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The ultimate luxury branding checklist
This article is the first of a series addressing the particularities of luxury brands, which can serve as inspiration for the most diverse business segments.
Our checklist is based on experience at the studio, added to the theory of Jean-Noël Kapferer and Vincent Bastien, two of the most important voices in the luxury market described in the book The Luxury Strategy. The original checklist has 9 items, some of which are different in order. Nevertheless, we highly recommend reading the original requisites list for discussion purposes.
The 10 systematic core elements of the signature of a luxury brand:
1. The figure of the creator
Luxury and art are related concepts for having high symbolic value, representing the refinement of human skill, leaving practical functionality in secondary importance. The creative mind, the lifestyle, the personality — the brand creator creates a warm link with the audience. It's a designer's touch that indicates that a luxury item is part of a body of work, not a production. Sometimes the connection is so deep that the brand takes the name of the creator, full or last name.
This can also be indicated by public relations actions, special brand lines, and limited edition products; the possibilities are endless. It can be expressed by the brand founder (person or family), or the person in charge of the creative direction at the time. Notable examples are Georgio Armani for Armani, Virgil Abloh at Louis Vuitton, Phoebe Philo at Celine, Elsa Peretti for Tiffany, and Alessandro Michelle for Gucci. Among the newer brands, it's worth mentioning Amina Muaddi, Ana Khouri, Gabriela Hearst, Paola Vilas, and Fernando Jorge.
2. A short and impactful logo version
A version of the logo with a strong emphasis on the typographic design (usually a monogram or lettermark), used in an iconic way and translatable into repetition patterns. The most common is the use of the brand's or creator's initials, as in YSL by Saint Laurent, CC by Chanel, GG by Gucci, B by Burberry, and L in Loewe. Among the brands that have received special attention lately, we have Courrèges with its iconic lettermark, The Row with its clean and delicate monogram, and Telfar, with the monogram extensively applied to the brand's accessories.
3. Brand color hierarchy
A brand needs an extremely consistent color palette, usually organized in a three-level hierarchy, and thought around one main color. This central color should be distinctive from all other brands, direct competitors, similars, and even other brands in the luxury market in general. It is also important to have a parity rule: how the central color should be applied together or over which other color. For example, Hermès' central color is a burnt orange, which is paired with a shade of brown, which is then surrounded by a series of warm colors applicable to its core material, leather.
A good selection of colors always generates the feeling that it "makes sense" for the brand, and sometimes it's so unusual that only the brand seems to be able to use it masterfully (this should be the bar). This effect is typical of brands with deep concepts that have created a coloring logic — Every brand has to have a way of creating or extracting color. In this regard, J.Hannah has to be mentioned as beautifully communicating its process of choosing colors, which are always unusual and linked to research. Other important references: Missoni, Pucci, Farrow and Ball, Dusen Dusen, Jacquemus, Boy Smells, and Gallerist.
4. A visual symbol
A visual symbol is an element that accompanies the logotype, tends toward the figurative, and translates the brand's concepts. They commonly represent a myth, a story, or a feeling.
In traditional cases, we have the wings of Aston Martin, the carriage with horse and rider of Hermès, the crown of Rolex, the Medusa of Versace, the camellia flower of Chanel, and the knight of Burberry.
On the more ambitious end of the spectrum, we have Margielas's three-by-eight grid showing the numbers zero to 23, which serves as a category code (menswear is 10, accessories is 11, objects and publications, 13...), the relevant number is circled on the label of each garment.
5. A repeated visual motif
It regards the usage of a repetitive motif as a visual signature applied on products and brand handoffs. The print and its consistency are observed both in the design and in the way of manufacture: type of printing and finishing.
Typically, it's either a pattern with the lettermark or a distinguishable graphic composition. The most obvious examples are Louis Vuitton's Damier and Dior's Oblique and Cannage. The designer Marine Serre with the Moon print and 10 Corso Como with circular motifs are examples of new approaches.
6. A favorite material
The choice of these materials is due to their connection with the brand's values, the skill level that differentiates it, and the experience of use. They can be traditional materials taken to a new level of excellence, such as Hermès silk or Dior jacquards. It is a common practice to regularly pay homage to this material in special collections, as Chanel did with tweed in its ready-to-wear fall 2022 show.
Another example, we have Prada with Nylon, a synthetic fiber borrowed from the world of workwear and transformed into a symbol of a subversive approach to refinement, which generates a functional, resistant, shiny and tactile fabric. It is one of the brand codes that most demonstrate the investment in technology and the interest in pushing the industry to new heights.
