C’est le livre de branding, le plus enrichissant de l’année, « Rethinking Prestige Branding  Secrets of the Ueber-Brands » de JP Kuehlwein (Executive Vice President à Frédéric Fekkai) et Wolfgang Schaefer (Chief Strategic Officer at SelectNY).  Le pitch est éloquent :  « What makes someone covet a Kelly bag? Why are Cirque Du Soleil or Grey Goose so successful despite breaking all the conventions of their categories? What does Gucci’s approach to marketing have in common with Nespresso’s? And why do some people pay a relative fortune for Renova toilet paper or Aesop detergent even though they hardly ever ‘advertise’ and seem to have none of the ‘functional performance advantages’ conventional marketers would seek to demonstrate? » Nous les avons interviewé pour Darkplanneur.
Darkplanneur : « What is an « Ueber-Brand »? »

JP Kuehlwein: »An Ueber-Brand is a brand that succeeds to appeal to its shoppers beyond considerations of performance, price and other ‘rational’ evaluation criteria. In fact, the decision to subscribe to the brand is mostly emotional – or even irrational. As a consequence, price is more of an afterthought and most of these brands are premium priced compared to the more mass- alternatives in the market. ‘Ueber’ means ‘above, beyond, on-a-higher-level’ in German,* and that’s where the best of these brands are positioned. For example, they don’t just tell good stories that pull you in, they take them to a higher, a mythical’ level, whether it is the legends around Coco Chanel and the liberation of women or the mythical Taurine in Red Bull that seems to ‘give people wings’. (*Study Nietzsche for a deep immersion into the subject) ».

D: « What are the specificites of « Ueber-target » compared to « core target »?

JPK: »The Ueber-Target is that real or imaginary person the brand crafts its proposition for. For Harley-Davidson, that person is that bike-riding outlaw with a beard, tattoos, leather jacket and a cigarette in his mouth we all think of when we think of that brand. Thecore target is the most likely buyers. In Harley Davidson’s case, that core buyer includes upper middle-class salary-men (and women) that seek to live the ‘outlaw’ experience during ‘week-end-worrier’ outings with their HOG (Harley Owner Group) friends rather than live it on a daily basis. They live the moment occasional through the Ueber-Target, if you will. Ralph Lauren allows eople to dress and feel like a special type of preppy American elite that might be inspired by aristocracy and the posh lives of people in Greenwich, Connecticut – but exists mostly in his head. It is a Ralph Lauren Ueber-World he lets you immerse into. »

D: « What is your concept of « velvet rope » and how can we built it in a digital world? »

JPK : « The velvet rope principle is derived from the phenomenon you observe at Nightclubs, exclusive restaurants, -shops or other venues that (seem to) only let in a chosen few and therewith create curiosity and the desire to also get in by the crowd. In our book “Rethinking Prestige Branding”, we talk about the wildly popular Studio 54 in the late 70ies in New York. Its bouncer Marc Benecke was famous for ‘arbitrarily’ picking among the celebrities and ‘normal folk’ as he decided who to let in. This arbitrariness fuelled the desire to make it in, even more. Prestige brands are using velvet ropes in various forms: Physically, when they cause lines to form in front of their stores in Hong Kong or Paris, monetarily, when they charge high prices, intellectually when one needs to be in the know about an aspect of the brand to gain access, and so on. The velvet rope can also be built-into limiting access in the digital world. Whether that is with exclusive access codes or other limitations to participation or the need to know what you are to look for: Only ‘EIPs’ (Extremely Important People) get access to certain Net-A-Porter fashions at certain times. There are physical and digital areas of the AMEX or Singapore Airline clubs only the most privileged members even know about (and some services are said to ‘only be a myth’ – who knows?) ».
D: How can we maintain a balance between  « proximity » and « distance », while not to be « over-present » in this digital world?

JPK: « Just as in the real world, there is a difference between looking on from behind the rope (read tweets, look at pins, watch videos, etc.) and being part of the action and sending out the tweets and selfies from the inside. The elite and insiders have always needed the ‘onlookers’ to validate their privileged consumption. Sartre rightfully said that we exist’ through the eyes of others first and foremost. That Berluti shoe is not elevating you to a higher social status if nobody recognizes them as expensive and sophisticated and you will not be recognized as privileged if nobody wants to go to those bizarre shoe polishing paries the brand organizes for their most loyal customers. The internet helps spread the news about these brands and their world, making them desirable without the need to be omnipresent, thus preventing dilution. In that way, the internet helps to heighten awareness and appeal without the usual downside of overexposure and loss of perceived exclusivity. E-commerce even allows purchases that are not as visible as having to extend brand distribution down to the secondary city or not so posh parts of town. ».

