Luxury brands have it wrong.
According to Lawrence Lenihan, cofounder and cochief executive officer of Resonance, luxury firms need to rethink their value proposition amid the backdrop of an evolving consumer spending mind-set. Lenihan, the final keynote speaker at last month’s French-American Chamber of Commerce Symposium at the Sofitel New York Hotel, provided attendees with some provocative and forward-thinking ideas of where fashion and luxury retail will be in ten years’ time.
“I have it and you don’t” is how luxury should be defined, Lenihan said. He explained that firms who talk about mass luxury, affordable luxury and accessible luxury are not true luxury firms — although that talk is OK provided the company which speaks that language understands it’s just as a way to market or position the brand.
“Luxury is a value purchase. Every [luxury] brand must be a value brand,” Lenihan said. According to the former venture capitalist, value and luxury in the same sentence is not an oxymoron. His point is that value has connotations of quality, scarcity, convenience and experience, the kind of experiential connection where the owner feels a special bond to the brand.
And while luxury brands that have age and lineage on their side often talk about their heritage, Lenihan was quick to note that old isn’t heritage. “A heritage brand is about a creator who created something amazing. Luxury is about creation,” he said.
Lenihan also debunked the idea that luxury brands need to be big in their presence in the market and in sales volume, noting that in the future the world will be about smaller and more specific brands.
“It will be the end of the billion-dollar brand. By trying to mean something to more people, the luxury brand [actually] means less to [everyone],” he concluded. That thought is predicated on the view that luxury is about having something that no one else has, even though that inherently also means fewer sales.
“Shifting from large megabrands to small specific brands will disrupt every facet of the fashion industry,” Lenihan concluded.
“Some of you are going to struggle. You will refocus, contract, succeed and [many] may lose billions,” he said. According to Lenihan, the way for brands to connect with their customers is not to make apparel “in a size 4, but to make it in a size ‘Suzie,’” honing in on his point about uniqueness and manufacturing scarcity for the ‘I have it and you don’t’ mind-set.”
While most of his focus was on brand, retailers weren’t exempt from his view about their future. He predicts that e-commerce and omnichannel will be replaced by “commerce convergence.” That thought refers to his “seamless customer relationship” theory, the kind where in a perfect world for apparel brands, the loyal consumer knows his or her size and doesn’t need to go to the store to buy an item.
And the talk about stores taking part of their square footage and turning them into fulfillment centers doesn’t fly with Lenihan. “That’s schizophrenic for the customer and [the retailer’s] brand identity,” he concluded.
While the aim of Lenihan’s closing presentation was to leave attendees with some thought-provoking ideas to chew on, speakers earlier in the day provided their own food-for-thought on the current state of the luxury market.
Luca Solca, managing director of the global luxury group at Exane BNP Paribas, was the opening keynote speaker. “Online sales represent 6 precent of the luxury market. Nearly 50 percent of purchase decisions are made online,” he said.
One big change involves growth in China where price transparency online now has the Chinese luxury consumer spending less than before. “Growth is driven primarily by middle-class consumers. Middle-class consumers have shallower pockets and care much more about prices than the rich early adopters,” he told attendees.
He also noted that as the Chinese authorities try to stem capital outflows by increasing tax revenues, that puts pressure on luxury brands to reduce prices. In turn, “further retail expansion is off the menu for most brands,” Solca concluded. Currently, Michael Kors and Tory Burch are driving 75 percent of the 4 percent growth in retail, but traditional luxury brands such as Prada are seeing a return of invested capital at -5 percent, on average. And while he’s forecasting between 3 percent to 5 percent growth over the next three to five years, “growth will be more difficult to achieve,” he said. What’s really needed is a new paradigm for luxury brands, not to mention tighter capital allocation and cost efficiencies and a back-to-basics approach, such as boosting brand desirability.
Alex Bolen, ceo of Oscar de la Renta, spoke about the challenges for luxury brands. “I don’t believe Millennials are so different from their grandmothers. Yes, they consume brands differently. They are looking for quality, experience, value — sustainable value,” Bolen said, noting that while heritage can make it easier to bring some of those factors to the forefront, what changes over time is “how we tell the stories.”
Sarah Tam, senior vice president of merchandising at Rent the Runway, said heritage is an asset because it can instill a sense of trust that people respond to. Yet for younger brands who operate online, just as important is delivering on expectations. “It’s almost not enough to have a successful e-commerce business. Mobile is more important,” she said, predicting that mobile site and apps are the “next generation” for shopping.
Frederic Cumenal, ceo of Tiffany & Co. and the luncheon keynote speaker, spoke about marrying heritage with innovation. For Tiffany. innovation is less about an item “that comes with a cord and microchip,” and more about creating “beauty for an inspired life.” That’s because “we are in the business of making dreams come true,” he said. Cumenal, who distinguished European luxury known for exclusivity from American luxury and its focus on inclusivity, added that luxury brands have to take into account service, and how every touch point with the consumer is essential.
In the panel discussion about finding the right financial partner, Virginie Morgon, deputy ceo at Eurazeo, said her firm typically invests from $25 million up to $400 million, which was the investment in Moncler. She said there aren’t many brands that are considered “pure luxury,” and designer brands in general require a lot of time spent on the investment. Expertise, uniqueness, what is the DNA and how long can the brand last are considerations before making an investment, she said.
Peter Jueptner, executive vice president, strategy and business development, at The Estée Lauder Cos., said his firm has been working on identifying small companies that we love. “If we don’t fall in love with the brand, we won’t do the deal,” he explained. Five years ago, the company was considering brands that already had a bit of growing up time. Now the plan is buying at an earlier stage and incubating them. The hard part for a strategic such as Lauder is that it has to convince sellers that it is the “smart money.” That’s because two bites at the apple — going first to private equity for growth, and then selling a second time to a strategic — is an attractive option for some owners, he said.
Ron Frasch, operating partner at Castanea Partners, said his private equity firm invests in founder-based companies that have creative and operating talent. He said that investments in the luxury sector is a “tough zone” because it needs a lot of years — and patience — to make it happen. And while many brands can try to expand into other categories, it takes a “big leap of faith” to invest in luxury firms, he said. His firm looks at the wholesale client base, a brand’s performance by door, the overall volume of the business, the volume of the collections business and the ability to scale. “Management is critical, [but] many times creative is more important,” he said.