When American jeweler Tiffany & Co opened the first international Tiffany Blue Box Café in Hong Kong last month, fans were immediately impressed by its aesthetics and glamour.
The attraction stems in part from its association with the 1961 classic Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The Tiffany Blue Box Café materialized the exquisite universe created by the brand, which had been made even more compelling by the film and communicated to a global audience.
What is so compelling about the way luxury brands convey their identities that leave an ever-lasting impression on us? Ultimately, it boils down to building a strong and very individual identity – a brand DNA.
How to build a strong brand DNA?
Crafting a “brand DNA” for luxury brands is about creating a rich and coherent universe for clientele. This process begins with a journey of self-discovery.
Mass-market brands typically conduct their brand positioning through competitor analysis. For luxury and premium brands, on the other hand, the creation of brand DNA is about looking inwards: who they are, what they stand for, and how they want to be remembered.
What’s important though, is that brands strive to create an image of themselves that is enduring. There are two effective ways of doing so.
First, brands can craft brand DNA based on their heritage. However, this can be problematic, especially when the creator is central to the brand. The death of an inspirational, influential and much-loved creator may weaken the brand’s identity unless the process is carefully managed.
Christian Dior is one such example. He introduced the legendary collection “The New Look” - a calf-length, full skirt, cinched waist and fuller bust. A rebuttal to post-war fabric restrictions, “The New Look” generated some criticism upon its release. Nevertheless, the opulence of the design was a delight to women.
The spirit of this design can still be observed in Dior’s contemporary collection today. By infusing elements from the creator into its DNA like provocation and glamour, Dior survived the death of its eponymous founder in 1957 and movement by subsequent creative directors.
Second, brands can construct DNA based on their values. The Hennessy DNA is first and foremost built on values. If we were to draw a portrait of the Hennessey brand, it would be bold and future-oriented. It strives to be the finest in selection, maturation and blending, and it desires to create magical experiences.
Once brands have established their brand DNA, the next step is to create a set of “brand codes” to communicate their heritage and values to the consumers.
What makes a successful brand code?
Brand DNA is expressed through visible, symbolic signals or codes. Unlike brand DNA which stays consistent, brand codes need to be refreshed over time to appeal to contemporary consumers. The most successful brand codes have two common characteristics.
First, they are unique. Think about the monster eyes of Fendi. It is a feature so unique that many consumers recognize the product without needing to see a Fendi logo.
Second, successful brand codes reflect the brand’s heritage. Christian Dior liked the stitching used on the chairs at his very first fashion show in 1947. This pattern, known as “cannage stitching”, has since become a powerful, irreplaceable signal of Dior. The code was drawn from the life of the brand’s creator, but it was applied by subsequent designers.
Luxury consumers today are looking for more discreet forms of self-expression to a much smaller inner circle. For brands, this means that their clientele is more appreciative of designs that embody subtlety and discretion.
A subtle signal can take many forms. It could be a color, like Dior Grey, an emblem, like the Bvlgari Serpenti (snake), a shape, like the Hennessey bottle or the Lady Dior bag, or even a print, like the abstract and colorful geometric prints of Emilio Pucci.
Four tactics for brand exposure
The final step to brand building is exposure. To make a brand come to life, its identity and codes must be seen and recognized by the public. There are four tactics brands should consider to increase exposure and, ultimately, consumer recognition.
1) Create the link between the brand and the brand code in all communication channels.
After choosing the Serpenti as a brand code, Bvlgari began to create the link between the brand and the emblem. Customers might have noticed an actress wearing a Serpenti shaped bracelet at a red-carpet event, or subconsciously taken note of the Serpenti shaped Christmas light installation put on the flagship store. The new brand code was also visible in all of the ads where actresses were seen wearing Serpenti shaped watches or necklaces.
2) Create and tell stories with brand codes
Christian Dior was famously fond of art. He owned an art gallery and surrounded himself with artists. Dior’s collection consistently reminds us of this fascination. Look at the “Bach” dress, the “Musee du Louvre” dress and the brand’s ready-to-wear collaboration with Andy Warhol.
3) Communicate a consistent identity across all channels
While physical stores are important for luxury brands, having a consistent online identity is also crucial. The signature blue displayed abundantly on the website of Tiffany & Co. creates a strong association with its physical stores and products. In addition, an increasing number of brands are offering short term experiences in forms of collaborations or pop-ups. These are also excellent opportunities to communicate about the brand identity and educate the consumers about the brand codes.
There are many lessons to be learned from luxury brands. Building a richer brand DNA and brand codes are just two of the methods and tools which may help other brands create a world of their own. They are a good place to start when pursuing a path to premiumising your brand.
Sonja Prokopec is a professor in the marketing department at ESSEC Business School Asia-Pacific.