love going? How do you keep your partner interested? How do you reinvigorate the flame, and keep them engaged? How do you keep that person loving you and desiring you? It’s so simple – change and keep changing but don’t grow out of the relationship, grow in it and with it. Stay consistent with regards to your personality – its why the partner fell in love in the first place – but continue to better yourself and your values over time. Surprise, surprise and surprise. Share, give, and stay exciting.

Some brands survive on attracting one-night-stands, others survive by building families for life and for the duration of dynasties. Which would you prefer? Let’s look back at the relationship steps covered in the text and remind ourselves of all the things we can do to keep the flame alive and fend off predators. If your brand is equipped to manage these stages, it will be equipped to live happily ever after. In luxury, it is so much about the after-sales. Luxury customers may only shop once a year, so let’s hope that they will be loyal to you. Some brands succeed very well with only one customer per month. Don’t lose that customer! Keep evolving and stay exciting.


We can all find love

Anything is possible and there is someone for everyone. As you start creating your brand, product by product, or as a tree, root by root, branch by branch and flower by flower, season by season, keep a dialogue going with your customer, share experiences and passions, stay exiting. Haut Luxe as a category is one which empowers independent creators, if favours personalities over brand identities, it sees consumers as people and friends, it gives kindness in preference to service, develops trust and intimacy over simple honesty, it provides surprising emotional experiences over expected aesthetic design, and prefers dialogue (story-building) to one way communication (storytelling). It values generosity over greed, and humanity over machinery. It’s totally personal and real and as such, challenges brand marketing as we know it today. Keep creating with passion and pride, stay true to yourself and be generous with everything that you do. Give something positive back to this world. Share passion and knowledge. That way, you are sure to make a positive difference to your life and the world around you.

Many of my views are open to challenge and this is welcomed. It’s the polemic that counts.


Philippe Mihailovich

(1) Cheales,P, “I was your customer”, (2008) Trident Press
(2) van Gelder,S,”Global Brand Strategy”, Kogan Page 2005

About the author

Philippe Mihailovich

Professor and Brand Consultant