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Behind the Book: Q+A with the Authors of Rethinking Prestige Branding

In their book Rethinking Prestige Branding, co-authors JP Kuehlwein and Wolf Schafer answer questions like:

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?

To the authors, these are "Ueber-Brands", brands that create 'meaning beyond the material' and have become peerless and priceless in the minds of many. We asked them about how that works.

What is an Ueber-Brand?

JP Kuehlwein (JP)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 buy the brand is often emotional – or even irrational. As a consequence, the 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’. 

What is an Ueber-Target and how does it compare to usual marketing targets?

Wolfgang Schaefer (WS): The Ueber-Target is that real or imaginary person or group of people that the brand crafts its proposition for and around. 

For Harley-Davidson, that Ueber-Target is that bike-riding outlaw with a beard, tattoos, piercings, leather jacket and a cigarette in his mouth we all think of when we think of that brand.  When it comes to important target segments, though, these can look quite different: Many are upper-middle-class salary-men (and women), professionals, high-net-worth retirees who 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 through the Ueber-Target, if you will. Sarcastic observers might describe them as city slickers with a midlife crisis. – Far from that Ueber-Target image.  

JPOr Ralph Lauren (his real name is Ralph Lifshitz) who makes people feel like a preppy elite inspired by the 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. 

What is the difference between luxury brands and Ueber-Brands? Do modern luxury brands have to become Ueber-Brands?

WS“Luxury” is a category of 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, art for the sake of art… 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 looked 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 pricey 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 users explore. This mission and the brand's consistent manifestations around them heightens the devotion of the brand’s fans and lowers the price sensitivities.

What's the formula for driving success of iconic brands?

JPOf course, there is no one way and there is no sure-fire way to become an icon.  But what we have found in our research is that iconic brands combine myth-making with a strong discipline in how they manifest their brand: They consistently employ and celebrate elements that uniquely express their brand’s Mission and Myth across all senses. 

Those can include names (like Patagonia, 911), colors (Red Bull blue & silver, Tiffany teal), product characteristics (Dyson’s visible ‘Zyklon’ suction, Nespresso’s Crema), rituals (warming LaMer creme in your palms), styles (Aesop store architecture), places (Ben & Jerry’s plant in Vermont), sounds, scents, and so on.  They might be brash like a red Ferrari or red-soled Louboutin shoes or subtle like a Berluti shoe recognized by the way it is tied.  We tell our clients that it is all about the total ‘Gestalt’, which includes your beliefs, attitude and actions as a brand; how it is recognizable but also constantly evolving to stay fresh and engaging.

In your book, you describe seven principles Ueber-Brands follow. What are they, in a nutshell?

WSFirst and foremost, Ueber-Brands are rooted in a mission and a mythical narrative; they connect with their constituencies by creatively balancing inclusion and exclusion; they are – for the most part – built on integrity and sincerity, more than used to be the case in our marketing world.

To better understand the ‘real-life’ implications of these dimensions or shifts we have translated them into seven principles, each one dealing with a specific aspect of brand building or marketing:

  1. Misson Incomparable. This is about the core of any modern prestige brand, the belief on which it is built; it's raison d'etre.

  2. Longing vs. Belonging. Defining your audiences and how to connect with them, learning to balance inclusivity with exclusivity.

  3. Un-selling. How to communicate and interact with your constituencies by mixing signals, proximity and distance specifically. 

  4. From Myth to Meaning. The ultimate objective of modern prestige brands: crafting narratives that let people believe they know, and know why they believe.

  5. Behold! Ueber-Products need to not just hold a promise - they must manifest a myth, making the intangible brand believably tangible.

  6. Living the Dream. How to define the elements that are essential to a brand's myth and mission and radiate them from the inside out.

  7. Growth Without End. How to deal with the age-old challenge of prestige brands in modern ways. Growing, but without undermining a sense of specialness.

Why do consumers respond to iconic brands - psychologically and emotionally?

JPAll our choices and actions, and particularly our consumptive ones, have a social dimension – that’s why we talk of ‘badge value’. They can give us social cachet and status, make us feel part of a group or lifestyle we want to identify with. 

But beyond that, we’ve learned to use brands as building blocks of our self-identity and tools for self-actualization. Driving a Harley Davidson is certainly not about getting you from A to B, nor is Tesla.  We use brands to make us feel prettier, smarter, sexier, younger, stronger – like an Outlaw or a Visionary… as much as we let them reward us, take us to different places, express an air of savoir-faire or self-control.