"Suddenly nylon started to look more intriguing to me than couture fabrics. I decided to introduce it to the catwalk and it challenged, even changed, the traditional and conservative idea of luxury. I am still obsessed with it."
— Miuccia Prada
Due to the growing interest in more sustainable materials, some brands have drawn more attention for their choices, such as Flavia Aranha and botanical dyes, Stella McCartney and vegetarian materials, Nathalie Schreckenberg, and jewelry made of precious metals and glass.
7. A brand scent
Luxury brands must create a universe and an environment of stimuli associated with the other elements on this list. The sense of smell is one of the most striking and evocative perception triggers, closely related to embodied cognition: a visceral connection in which the body unconsciously informs our opinion about an object or interaction through smell. There are some common associations backed by scientific research, such as lavender and rosemary being capable of decreasing the stress hormone, cortisol. But, a well-done brand scent makes far more complex connections, with the intent of creating an environment. Among traditional brands:
As Paris smells of the city, of charm, of funky mixed with je nais se quoi: this is Chanel 5;
Country house, tobacco, fireplace, whiskey, leather: this is Ralph Lauren;
The wanderings of Milanes between the fashion capital and the sunny, fresh, and green Italian countryside: this is Armani.
The brand scent can be built in two main approaches: 1. a blend created by a perfumer, which is sprayed in the sales space or on the packaging; 2. or a scent cured by what makes up the sales scene (the Aimé Leon Dore brand has the scent of the environment, added to the coffee and pastries served in the store).
8. The cult of detail
This is a broad topic, but it concerns elements that recur in flawless consistency across times and releases. The same brand can launch different products within a hierarchy, which vary in price, style, category, and audience shares. This freedom to create is made possible through the details, a series of decisions that range from the products or services themselves, such as finishes, materials, vocabulary, and frequency of contact, or through supporting elements such as packaging, stationery, gifts, etc.
The choice of the word cult is precise, as the repetition must be absolutely intentional, obsessive, and scalable. In addition to connecting the offers, the cult of detail reinforces the brand's codes and serves as a reference for authentication for second-hand professionals or auction houses. In practical examples, we have Cartier's red wax sealed tape; Bottega Venetta's flawless leather intrecciato and handlings; the signature Zip Tie tag on Off white sneakers; the handmade notebooks by MH studios, which, through their classic or limited editions, feature grosgrain ribbons in the brand's colors for bookmarks.
9. Associated professionals and brands
This point follows the saying "tell me what you walk with and I'll tell you who you are". Luxury brands stand out for being proud of their partners and their know-how — offering luxury is only possible through the union of the most skilled and experienced professionals in each area. In the past, there was more focus on suppliers and hymns to the manual work, such as Lesage and Lemarié, the two adjacent Parisian ateliers behind the hand embroidery, featherwork, and flower making for couturiers such as Chanel, Dior, Givenchy, and Valentino. The importance (and even indispensability) of other roles has grown more and more, such as:
Certifications: Positive Luxury and the Butterfly Certificate;
Service providers: as brand communication with Scharf studio;
People: who use the brand publicly.
10. A way of doing things
It is directly related to two things: the brand persona and the brand environment.
In women's fashion, the persona is often referred to as the "______ (insert brand) woman". For example, the "Saint Laurent woman" is urban and sexy, with a youthful punk edge; the "Chanel woman" carries with her a mixture of sophisticated elegance, with a mixture of tradition, and audacity. In the automotive market, we have the "Ferrari driver", Italian and loud, in contrast to the precise and discreet "Audi driver". Sometimes the persona is created from the figure of the brand creator, but not necessarily.
As for the environment, which is portrayed in a "homeopathic" way at the point of sale, in photographic or video campaigns, in copywriting, in the tagline, in the content of interviews — it's something subtle but everywhere. Some brands execute it with mastery (and out of clichés) such as Prasi, The Attico, Wythe, and Haight.
The figure of the creator
Short and impactful logo version
Brand color hierarchy
Repeated visual motif
The cult of detail
Associated professionals and brands
Way of doing things
These are the elements that must be created and supplied over time to achieve a more complete brand communication, in all aspects. They form the foyer of a business's core offering, as they introduce and explain why something is special and makes sense to the audience while creating a tension of desire. They are also part of the brand's value and must be mapped and registered for value assessment purposes.
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