I just stayed at The Pierre—Taj Hotels’ recently opened flagship in New York—and I have to admit the Indian tricolour fluttering at the entrance made my heart flutter too. It got me thinking about Indian luxury brands and the potential they have to become global brands of significance.
There are a lot of things going for The Pierre—the Taj has spent $100 million (around Rs453 crore) to renovate this legendary property, the rooms are luxuriously done up and we had a breathtaking view of Central Park and the Manhattan skyline, the location on Fifth Avenue is excellent with the quiet expanse of the park on one side and all the glamour and glitz of New York’s fancy stores on the other—but it is Taj’s signature hospitality that did it for me. I felt at home.
Thumb rules: Hospitality and warmth.
The name on the marquee might say The Pierre and the people providing the service were largely Americans, but the experience felt just like the Taj. There was the same warmth, the same endearing personal touches, the same friendly conversations and easy smiles, the same spirit of going the extra mile to delight. From the room service man who jumped to rearrange our bags and shoes so we could sit more comfortably at the breakfast table, to the concierge who made a dinner booking (try the Rouge Tomate nearby—delicious, healthy, creative, good vegetarian selection) and had a glass of champagne served to us compliments of The Pierre. That was a first for me!
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Luxury brands are cultural products with strong national connections—Louis Vuitton and Hermès are essentially selling the French way of life—and carry with them the heritage, the artisanal traditions, the aesthetic codes of their land. Vuitton and Hermès have grown into such formidable global brands and their appeal is so universal today that we don’t stop to think of their origin. But India is newly emerging on the world stage, our culture is seen as exotic rather than mainstream, having a niche appeal rather than a universal one. The question then is how does a luxury brand—like the Taj—with strong Indian connotations translate for the global consumer?
Aside from the tricolour at the entrance—and a couple of Indian dishes on the room service menu—the Taj isn’t wearing its Indianness on its sleeve in New York. It has chosen, at least for the moment, to restore and celebrate the heritage of The Pierre. This is entirely in line with what it does—it picks iconic properties and brings them back to life, and layers on the Taj’s brand values.
Fortunately the brand values of The Pierre and the Taj seem to have a close fit. The Taj has a storied history—a very important aspect of its brand—and The Pierre also has a colourful past going back to the 1930s and it too has been the stomping ground of the in-crowd. (Our room was on the 38th floor, the same floor where Yves Saint Laurent had an apartment—every time I stepped out of the elevator I took a deep breath and imagined what it would have been like to have him walk the same corridor.) Hospitality of the atithi-devo-bhava kind (very different from merely competent service) is a second crucial aspect of the Taj brand, and The Pierre delivers hands down on this front—no mean feat in the American context, where service of this sort is the exception rather than the rule.
It is still too early to comment on how successful the hotel will be—I think with the right marketing it will fly, its service core is solid—but the important point is Taj is staying true to its brand and translating it to an international setting. Can others do the same?
Admittedly, outside the hospitality sector, there aren’t any Indian luxury brands of Taj’s stature, but there are plenty of Indian luxury products—jewellery, textiles, carpets are prime candidates—that are crying to be branded and have the potential to play on global turf. “Heritage”, a major ingredient in a luxury brand, cannot be manufactured overnight, and that’s the one thing we have in India in plenty. That’s our edge. There has been a wave of designer brands that have risen in recent years that are translating our traditions for the modern Indian consumer—and indeed some have made an international impression—and these are all steps in the right direction. But the question is how do we take our jewellery-making tradition—for example kundan and enamel work—and create brands of the stature of Cartier with a robust global sweep? How do we take our varied embroidery, weaving, printing traditions and create muscular brands like Hermès or Louis Vuitton?
The good news is that while our traditions are priceless, every other skill can be bought off the shelf in today’s global marketplace. Vuitton, Hermès or Cartier may well choose to make a business out of Indian heritage, or it could be an Indian maison that takes the plunge. Either way, Indian traditions will thrive on a global stage.
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 her at firstname.lastname@example.org