Personality Makes Good Luxury Brands Great

I have just spent a pleasurable half hour flicking through a large, lavishly illustrated book called "Jacque Helleu & Chanel." Helleu joined Chanel in 1956 and, at the time of his death last year, was in charge of the bits that Karl Lagerfeld doesn't run: fragrance, advertising, watches, etc. He was undeniably good at his job. I can vouch for that personally. Long before I even knew of Helleu I was seduced by his work: the first expensive bottle of cologne I bought was Chanel Pour Monsieur, which I recall making last for a considerable period of my midteens.

I dealt with Helleu a couple of times and found him aloof and a little difficult, so this monumental book should really have grated—except for the fact that Helleu had something that is, if not endangered, then certainly in shorter supply than it used to be: character.

He was a good-looking guy and he knew it. I lost count of the number of pictures there are of him in this book; he was also understandably proud of his family's artistic lineage, which brought them into the orbit of Proust and Robert de Montesquieu. A bald statement of facts recounts that Helleu supervised the production of some commercials, some bottles of eau de parfum and some wristwatches. Yet he was obviously more than the sum of his achievements.

Emerson put it rather well in an essay about character, in which he described such luminaries as George Washington and Friedrich Schiller. "The largest part of their power was latent," he wrote. "This is that which we call Character,—a reserved force which acts directly by presence, and without means. It is conceived of as a certain undemonstrable force, a Familiar or Genius, by whose impulses the man is guided, but whose counsels he cannot impart."

Character is what separates the best luxury goods from the horde of other brands claiming those laurels. Of course there are many other characteristics that define luxury: quality, craftsmanship, attention to detail and so on, but the importance of character cannot be overstated. Just look at the example of Davidoff: with the slogan "The Good Life" and a phenomenal reputation for quality control, Davidoff, most famous for its cigars but also prominent in the fragrance business, is internationally known.

Before the brand, however, there was Davidoff the man. I was fortunate enough to meet the late Zino Davidoff, and was entranced by this elegant character with his stories of how Lenin had been a regular at Zino's father's tobacco shop in Geneva. If you look at Zino's CV, it, like Helleu's, is deceptively simple: Zino was the proprietor of a small cigar shop. Yet this description fails to do justice to this elegant man. When he sold his business for a high price in the early 1970s, people marveled that the buyer, Dr. Ernst Schneider, was willing to pay so much for a single store. But Schneider knew he was buying not just a shop but a way of life, which he parlayed into a global brand.

A charismatic individual can also add character to an existing brand. A couple of years ago Hublot was a niche watchmaker known for putting rubber straps on gold timepieces; it had enjoyed popularity in the 1980s, but had since slipped into a slumber. Then Jean-Claude Biver arrived at the helm. Biver is a human maelstrom of energy, whom I have known for almost 20 years. I first met him when he owned Blancpain, a brand he raised from the dead. In three years he has revitalized Hublot with sheer force of character and a new model called Big Bang—a watch that, like him, is bold, audacious and unforgettable. LVMH has just bought Hublot for almost half a billion Swiss francs.

I would argue that the alignment of a brand and the character of the people behind it—whether an owner like Philippe Stern, who embodies the Helvetian values of tradition, precision, reliability and vision expressed by his Patek Philippe watches, or an artistic type schooled in fine wine and cigars like Helleu—is what makes a good brand great. Without character to animate them, these objects, for which so many people long, would be just that: objects.

When luxury succeeds it is because we allow it to change the way we feel. I find that it helps to like the people behind the products. For instance, the watches of Girard-Perregaux are rendered all the more desirable upon closer acquaintance with the charming and civilized owner Dr. Gino Macaluso, a 21st-century Homo Universalis: architect, art collector, member of motorsport's ruling body and visionary boss whose intellectual curiosity and thoughtfulness are articulated through the timepieces he designs.

I suppose that in crude marketing speak one can call this process "living the brand." For a suitable example, one need look no further than Sergio Loro Piana, co-CEO, with his brother Pier Luigi, of the eponymous luxury apparel brand. Sergio looks like you would want an Italian industrialist to look. Moreover, he is the kind of CEO who flies his own aircraft and skippers his own yacht. So it is not surprising that together with his brother he has built a brand that is a sort of an Italian Hermès.

Of course the products have to be good in their own right. But while you can engineer an object's physical properties, character is an altogether more elusive quality to identify. And yet it is that which gives objects their soul.

Personality Makes Good Luxury Brands Great | News