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Cartier Case Study: How to Retain Relevance in Luxury Marketing

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Why managing, learning and researching luxury takes empathy and poise

Relevance is the lifeblood of luxury brands. Where rational thought is not your primary concern in purchasing behaviour, emotional relevance becomes the key driver for consumer decisions.

In my early research, I focused on luxury brands' abilities to grow and not lose exclusivity. Quickly, I discovered that often-touted exclusivity merely provides potential for amplification of the more critical construct of relevance. In essence: exclusivity does not save irrelevant brands. Instead, exclusivity is the irrelevant brand’s downfall.

Consequently, relevance – and the fostering of relevance through thoughtful positioning – rightly claims the full attention of managers entrusted to make luxury brands successful. However, to generate relevance for a luxury brand is not a simple task. It requires empathy for consumers’ experiences and poise when balancing this with a strong sense of identity.

Case Study: The L'Odyssée de Cartier campaign

In 2012, I was in the market for an engagement ring. Amid a seeming wave of crazily over-engineered engagements that predominantly swept the United States and into the more colourful pages of our European news outlets, I found myself faced with a trend that meant engaging the whole town in a gigantic marching band just to propose.

Faced with the related fear, uncertainty, and doubt, I cast aside the mundane and sought solace in the luxurious. Two convictions helped me: first, all I needed was a ring and, second, when you need a ring (and want to make sure), you talk to Cartier.

At that time, Cartier launched a sizeable campaign – likely among the costliest in luxury business in the past decade – illustrating the fascinating story of the Cartier brothers and how their spirit is ingrained in every piece of jewellery they offer: “L'Odyssée de Cartier”. You can still find the central campaign video online here. The campaign was thoroughly on-brand, beautifully produced, and positioned in high-end media. Yet, it left me completely clueless on what that beautifully outlined history lesson was supposed to achieve. I was in the market for jewellery, actively searching, already set on the brand and that brand’s incredibly expensive ad campaign almost threw me from my decision to buy.

The campaign failed to identify and speak to any part of my jewellery-searching mindset. Instead, it took the traditional route for luxury: it cast aside any considerations on potential customers’ dilemmas to rather focus on the brand’s own grandeur. Cartier was not embracing a consumer perspective, it was celebrating itself. Of course, in the luxury market, that’s not against good manners – luxury can be a place for those who dwell in self-absorption occasionally. However, in times of Louis Vuitton illustrating experiences, Rolex mastering sponsoring engagements, Mercedes Benz becoming more than a car brand, Cartier still very much felt like the traditionalist, self-absorbed grand dame it always was. (In spite of the marketing, I bought the ring, and all went well).

Cartier Juste un Clou - a campaign that distilled action

Fast forward to 2017, Cartier launched a more focused campaign on their product “Juste un Clou”, a jewellery series around a bracelet in form of a bent carpenter’s nail in precious metals, starting at 6’550 EUR. The advert featured a great soundtrack, quick cuts, many images of classic sports cars, dancing women and men skateboarding, generally people having fun – and every so often, the bracelet.

I’ve never worn a bracelet in my life, but the ad was so catchy that I actually looked up the price of “Juste un Clou”. Pure interest in an actual product drove me to search, find, and learn the price and the full range involved. The advertising triggered a pre-consumption process (admittedly brought to an abrupt halt upon finding out the fully brand-appropriate pricing). Suddenly, Cartier had created relevant marketing and positioned itself in a way that not only spoke to me, but instilled action.

However, this new way to position Cartier in form of the” Juste un Clou” ad captured new challenges. First, comparing Cartier’s communication style of 2012 with its new approach of 2017 beautifully illustrates how in luxury, five years is nothing. Luxury brands are as strong as they are because they can remain positioned and virtually unchanged for decades. Changes in message and communication style – especially as radical as this – do not register as evolution, but almost always as a revolution. Cartier felt different and new, maybe even exciting – but it did not really feel like the established Cartier any more. When you are a shampoo brand, that’s no big deal: you do not have substantial brand assets, to begin with. When you are Cartier, keen observers will start questioning what will be changed next and, more critically, what will remain as the core of that new Cartier. In other words: whether the brand assets are still in promising currency.

Secondly, adjusting towards a more customer-centric and lifestyle-oriented message while turning away from a product and brand-focused narrative, illustrates the degree to which communication strategy decisions are zero-sum games: for each campaign, you have exactly one story to tell. If you decide to tell a more modern story, one that illustrates desirable customer experiences, you cannot tell the story of your brand’s substance. Keen marketeers will now likely oppose by pointing out how the experience is, nowadays, the brand – and vice-versa. That is, however, only true if you manage to craft a thoroughly differentiated experience. Driving 1963 Corvette Stingrays or dancing excessively or jumping into pools is not differentiated. You might argue that it’s not even on brand for Cartier. It’s fun, but at the very least, it’s certainly not differentiating. Coming from 2012, you might argue that it’s the antithesis of what Cartier used to be. Sure: it might be what Cartier will become – but that’s still a long way (probably two to three Marketing Directors) out. With every Director, this message will likely change to a certain degree, which risks leaving customers alienated.

Thirdly, for a luxury brand, becoming more taken with customers’ lifestyles might lay an axe to the distinct sense of customers’ fascination. Given the approachable and palatable new campaign, there is not much of a substantial differentiation between Cartier’s style and any other lifestyle brand – except for the astronomical price of a branded bent nail made of precious metals. The ad itself positions Cartier in a desirable context, for sure, but it fails to elicit the sense of substantial value and sophistication that used to come with the brand. It attracted my interest – but my interest is not the one to attract. My point might be made best by coming back to my experience of attraction to the ad and this statement from Groucho Marx: “I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.”

Takeaways to safeguard luxury brands

From this brief case study and the resulting three perspectives, we can take away the following:

  1. Relevance is key to retaining the success of a luxury brand, even through transition phases.

  2. Adjusting positioning as a luxury brand in order to safeguard relevance is difficult, due to the minimal threshold of consumers enduring the change in the evolution of luxury brands.

  3. Becoming more customer-centric and experience-driven works exceptionally well for non-luxury markets, but in luxury, it is difficult not to appear as though currying favour with consumers.

Needless to say, even a faint impression of being chased after by a prestigious brand kills any hunting spirit among those that the brand aims to attain.

Managers who seek to safeguard their luxury brands ought to plan communication and positioning in longer terms than their colleagues from the main market. A noticeable change in positioning of the brand itself should be adjusted to consumer generations. Any quicker changes can be helpful when revitalizing a brand, but they will appear as more ‘revolution’ than ‘evolution’. Managers who seek to develop their luxury brands’ positioning from heritage-centric to customer-centric ought to consider where they follow which strategy. Fully heritage-focusing strategies are, today, just as outdated as fully customer-focused strategies are ingratiation. Consider arranging your strategies in relation to the distance to the brand: for customers, become more approachable – but for the general public, dare to stay distinct.

There are many more conclusions to draw, but all of them can be wrapped up in one general recommendation: more than ever, managing luxury brands takes empathy and poise. Managing luxury brands takes time and care, and an even greater deal of finesse than managing brands in the mass market. There’s one reconciliation to all this difficulty, however. Only if it feels difficult to balance, does your brand have a chance to prosper – because you yourself believe it’s relevant enough to care for with your own soul.

I hope that the curation of articles in the new book, The Management of Luxury, will help you identify some worthwhile perspectives on this topic.