Traditionally a product of value, luxury has increasingly become a function of meaning. As luxury brands find ways to survive and thrive in and around what Klaus Schwab, founder and chairman of the World Economic Forum, dwelt upon as the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” last month in Davos, there is a growing curiosity even among the seasoned creators of fine things about the contemporary interpretation of “value”.
Philanthropy, sustainability, corporate social responsibility (CSR), fund-raising and fair trade among other socially conscientious words, besides of course a dozen synonyms of instant, pick-me-up digital appeal now make up the vocabulary that even luxury brands must embrace. More equality than exclusivity you could argue.
Curiosity, however, can be an aimless sport, unless harnessed by commitment. Could that reasoning have prompted Louis Vuitton (LV), the French fashion house founded in 1845, to join the bandwagon of luxury brands aligning with world charities? Last month, LV made a promise and sealed it with a specially designed product. It announced its global partnership with Unicef, with an aim to raise funds for vulnerable children around the world who are exposed to natural disasters, diseases and other sociopolitical risks that threaten their rights and well-being. A specially designed silver Lockit (literally that, a silver pendant or bracelet in the shape of a dainty lock) available at all LV stores worldwide and on www.louisvuitton.com/lvforunicef symbolizes this promise. Every sale will render Rs.14,000 (40% of the price) to Unicef. Inspired by the unbreakable tumbler lock designed by Georges Vuitton in 1890, the Lockit symbolizes protection.
That isn’t all. LV simultaneously launched #Makeapromise, a digital campaign to coincide with the sixth biennial Unicef ball held in Los Angeles last month. Influencers around the world, which would mean LV’s most high-profile and famous customers, were urged to join this campaign with a “pinky promise”—the two entwining little fingers representing a sealed promise. Top rung celebrities, a much publicized ball, high fashion, flowing bubbly and a faultless promise. There is no refuting the aura of this mix—it is a win-win. Great meaning and meaningful marketing rolled into one.
LV though isn’t the first to discover its conscience and the fact that the very nature of luxury marketing is acquiring a new skein. Gucci’s Chime For Change to protect women and girls around the world was launched in 2013. That same year, 33 fine unique watches donated by brands went under the hammer in Monaco at the Only Watch auction in aid of research into Duchenne muscular dystrophy—it raised more than €5 million. Chopard’s philanthropic relationship with the Alliance for Responsible Mining, the South American non-governmental organization, is now much talked about. There are many other instances ripping into the formerly ring-fenced and haloed inaccessibility of luxury to make it even more endearing because of shared values. Such a beautiful irony.
“We took time to launch a global charity. It was not a top-down decision but a ground-up project. There’s a real desire today among our staff members—especially the younger generation—to be associated with charity. And they ask the company to back a global project. Something meaningful and impactful,” said LV chief executive Michael Burke. He explained that the company had organized a worldwide survey with its staff which came up with the desire to help children in crises.
“Twenty thousand staff members are behind this project—they are going to make it work,” said Burke, who agrees that charity can be tricky business. “The difficulty about charity is twofold—‘raising funds’ and ‘making sure they are used in the right way’”.
Burke’s caution is in order. The results of what he calls the “twofold” challenge will determine whether these signature syncs with humanitarian causes will give luxury brands an additional marketing heft. They may bring more motivation to their staff beyond the benefits of employment by a famous brand, but will such charitable enterprises also empower the customers of these brands in some way? CSR or sustainability, ethical luxury or charitable businesses, the final test will be about merging commerce with conscientiousness. Will fashion and design houses tweak their brand imagery to incorporate charitable work and advertise it alongside their products? Will brands which promote their CSR efforts with help from famous customers eventually become more valued than those which offer the finest of luxury goods as their only promise? We don’t have clear answers yet. And there lies the rub.
Social correctness has its halo and LV, like other brands determined to make a humanitarian impact, is on the right trail. But it may be too early to assume that #Makeapromise will substitute the LV monogram in the mind of the luxury customer.
Shefalee Vasudev is Mint’s fashion editor.
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