Woven leather. Criss-cross, in out, under over. Soft, supple, beautifully crafted. I am at the Bottega Veneta store in Mumbai holding one of their well-known Intrecciato Italian for woven—bags in my hand. The salesman shifts his pitch into a higher gear. “This weave is our logo,” he says. “Really?” I ask wide-eyed. “Yes,” he revs up for the kill. “Just like the Gucci store next door has the letter G, G, G all over the bag, this weave is the initials for Bottega Veneta.” Bag slung over my shoulder I look doubtfully into the mirror. “It’s like our monogram, Ma’am,” he assures.
It got me thinking. There is a notion out there, stronger as you go up the social ladder, that logo bags (like the Gucci G’s or the hugely successful Louis Vuitton “LV” monogram) are loud, whereas the sans-logo ones (like the Bottega Veneta bag or the highly desired Hermès Birkin) are “understated”. Logos speak with unabashed clarity, but the logo-less lovelies are supposed to murmur in muted tones. So why was this guy hell-bent on making the subtle blatant? Why was he trying to convince me that the discreet Intrecciato can talk as forcefully as a logo pattern? Can the soft be loud? Can the quiet shout? Is there such a thing as a whisper-shriek?
The answer is yes. Very few people drop a hundred thousand rupees—average price at the Bottega store—on a handbag to be coy about it. Sure, it may not have a clearly spelt out logo on it, but as the salesman explained its signature weave does the same job. Any self-respecting fashionista can call that weave from a distance, and has an idea of the ballpark price. Ditto for the highly prized and highly priced Birkin—walk into a room with it and its distinctive shape announces itself, its price tag of a few lakh rupees registering instantly in the cognoscenti’s mind. What’s more, these “understated” bags tend to cost a lot more (generally superior quality too) than the “overstated” logo lines—so when you “whisper”, your price tag is “louder”.
Quality, craftsmanship, artistic value, heritage—these are all important aspects of a luxury brand—but the fact of the matter is that luxury brands are symbolic products that people use to define who they are and their place in society. This is especially true in emerging markets such as India where the booming economy is spawning a newly affluent class. How do you communicate new wealth? How do you translate a plump bank account into high social status? That’s where luxury brands with their clear symbolic language come in handy. They do the talking for you. Pull up in a BMW and you let the world know that you have more than the guy in the Toyota Camry. The same goes for luxury brand handbags—the Birkin is like the Rolls, Bottega Veneta probably a Beemer, and so on down the ladder. Like it or not, society gets recalibrated into a new luxury-brand-defined class order.
It follows then that for luxury brands to be successful their symbolic language has to be understood. This entails developing a strong visual vocabulary and investing significant marketing dollars in making it widely recognized. While logo patterns are arguably the loudest and clearest, companies invest in other visual idioms too. Besides the monogram, Louis Vuitton’s damier (checks) pattern is also extremely popular—according to JP Morgan about 70% of Vuitton’s bag sales come from these two canvas lines. Chanel has the interlocked Cs, but is also known for its characteristic tweed, the chains, the quilted leather, the camellia flower. Cartier has its own version of interlocked Cs, but its extensive sign language includes the panther, the love collection, and more.
How is this symbolic language taught? Just like any other language—through exposure and repetition. You learn from friends and colleagues—luxury brand purchases are often the subject of animated conversation. Fashion magazines play a crucial role in educating consumers—it is not just the slew of advertisements inside, but also the editorial write-ups, the photo spreads, the spotlight on who is wearing what, the brand stories, the must-buy advice with accompanying price details (prices have to be taught too because what is the point of a status marker unless its price is common knowledge. “Price on request”—a term you see alongside certain products—is usually a euphemism for “this costs a bomb”). Stores play a similar role—even if you are window-shopping, you get the chance to try on things mentally, talk about it with the salesperson, get a one-on-one tutorial on the brand’s key points. And nowadays, the ultimate teacher is online—virtual stores, blogs, Facebook, Twitter.
How to mark status effectively is an issue that mankind has been grappling with for a long time. One of my favourite books, The Theory of the Leisure Class, written in 1899 by Thorstein Veblen (who coined terms such as “conspicuous consumption”) describes the efforts of America’s then newly minted upper classes to set themselves apart. Veblen’s central thesis: There is no point having a ton of money, you have to constantly put that wealth “in evidence” to gain the esteem of others. Nothing has changed vis-à-vis that eternal human desire—Mr Ambani’s new high-rise home is classic Veblen—but now thanks to luxury brands and their extensive symbolic repertoire the job has been made a lot easier. And a lot of fun too.
Radha Chadha is one of Asia’s leading marketing and consumer insight experts. She is the author of the best-selling book The Cult of the Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair with Luxury.
Write to Radha at firstname.lastname@example.org