All this we could also do in other ways, and we are. But brands just make it seem easier, sometimes as easy as a trip to the shop, café, website, meet-up.

You say modern prestige brands are evolving beyond traditional luxury and marketing models, what distinguishes these brands?

JPModern Luxury or Prestige does no longer rely on adding the classic ‘Luxury P’s to the branded goods marketing model – setting a high Price, using Precious materials, emphasizing their distinguished Provenance and long history.

We clearly see in our research that brands attempting to make themselves look exclusive by being expensive and rare are being perceived as arrogant and nouveau-rich behaviour by many of their target consumers. Those consumers want to see themselves as ‘refined’ and educated and are looking for more subtle ways to project their sophistication and lifestyle.

WSWe look at intimate knowledge, understanding, appreciation or other forms of connoisseur-ship to create the base of exclusivity for brands rather than just limitations in quantity or a very high price. This is also a consequence luxury groups and new premium/lifestyle brands seeking to scale and reach beyond high net worth or high-income individuals. They seek to appeal to their children, as well and others with high future income potential or who dip in and out of luxury based on occasion.

JPTake Hermes’ more playful ‘petit h’ sub-brand.  It makes items from ‘recycled but noble Hermes waste’ into objects that start at relatively more affordable few hundred dollars. It also illustrates the move towards giving the brand a deeper meaning – sustainability – and making it an experience that appeals to younger audiences.

WSA younger audience also means modern Prestige has to balance the feelings of ‘Longing and Belonging’ as they create these experiences.  On the one hand, responding to a desire for togetherness and inclusion. On the other, they need to preserve a feeling of being special. – Which means neither them and certainly not ‘the others’ should ever fully be grasping and owning what the brand is all about. Or else it shall become ‘ordinary.’

What challenges do prestige brands face?

WS: We find them to face the same challenges as all brands these days – just a bit more so sometimes, as they also have more to gain:  For one, brands need to re-prove themselves as not just ‘empty’ marketing shells but reliable and credible holders of meaning. They must regain our trust after decades of often over-hyped marketing BS and glaring underperformance – particularly when wanting to attract the younger, more marketing savvy, inquisitive digital natives.

People want more than just a nice sneaker or an aromatic coffee: we want to be sure that no child labour was involved in producing them, our environment wasn’t unduly harmed and that their – and our – trade was and are fair. Or at least we don’t want to know the opposite, particularly with Prestige brands. Because that would burst our Prestige dream bubble in a nanosecond and take all the fun away.

JP: Also, we find that the borders of being together and apart have become more porous, permissive and have started to be re-drawn in the age of social media. For Prestige brands, this means that the known paths to exclusivity have opened up. Where their predecessors were more singularly concerned with rarity and restraint, today’s prestige brands must be more flexible and inventive in making certain consumers ‘stand out’ while allowing them to be connected with the rest of us who admire them.

Last not least, one of the premier ways to exclusivity and singularity is starting to erode: Thanks to online customization offers everybody can these days feel like one in a million – turning the traditional high-end path of tailor-made into a high-street highway.

You studied numerous Ueber-Brands. What's your favourite and why do you need it?

JP: A shared favourite is Patagonia – not a classic Prestige brand but a meaning-full Ueber-Brand that has steadily grown in the fickle field of fashion for decades.

WS: And they hate to be seen as a fashion brand or a premium brand, for that matter. They desire to be more than a fad and deeply believe that the investment in them is warranted by their values. Patagonia is a brand that I do not really need – but I want it.  And that is true for the best of these brands.  You do not need (another) car, handbag or watch, Certainly not water from Fiji or salt from the Guerande.

JP: In the same way, I do not need really need a fleece sweater that has been tested in the Himalayas, is made from recycled PET bottles and makes me pledge that I will never throw it away but rather repair it or hand it back to Patagonia to be recycled again (an initiative they offer).  But I do want to financially contribute to- and show my support for an idea about ‘going out and exploring nature while trying not to destroy it’.  In that way, I am not just buying a garment when I choose Patagonia, but I am buying INTO an ideology that its bigger than the physical good and than me … and that I am willing to pay a premium for.

WS: Note how Patagonia – and we have never worked for them – has captured us to become disciples and spread their gospel.  That’s how Ueber-Brands are built!


Rethinking Prestige Branding includes over 100 case studies, taking readers on a colourful journey behind the scenes of today's marketing professionals. This book will fascinate the marketing professional just as much as those who are simply curious as to how premium brands tick.