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After Karl: Why Creative Leaders are a Luxury Brand's Unique Asset

The world has lost a fashion icon with the passing of Karl Lagerfeld. Europe has lost a great cultural ambassador, and Chanel has lost a strategic resource.

After over 50 years in fashion and 35 as the creative director of Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld was not only eminent in the industry but a savvy businessman aware of the driving force of cultural meaning to branding. This sense of branding not only helped Karl build and design great offers but he also never shied away from employing himself as a key ingredient to the brands he helped manage; Karl became the key asset that many of his creations drew inspiration from. Now that he’s gone – how can the businesses he helped inspire avoid disappearing too?

The role of creative directors and their contribution to brands

There are several key mechanics that become important when brands start to develop a critical dependence on a central creative. Re-balancing the brand on multiple pillars, emphasizing the brand as antecedent and not consequential, and diversifying risk, are all key concepts that help safeguard the brand’s long term survival and continued performance. There are clear roles for both the key personality – (in this instance, Karl) – and the brand (Chanel): precisely because the creative genius often assumes the position of personified stardom, the requirements for building an exciting, tangible, and lasting brand experience that can span multiple lifetimes are demanding.

Building the success of a brand on the inspiration of one pivotal figure spurs its quality in two distinct ways. First, through the contribution of the creative and, second, through the need to elevate the brand beyond the individual. While, functionally speaking, the creative designs the key elements of the brand, it is the brand that inspires the creative to carry out his or her work. The relationship is not unlike that of a concert pianist playing Beethoven: both the pianist and the composer have their distinct roles and although the pianist receives the applause, the audience will also appreciate Beethoven’s notes, thus seeing the pianist as the facilitator, rather than the creator.

For brands to assume their own right as a compositional inspiration, may be one of the more appropriate definitions of luxury positioning. Chanel has proven its quality of brand strength before, by outlasting the lifetime of its godmother and founder Coco. In a way, Coco’s passing in the late 1970s paved the way for a rekindling of the brand by Karl in the 1980s. Karl knew to play Chanel beautifully and added plenty of his own style – but in the end, he was tasked to interpret Chanel only for as long as he could.

How luxury brands grow beyond their guardians

For luxury brands to grow successfully from passed-on guardians, brands must capture and activate evidence of the culture established by those who helped shape them. This revolves around the notion that consumers in the luxury market seek cultural depth and some degree of experiential conservation. This underlying demand for the luxury market means capturing, cultivating, and communicating those pieces of evidence that define the inspirational power that rests inside the brand.

Branding can be implicit. In the luxury market, making brands tangible is particularly important since they seldom stick with the concrete and rather dive into the abstract or experiential, and have a certain ‘je-ne-sais-quoi’ which creates a quality that is there, but remains elusive. While this elusiveness is key to the experience that luxury brands offer, it is, by design, difficult to convey.

Capturing artefacts used by key designers or making the original production sites accessible, unlocks the ability for brands to create experiences for the target audience that they deem most valuable. Depending on the brand’s concept and positioning, management may decide to make historical experiences and heritage sites more freely available – for example, many luxury car brands have invested in brand museums – or more exclusively into ephemeral events in historic locations. Curating the creative genius in this sense means developing an experiential lens into the brand’s culture and what drives the fascination for key target groups, thus generating greater resonance with them.

Being able to productively integrate creative geniuses into brand experiences is a demanding and powerful marketing technique – one that holds both opportunity and risk. You can learn more about the challenges and potential of this technique, in the new edition of The Management of Luxury.