Independent luxury brands are convinced that with COVID-19, the tide is turning in their favour. But can they really give the omnipotent conglomerates a prod in the back?
What if COVID-19 was about to create a more levelled playing field for independent brands? This question seems iconoclastic. But there are precedents of changing fortunes in other industries. Take beer and the way smaller brewers managed to challenge even the likes of AB Inbev because they were on the pulse with changing consumer tastes and able to boost quality.
There is a convincing argument that independent luxury brands are much more in tune with post COVID-19 trends than the bigger players. Could now be the time when the “magic” of independent brands also helps them rise above the heavyweights?
At first sight, the decline in consumption that the likes of Philip Kotler, the father of modern marketing, fears will happen in the wake of COVID might seem dangerous for any luxury brand.
But because independent brands are used to competing by playing contrarian, ultra-responsible and sustainable and authentic cards, they could be ideally placed to seize the opportunities of new trends.
The contrarian card
Independent brands go further than showing a creative spirit. They try to break with industry conventions to be more desirable in consumers’ eyes.
Take Eberhard & Co Swiss luxury watches. Whilst most watch companies are getting rid of retailers, Eberhard & Co is playing into retailers courts, helping them get business through the crisis.
According to Mario Peserico, General Manager of Eberhard & Co Italy, the brand deliberately stays away from e-commerce so that online sales can go to the local retailers of customers that contact the company.
The brand has, though, accelerated its Instagram presence and created an interactive App, but with the specific purpose of being closer to consumers.
“Social activity such as Instagram facilitates requests from consumers, and we always try to give immediate feedback,” said Peserico.
On this point of digital ubiquity during COVID-19, the distance to end customers has become more democratic and is now more equal to all brands, providing a chance for smaller independent brands to have equal impact and similar presence. This is the view of Knirke Fester Schindler, Brand Director at La Vallée, a Swiss independent luxury cosmetic brand.
The smaller brands also seem to appreciate how less is more and are applying this to digital. As Fester Schindler continues: “Luxury companies have had a tendency to panic, searching for quick fixes during the lockdown to keep their employees busy and remain visible, offering online beauty consulting and webinars. The result and impact seemed somehow as a panic reaction and solution and did not always live up to the image that I had of the brand. Digital solutions have advantages but a clear strategy, even under exceptional circumstances, must be in place and aligned with the brand image.”
Consequently, she did not take La Vallée down this route.
A separate instance of a contrarian strategy can be seen in Louis Moinet watches. Whilst many brands have chosen to communicate their latest models or products during lockdown, Louis Moinet has done just the opposite by revisiting the founding product of the brand: the chronograph, with the house having invented the first ever chronograph in 1816.
The brand’s strong moral values are melded with beautiful fiction to give life to the brand. The company also released a 100-page Black Book to communicate what the brand is about and its history, and a new website.
Storytelling is not just about turning marketing into stories, it’s about telling the truth, according to Kurt Kupper, Board member of Louis Moinet.
The responsible and sustainable card
Small brands have anticipated the way their (often local and small) supply chains are particularly vulnerable to disruption, and could even have disappeared, taking steps to stay close to suppliers to prevent this. In this sense they have nodded to responsible business leadership’s concern for addressing the needs of all relevant stakeholders and especially in more difficult times.
Take Buben & Zorweg, the world leader in luxury watch winders, safes and multifunctional safe objects Made in Germany. During the pandemic it stayed close to its supplier network: small family firms, highly skilled in very rare arenas of craftsmanship and all located in Germany but vulnerable to the crisis. It was transparent with its market information and gave them very frequent updates about a whole host of things: from order management of trade partners and the rescheduling of product launches, changes to fixed delivery dates and installation of bespoke projects, to new priorities in terms of material and product development, said Florian vom Bruch, its CEO. It even offered coaching services on project management, scenario planning and HR topics to create mutual solutions.
Elsewhere, the cancellation of major fairs and shows threatened all houses, making it impossible to present new products to retailers and distributors. With the economic crisis, some intermediaries were at risk. Showing responsible leadership here meant cultivating those relationships.
But Paris-based fashion designer Koché, also known as the haute streetwear label, mobilized its team to test fast a new virtual showroom for the forthcoming fashion weeks. To offer the best experience to its buyers and because they would not be able to touch the products, the brand created this virtual showroom in an agile way, by prototyping, testing with a few clients, and iterating.
Mixing magic with virtual skills, Fondation Valmont of cosmetics house Maison Valmont also initiated virtual tours of its most successful exhibitions. “Our Group likes to shine with its artistic commitment,” said Sophie Guillon co-owner of the company. “The public had access to magnificent artworks. […] Live experiences took our public from New York to Venice, from Munich to Hydra… Positive emotions were born from beauty, and what a treat within these hard times!”
From responsible management to sustainable management and the fair and equitable use of resources. Whitepod Ecoluxury Hotel in the high Alps found a way to benefit from the crisis by playing its green and nature-friendly credentials to differentiate from any other luxury resort.
It is a place where energy and water usage are controlled, all waste is recycled, produce is locally sourced and the staff live locally or walk to work. By putting on a “Whitepod, Pure Swiss Air” campaign on social media, it reinforced this message. Patrick Delarive, its CEO, said that the hotel is already almost fully booked this summer in part because of these green, reassuring credentials where consumers have a thirst for real and sound values.
The authenticity card
All talk about cultivating the magic of independent brands comes down to authenticity: they are genuine because they are not mass-produced.
For David Candaux of the eponymous watch brand, “luxury conglomerates follow stock market considerations. As independent, family-owned and not listed, we do not have to play this game.”
He continues: “Consumers know that when there is scarcity, it is genuine and not artificially created by large groups. This comes across as more authentic. Customers know exactly who made their watch, this why the brand likes to refer to itself as wearing a Picasso on the wrist. It’s more like an artist-patron relationship.”
Whereas for big brands most of the value is in marketing, when it comes to independent brands, the value is found largely is in the product; in the real thing.
Should big luxury be worried?
Far from being beaten by the crisis, smaller independent brands are immersed in a flurry of creativity. Because of where they come from, they might already be more in tune with some of the new directions that consumers and society are taking.
So, should big luxury brands from conglomerates be worried? Not quite, but they should watch closely the combination of consumer evolution and independent brands’ ability to respond to them. In highly disruptive environments, fortunes can change rapidly.