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From Style Icons to Culture Hubs: Why prestige brands are rethinking their leadership structures


When Burberry announced Marco Gobetti as new CEO a couple of weeks ago with Christopher Bailey re-focusing his role on being creative head (and becoming president), it was another one of those moments the company has become famous for - kicking off a discussion about the future of the fashion industry. Quite a bit has been said in the meantime about the importance of dual leadership in creative industries. And yes, it’s true: It is very hard, to find one person to have, in equal measure, creative vision and managerial skills. It’s a point that came up again and again in countless interviews we had with leaders of modern prestige brands and one which we discuss in detail in our book Rethinking Prestige Branding. Certainly, there are those Renaissance men or women who can envision a brand and take it to the highest level, who know how to dream but also deal with all the nitty-gritty details of reality. Dietrich Mateschitz, founder of Red Bull or Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia are clearly up there. But in general it’s extremely challenging to find someone who totally balances left and right brain and excels in both, creative inspiration and cunning implementation. Even Steve Jobs at Apple or Guy Laliberte at Cirque du Soleil had strong operators helping them manage things, even if behind the scenes.

What you mostly find is indeed a congenial duo or 'dream team' at the helm, running the show together. One of the best-known examples is Tom Ford and Domenico De Sole, who took Gucci from a 70s has-been to the fashion Ueber-Brand we all know. Other and earlier famous pairings in this regard include Max Braun and Dieter Rams, who made Braun the ultimate reference for design in electronics and an inspiration for Apple. Or Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berger, whose partnership has recently been celebrated in two feature films. And of course, Bailey himself didn’t pull off the Burberry comeback miracle all alone, but together with his original partner and then-CEO Angela Ahrendts, who has in the meantime migrated to Apple. In our findings, however, the point is not just one about the difficulty of uniting disparate capabilities. It’s bigger than that. It’s also, if not mostly, about capacities.

Today’s prestige brands, and particularly fashion houses, must do more, go deeper, think wider and work faster. It’s no longer enough for them to become style icons, issuing a fashion verdict twice a year. They must literally turn themselves into holistic culture hubs, being culturally on, connected and involved 24/7 in the widest possible sense. And that is simply too much for one person to envision, guide and manage, if not execute – even if that person was a perfect culmination of creative and chief executive officer. Prestige is harder and harder to build – and even much more so to maintain, especially in fashion. Our worlds turn faster, there are more players, and consumers are getting increasingly fickle and eclectic. It’s a global mix and match mobility culture, and if you want to have a strong voice in it you must connect your brand with as many manifestations as possible, everywhere and anytime. You can only stay on top if you are on top of everything that’s going on and act on it in no time. A new blogger in China? The latest girl turned influencer in the US? A break-out music sensation on Youtube or a Snapchat hit? You must know it all and deal with it, ideally before the rest of us. Only then will you be able to do what a prestige brand must do: show cultural resonance and relevance, inspire and guide us and make us pay that extra premium.

The other driving factor: truth. It’s no longer enough to have a great product with a glam lifestyle 'branded' around it. Prestige or Ueber-Branding, including fashion, isn’t a surface job anymore. It has to come from the heart of the company if you want to capture the hearts of today’s smart and spoiled consumers. Sustainable success can only be achieved if you have an uncompromising mission, translated into an unmistakable myth and radiate it unerringly, inside out. Company structure and culture, processes and policies, sourcing, production, distribution – everything must reflect your stated story, all the way down to the tiniest touch point or most minute experience. At least that’s what the most glowing examples teach us. Dreams aren’t easy to create, but the bubble can certainly burst in a nanosecond. This understanding was actually one of the starting points of Burberry’s comeback success. When Ahrendts and Bailey took over, the first thing they did was define the brand’s story, the next chapter they want to write and make sure every stakeholder bought into it. Starting internally. Because doing what Burberry did and what Ueber-Brands today must do is only possible if you have all employees behind it. Every interaction should reflect your mission and your myth. You must inspire and involve every employee to live the brand idea(l).

Watch out for opportunities and developments like a trend scout, monitor actions like a supervisor, advocate like a PR company – the whole organization must work together seamlessly in order to create the often quoted and necessary 'seamless user experience'. To inspire and orchestrate this is practically impossible for one, lone head figure, especially since in fashion this person must also double up as the company’s PR face and the product must be constantly re-invented. It’s thus only natural that fashion companies are trying for more and more leaders to shoulder the burden – see also the latest development at Dior. And they are, in our opinion, setting a new way for prestige brands overall. Though it must also be clear that you need one 'primus inter pares’ among those various brand leaders, one who has the final say. Else what was meant to complement each other will soon start fighting and ultimately kill it all.

About the Authors: Wolfgang Schaefer is Chief Strategic Officer at SelectNY, one of the world's leading premium brand building networks. Wolf has been building global brand strategies for over 20 years in Europe, the US and Asia Pacific for companies as diverse as PepsiCo, P&G, Unilever, Coty and Nestle. His main expertise lies in prestige brands such as Davidoff, Chopard, Swarovski, Lancaster amongst many others. Holding an MA from the University of the Arts Berlin, Wolf is co-located between NYC and Berlin and a frequent lecturer at universities and conferences in the US as well as Europe.

JP Kuehlwein is Executive Vice President at Frédéric Fekkai, a New York-based prestige salon operator and hair care brand and an Outside Director of Smith & Norbu, a luxury optical frame maker in Hong Kong. He draws on over 20 years of hands-on experience in managing brands at Procter & Gamble across markets in Europe, North America and Asia. JP holds degrees in international management and business analysis from the universities of Reutlingen (Germany), Reims (France) and Lancaster (UK) and enjoys sharing his business and branding insights with students and marketers across the globe.

Rethinking Prestige Branding by Wolfgang Schaefer and JP Kuehlwein is available to purchase from 3rd May 2015. Order your copy now and save 20% with discount code BMKRPB20