D: « I think that « exclusivity » and « inclusivity »are important for an Ueber-brand, but how do you manage the balance between them? »

JPK: »Socio-cultural cohorts embrace advance and amplify the mission of a brand by making it their own. At a minimum, they use the brand in desirable contexts. Think of the ‘Dirt Bags’ (outdoor adventurers) of Patagonia, the ‘outlaws’ of Harley Davidson (they call themselves ‘hogs’) or – on the other side of the spectrum – the high-society mom taking her girl upstairs at Guerlain to have her first custom fragrance made, marking their status by donning a pair of red-soled Louboutin heels.

These influential user groups are critical to the identity and business of the brand. But there must also be enough people left outside to look through the window and admire them (literally or figuratively) to make the influencer feel special. And there must not be a point at which most brand aficionados feel they know and have experienced everything there is about that brand, or they will get bored – or worse – loose respect. There are always aspects that elude you or that you discover anew. – Just ask Karl Lagerfeld whether he is still inspired by Coco Chanel after 33 year of working on her brand. »

D: « Does Ueber-brand have to develop with an Ueber-leader? »

JPK: « Great leadership skills are certainly required. Prestige brands sell dreams, and dreams are tough to bring to live, yet easy to destroy. That’s why Ueber-Brands – those which succeed at building a prestige business long term – are often led by a power couple at the top. We call them ‘Artist’ and ‘Operator’. As the name would imply, one person tends to be leading the strategic and creative direction of the brand while the other is a master of execution and operational excellence. Tom Ford and Domenico De Sole at Gucci (1995-2004) are the most quoted reference. Sometimes these leaders might be renaissance men – maybe Steven Jobs or Elon Musk – and sometimes they might need a third member we call ‘Protector’. That is when the brand is part of a bigger, sometimes mass-focused group. At Nestle, CEO Peter Brabeck-Letmathe was the ‘Protector’ of the emerging Nespresso business led by Jean-Paul Gaillard and Eric Favre. At Este Lauder it is Leonard Lauder who is famously protective of the boutique brands his company acquires and the people who run them like Bobby Brown – or most recently LeLabo, Frederic Malle or Olio Lusso. »

D: « You gave us a lot of successful examples, are there some failed cases? »

JPK : »There are a lot more failures than successes, particularly when you look at brands over the long haul. One in-build challenge are the seemingly conflicting needs for continuous growth (and thus increasing popularity and penetration) and the need for remaining special, which usually translates to ‘not everyone has/uses/understands it’. We all can list many brands that have failed to keep their dream relevant or over-extended themselves, like Pierre Cardin or Cadillac. Some have come back by pulling back like Blancpain or Burberry. But many more look stuck – seen a MCM boutique lately? The Hermes’ of this world which sustain their prestige and keep themselves relevant without loosing their cachet are the big exception. Which also covers your next question. »

D: « Through the book, I felt that Hermes is one of your favorite brand, why it? »

JPK: »Hermes has succeeded in keeping it’s spirit – “la joie de l’atelier de creation” — and its high-craftmanship outputs relevant and desirable. We love the ‘petit h’ extension of the brand as a great example of that. Petit h is the ‘Hermes way to embrace sustainability in a playful way and bring Millennials into the fold without launching ‘jeans and t-shirts’ as many other do to ‘reach down to the youth market’.   Of course there are many ways Hermes has grown while staying relevant. In fact, it has a tradition to make out-of-date products relevant. Hermes only started silk scarf making in the late 30ies in Lyon, as this very labor-intensive way to screen-print ‘carées’ ran out of fashion with consumers and financial viability for other producers.   Look at the Hermes website today and you can experience how enchanting imagining, designing, making and wearing their scarves can be. Process is a joy in this case and price is an afterthought. »

D: « What is the difference between luxury brands and Ueber-brands? Do modern luxury brands have to become Ueber brands? »

