Brand audits are always fascinating. In a recent project we analyzed the messaging of a well-known luxury brand, and the result revealed an issue that most brands face. When we asked the top leadership team, around ten people, for their one-sentence description of the brand, it resulted in about 30 different aspects. So instead of one sentence, on average there were three. And practically no two brand messages that were summarized were the same.
When there are even just a few inconsistencies in messaging at the top of any organization, these automatically multiply and amplify the further down you go in the hierarchy. Hence, these 30 messages can easily become 100, 1,000 (or more) different ways to describe the same brand. And these are not the exception — they are typical of brand audit findings across countries, industries, and sectors. Very few companies manage to have one message, or one brand story, across the organization. Brand stories today are — in most cases — a sea of sameness.
This gets even more compounded if the employees, say in the sales department, feel that the brand message is more a “marketing message,” rather than a relevant one for them. The result: on an operational level people typically use their own way of describing the brand, like “this shoe company is from Italy and their quality is fantastic,” or “this French skincare brand gives you great results.” While these descriptions are positive, they are rather what I call a “category story” and not a “brand story.” In other words, they describe vaguely what the brand is doing and where it’s from. And, in most cases, any brand in the category could match these descriptions.
As a result, the message around the brand gets generic, ambiguous, undifferentiated, and it creates practically no client-related value. In other words, for a client or any audience the brand is targeting, most brands resemble each other. They lack any specific cue about who they really are. There is no purpose and, importantly, there is no emotion. It’s not surprising that the service experience — based on a generic brand script — very seldomly stands out.
This has fatal results: undifferentiated brands cannot realize any significant price premium, so their profitability will be far below their potential, in some cases dramatically below. Advertising costs on increasingly complex and noisy digital and social platforms, whether in Web2 or Web3, skyrocket because the breakthrough of the blurry messages will be minimal. Thus, brands that are confusing in their messaging don’t reach their audience. Given that up to 95 percent of today’s luxury purchase decisions are influenced by digital audience interactions, the competitive disadvantage can endanger an entire brand.
And even worse in luxury: ALV, short for Added Luxury Value, the main component of the perceived value of a luxury brand, is by far the most significant part of the total brand value. And it is dependent on the brand story. In other words: if there is ambiguity in the story, the brand suffers. There is a prominent example: Gucci. Before Alessandro Michele took over the creative direction of Gucci from Frieda Giannini, the brand significantly underperformed. The reason: Gucci’s story is traditionally about liberation, about being unapologetic in the way you dress and show up. It taps into a critical insight: that many people are — at least at times — either insecure or feel that they must follow certain rules and conventions.
When Tom Ford was the creative helm of Gucci, his interpretation of the story was very provocative, often overly sexual, and the brand was one of the hottest groups around. When he left, the consistency in the storytelling was lost, and the label declined significantly. Gucci felt more like other luxury houses and became much less distinctive. There was insufficient ALV, hence less perceived value despite many wonderful collections. And while products were exceptional, the story was gone — hence the value decline. Then, when Michele took over the helm, his interpretation of unapologetic liberation was poetic, theatrical, and often inspired by the 1970s. While very different to the vision of Tom Ford, both told the same story, and both had the same fundamental message. Back on story, Gucci soared from one all-time high to another and prices increased steadily and significantly.
Another fascinating example is the collaboration between Nike’s Air Force 1 franchise, Louis Vuitton, and Virgil Abloh. Virgil was an outspoken fan of the Air Force 1 and he led Louis Vuitton’s first collaboration with Nike. Before the collection, limited to 200, was auctioned by Sotheby’s, Abloh sadly passed away. This made the “story” much more unique and non-repeatable. As a result, the highest bid in the auction exceeded $350,000 (2.4 million RMB). And we are talking about a leather sneaker, not a sports car! This is how much the clarity and uniqueness of a story and its message can boost ALV. Without the story, a pair of Air Force 1 retails around $180 (1,200 RMB), add the story and it’s multiplied by almost 2,000. Even when accommodating for the higher quality leather and craftsmanship of Louis Vuitton, it’s significant: compared to around $1,800 (120,000 RMB) for a pair of “standard” Louis Vuitton sneakers, the story-related value multiplier is almost 200.
Without a unique and intriguing story these multipliers would collapse almost entirely. It teaches us that in luxury, story and message carry the value, not the product. The product is — rather — an expression of the story, it’s not the story itself. And the value is intangible, which means it can collapse immediately when clarity is missing. This happens when what should be one message becomes many and when, therefore, brands lose their core value.
It’s a huge missed opportunity for many luxury brands in terms of impact, ability to breakthrough and convince, clarity, and pricing potential. Messaging is luxury’s superpower, and too many stories destroy your odds of success. How many does your brand have?
This is an op-ed article that reflects the views of the author and does not necessarily represent the views of Jing Daily.
Named one of the “Global Top Five Luxury Key Opinion Leaders to Watch,” Daniel Langer is the CEO of the luxury, lifestyle and consumer brand strategy firm Équité, and the executive professor of luxury strategy and pricing at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. He consults many of the leading luxury brands in the world, is the author of several best-selling luxury management books, a global keynote speaker, and holds luxury masterclasses on the future of luxury, disruption, and the luxury metaverse in Europe, the USA, and Asia. Follow @drlanger