Brand experts Wolfgang Schaefer and J.P. Kuehlwein interviewed industry leaders, experts and brand specialists, and analyzed more than 100 case studies to identify seven principles that “Ueber-Brands” follow to dominate the redefined prestige landscape.
We had the chance to talk to them and discuss branding in the premium sector.
getAbstract: You say in your book that modern Prestige brands are evolving beyond traditional Luxury and marketing models, that they set new standards and expectations. What distinguishes these modern Prestige brands, ‘Ueber-Brands’, as you call them?
JP Kuehlwein (JP): Modern Luxury or Prestige does no longer rely on adding the classic ‘Luxury P’s to the branded goods marketing model – setting a high Price, using Precious materials, emphasizing their distinguished Provenance and long history. We clearly see in our research that brands attempting to make themselves look exclusive by being expensive and rare are being perceived as arrogant and nouveau-rich behavior by many of their target consumers. Those consumers want to see themselves as ‘refined’ and educated and are looking for more subtle ways to project their sophistication and lifestyle.
Wolf Schaefer (Wolf): We look at intimate knowledge, understanding, appreciation or other forms of connoisseur-ship to create the base of exclusivity for brands rather than just limitations in quantity or a very high price. This is also a consequence Luxury groups and new premium and lifestyle brands seeking to scale and reach beyond high net worth or high-income individuals. They seek to appeal to their children, as well and others with high future income potential or who dip in and out of luxury based on occasion.
JP: Take Hermes’ more playful ‘petit h’ sub-brand. It makes items from ‘recycled but noble Hermes waste’ into objects that start at a relatively more affordable few hundred dollars. It also illustrates the move towards giving the brand deeper meaning – sustainability – and making it an experience that appeals to younger audiences.
Wolf: A younger audience also means modern Prestige has to balance the feelings of ‘Longing and Belonging’ as they create these experiences. On the one hand responding to a desire of togetherness and inclusion. On the other they need to preserve a feeling of being special. – Which means neither them and certainly not ‘the others’ should ever fully be grasping and owning what the brand is all about. Or else it shall become ‘ordinary.’
getAbstract: What´s the formula for driving success of iconic brands?
JP: When creating an iconic brand you seek to combine myth-making with a strong discipline in how you manifest the brand: You consistently employ and celebrate elements that uniquely express your brand’s Mission and Myth across all senses. Those can include names (like Birkin, 911), colors (Tiffany teal), techniques (Bottega Veneta’s intrecciato weave), rituals (warming LaMer creme in your palms), styles (Aesop store architecture), places (Bunello Cucinelli’s Solomeo), sounds, scents and so on. You might be brash like a red Ferrari or red-soled Louboutin shoes or subtle like a Berluti shoe recognized by the way it is tied. We tell our clients that it is all about the total ‘Gestalt’, which includes your believes, attitude and actions as a brand; how it is recognizable but also constantly evolving to stay fresh and engaging.
getAbstract: In your book, you are describing seven principles ‘Ueber-Brands’ follow. Which are those, in a nutshell?
Wolf: First and foremost, Ueber-Brands are rooted in a mission and a mythical narrative; they connect with their constituencies by creatively balancing inclusion and exclusion; and they are – for the most part – built on integrity and sincerity, more than used to be the case in our marketing world. To better understand the ‘real-life’ implications of these dimensions or shifts we have translated them into seven principles, each one dealing with a specific aspect of brand building or marketing:
1. Mission Incomparable. This is about the core of any modern prestige brand, the belief on which it is built, its raison d’être.
2. Longing vs. Belonging. Second most important: defining your audiences and how to connect with them, learning to balance inclusivity with exclusivity.
3. Un-selling. The third point expands on the second: how to communicate and interact with your constituencies by mixing signals, proximity and distance specifically.
4. From Myth to Meaning. The ultimate objective of modern prestige brands: Cafting narratives that let people believe they know and know why they believe.
5. Behold! Ueber-Products need to not just hold a promise, they must manifest a myth, making the intangible brand believably tangible.
6. Living the Dream. How to define the elements that are essential to a brand’s myth and mission and radiate them from the inside out.
7. Growth Without End. Last: How to deal with the age-old challenge of prestige brands in modern ways. Growing, but without undermining a sense of specialness.
getAbstract: Why do consumers respond to iconic brands – psychologically and emotionally?
JP: All our choices and actions, and particularly our consumptive ones, have a social dimension – that’s why we talk of ‘badge value’. They can give us social cachet and status, make us feel part of a group or lifestyle we want to identify with. But beyond that, we’ve learned to use brands as building blocks of our self-identity and tools for self-actualization. Driving a Harley Davidson is certainly not about getting you from A to B, nor is Tesla. We use brands to make us feel prettier, smarter, sexier, younger, stronger – like an Outlaw or a Visionary… as much as we let them reward us, take us to different places, express an air of savoir faire or self-control. All this we could also do in other ways, and we are. But brands just make it seem easier, sometimes as easy as a trip to the shop, café, website, meet-up.
getAbstract: What challenges do prestige brands face?
Wolf: We find them to face the same challenges as all brands these days – just a bit more so sometimes, as they also have more to gain: For one, brands need to re-prove themselves as not just ‘empty’ marketing shells but reliable and credible holders of meaning. They must regain our trust after decades of often over-hyped marketing BS and glaring underperformance – particularly when wanting to attract the younger, more marketing savvy, inquisitive digital natives.
People want more than just a nice sneaker or an aromatic coffee: we want to be sure that no child labor was involved in producing them, our environment wasn’t unduly harmed and that their – and our – trade was and is fair. Or at least we don’t want to know the opposite, particularly with Prestige brands. Because that would burst our Prestige dream bubble in a nanosecond and take all the fun away.
JP: Also, we find that the borders of being together and apart have become more porous, permissive and have started to be re-drawn in the age of social media. For Prestige brands this means that the known paths to exclusivity have opened up. Where their predecessors were more singularly concerned with rarity and restraint, today’s prestige brands must be more flexible and inventive in making certain consumers ‘stand out’ while allowing them to be connected with the rest of us who admire them.
Last not least, one of the premier ways to exclusivity and singularity is starting to erode: Thanks to online customization offers everybody can these days feel like one in a million – turning the traditional high-end path of tailor-made into a high-street highway.
getAbstract: You studied numerous Ueber-Brands. What´s your favorite and why do you need it?
JP: A shared favorite is Patagonia – not a classic Prestige brand but a meaning-full Ueber-Brand that has steadily grown in the fickle field of fashion for decades.
Wolf: And they hate to be seen as a fashion brand or a premium brand, for that matter. They desire to be more than a fad and deeply believe that the investment into them is warranted by their values.
Patagonia is a brand that I do not really need – but I want it. And that is true for the best of these brands. You do not need (another) car, handbag or watch, Certainly not water from Fiji or salt from the Guerande.
JP: In the same way, I do not need really need a fleece sweater that has been tested in Himalayas, is made from recycled PET bottles and makes me pledge that I will never throw it away but rather repair it or hand it back to Patagonia to be recycled again. But I do want to financially contribute to- and show my support for an idea about ‘going out and exploring nature while trying not to destroy it’. In that way, I am not just buying a garment when I choose Patagonia, but I am buying INTO an ideology that its bigger than the physical good and than me … and that I am willing to pay a premium for.
Wolf: Note how Patagonia – and we have never worked for them – has captured us to become disciples and spread their gospel. That’s how Ueber-Brands are built.