14 July 2005

Replacing place, the specificity of luxury brands.


Many luxury brand customers have developed an almost arcane adherence to the brand values of uniqueness and authenticity derived from place. It is the ostensible idea of an historic solidity, a departure from the more peripatetic attention to fashion and seasonal remodelling of consumer brands, that serves to distinguish the specific identity of luxury brands. Many luxury brands rely on the fact that they do not look externally for inspiration, that they only need look to their place of origin, of manufacture. Place, whether it is Tuscany or London, is what DIFFUSION argues contributes to the soul or essence of a brand and delineates it. So what happens when a luxury brand decides that place is no longer such a source of inspiration?

While consumer brands everywhere continue to seek to manage ever diminishing margins as they ride the wave of affordable affluence, luxury brands across all categories have, or are considering, moving manufacturing to global factories like China for much the same reason as their lesser counterparts.

Interestingly the move to “Made in China” seems to be coming from the franchisees of many of these luxury brand owners, rather than brand owners themselves. While many luxury brand owners such as JPTodd have avowedly rejected outsourcing manufacturing, others have embraced it. This new place label “Made in China” is already being borne by a swath of companies in Europe and the US, including Steiff, Coach, Kate Spade, Paul Smith and Armani, who have already shifted some of their manufacturing to mainland China. In Australia, much of the Oroton Group’s stable of brands has already migrated to the far east. And according to Bear Sterns it’s a trend that is showing no sign of abating. For example, they estimate that by 2010, 50% of all US manufacturing could be outsourced and the new place of manufacturer is likely to the be the global factories in China and India.

Which begs some questions: Do companies confuse country of origin with country of manufacture and believe their consumers can’t tell the difference? How will consumers be able able to tell the difference between the output of brands all manufactured in the same country? What will the nuances be? What do they believe consumers are motivated by – product or price? Do they only see value displayed by logo and name rather than quality? How do they value their brands on the balance sheet? What risk assessment do firms make of the effects on the brand associated with outsourced manufacturing? What account do they make of the the risks inherent in sharing manufacturing techniques and skills with potential competitors? How can product delineation and quality be preserved in the global factory?

For luxury brands the idea of place is critical to the identity, authenticity and uniqueness (we call this the “specificity”) of a brand (otherwise why would counterfeiting exist?). Place provides an aesthetic counterpoint to the “generic” of the chain. The authenticity of a product, as Virginia Postrel notes in her book The Substance of Style, is determined by purity, tradition and the aura of history – all elements that are determined by place and which can define a luxury brand. Yet, these brand owners are willing to re/place and subsume identity, determine authenticity only by logo and destroy uniqueness with an authorised non-specificity (authorised counterfeit) - all because it preserves margins and retains profit.

We think the idea of specificity is being overlooked by many brand owners and demands a careful rethink of current brand strategies, built on strong customer recognition derived from place of origin and manufacture.

Photo copyright Amanda Tsui 2004 Pratt School of Art, New York City

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