JPK :  » “Luxury” is a certain category of premium brands. They are associated with privilege provided through provenance, precious materials, a high price and the certain level of arrogance that signals being ‘a cut above’. Luxury goods ooze indulgence, beauty, bling… rather than utility. You own them to signal social standing and power. Luxury brands have to be Ueber-Brands, but Ueber-Brands don’t have to be luxury in this classic sense. We look at all brands that strive to provide meaning beyond utility and make price a lesser consideration as potential Ueber-Brands. Patagonia is no luxury brand. Even if their fleece sweaters are comparatively pricy versus the many alternatives in the sports garment market, many people can afford their products. What is Ueber about Patagonia is a mission to protect (and even repair) the natural environment its user’s explore. This mission has taken on mythical levels with the story of Yvon Chounirad as the ‘reluctant activist adventurer’ who was moved to look for sustainable alternatives to his climbing pitons, industrial cotton or synthetic wetsuit materials. This story is told through interviews (preferably told at his iron-smith shed), adventure books, activist films (like DamNation) – and, increasingly and importantly through core user generated content: Like-minded ‘Dirt Bags’ are telling their climbing adventures and the story of their (Patagonia) gear. Modern luxury brands, also, have discovered the power of a mission beyond the material and devoted fans sharing their delight and experience through UGC and other – previously frowned upon – digital media. It heightens the devotion and lowers the price sensitivities. »

D: « What is the best way for luxury brands to become Ueber-brands?  And for skincare brands? »

JPK: « I talk about luxury brands and Ueber-Brands above and Wolfgang and I talk about some of our favorite Ueber-skin-care-brands in the book. One of them is Aesop. Aesop has chosen to be the ‘intellectual Beauty brand’ and you can see, taste (yes they serve wine and chocolate), small and feel it at all touch-points, the most iconic being their stores. All different, all designed by avant-garde architects. When I asked the brand’s CMO Matteo Martignoni why they are not very active on social media, he replied that ‘we feel that too much of the conversation on social media is too shallow for us to want to participate. We do enjoy the challenge to say something meaningful in 180 characters on Twiter from time-to-time, though’. Similarly, Aesop has stayed out of the big China mainland market, to date, partially because it does not want to be forced into testing its products on animals as required there by law, partially because it does not subscribe to the ‘skin whitening’ beauty ideal that is so popular, considering the bleaching ingredients damaging for the skin. In a category that is all about shiny department store counters, promises of eternal youth, beauty blogger reviews and a fast sequence of new product introductions, this calm, reflective approach of Aesop stands out as authentically mission-guided, a step above sheer commerce. That is ueber-branding. »

D: » Will classic luxury brands survive if they don’t become Ueber-brands? »

JPK: »There will always be consumers that simply look for the most rare and expensive. So the ‘classic’ luxury brand will continue to have customers. Just like there will be always products that have truly unique functional benefits – at least for a while – and do not need to go beyond the ‘reason to believe’ (to having a ‘story to believe in’) to charge a premium – take Viagra. »

D: « In this transparent digital world, how can luxury brands keep their mystery while protect their singularity? »

JPK : »As discussed above, the internet can be a great tool for many to be voyeurs while a few experience the real thing – for example participating in a Red Bull race or Mini Club outing. That way, the event and brand experience can be intimate while being public. Also, consumption can be broad while the physical penetration of stores does not be deep. No need to have Nespresso pods on every supermarket shelf and dilute the singularity of the Club experience or for the artful Renova toilet paper to dilute its product to compete there. The internet allows individual fulfillment. In fact, Net-A-Porters EIP (Extremely Important People) hand deliveries have become part of the brand’s myth. »

D: Where are the Chinese brands,do they exist already? Which Chinese brands are the potential Ueber-brands ?

JPK: »Alibaba, Anta or Ai Weiwei are strong Chinese brands if you measure by monetary value or cultural influence, for example and the latter we could certainly call an Ueber-Brand, as we did in Andy Warhol. Or is your question is meant to say “Which Chinese Luxury brands might emerge globally?”, as that is the typical question asked. We don’t know the answer, but we believe it will be less likely in the area of coping a Western take on products or services and more likely behind a uniquely Chinese or entirely individual perspective on a proposition. A Ueber-Brand emerging in the area of Traditional Chinese Medicine would not surprise us. We have experienced a Taiwanese Ueber-Brand in Yuan-Soap, a healing Beauty brand (for more read the case study in out book). »