A Study of Brand, Truth and Storytelling in Community

As a brand consultant and designer, I’ve been working internationally for 35 years in finding the heart of brands. Brands, in a way, that have heart, have an especial place in my practice. Because brands that have a character of heart, or soulfulness, tend to last. And rather than simply being about “money in, money out,” there is passion — and there is love — in their making.

We all understand the fundamental nature of commerce — it’s about making, then selling, and finally purchasing something that is needful in our perception of our experience. It’s something that we want, and need, to feel and live better. And there are two levels of that action in the emotional connection of items for acquisition. There are fundamentals — like basic objects of survival: salt, sugar, bread, water, milk, or other commitments like a roof over our head, electricity, warmth, a place to sleep; and then there are objects that are more defined in other levels of emotional connection. They represent heightened, desired states of being. Luxury lives there.

Luxury represents a desired level of experience that defines the very edge of rarefied connection with living. It presumes that living fully is about sensing objects that are pushed far beyond the normal layer of conventional personal encounters with our experiences, to an expression of craft — and detail in manufacture — that is profoundly rich; the layering of luxury steps beyond the normally-made to a level of design that is about the finest materials, the evidence of the handmade, gathering the costliest forms of branded expression to assure a long lasting value. History deepens their value — with time, they accrue a concretion of worth.

True brands, brands that last, tend not to be merely quick-fix solutions for consumers. They’re not designed for the speedy, thoughtless sell, the easily forgettable object, the toss away, the absent relationship to the purchaser. And, in the context of lasting power, luxury lives in the place of memory and relationship that presumes heritage — both in the maker, as well as in the purchaser. It’s something that can be held in the mind, the hand, as an object experience that can last — even from one to one, and from generation to offspring. And in that process there is a deepening of connectivity that glues the story of the brand to the maker — and the purchaser.

Given what’s happening in the market, what’s the relevance of the concept of true brands, steeped in the legacy of luxury? The transitions of the market are nothing that hasn’t been experienced before — it’s just that during this time, after unbridled global growth, all of us are called upon to contemplate the very nature of what’s meaningful — back to basics. And for many, this isn’t the time to be even thinking about luxury. Or is it?

What one might propose is that, contrary to some positioning, this is less about simply throwing out the idea of luxuriation, but more so, what is, and how can we, experience — selectively — the finer niceties of living fully. The edge of luxury is about that — stepping beyond the norm and striding into contact with the rarest of the rare. That one moment, in holding and experiencing an object or encounter that surprises us to the degree that its very connection is forever captivating.

In exploring the concept of the true brand, it’s really about the true story — and telling it. It is about integral authority; and it is about the genuine.

Authenticity, in luxury, finds its origin in 1340, “authoritative,” from Old French autentique (13c.), from Medieval Latin authenticus, from the Greek authentikos “original, genuine, principal,” from authentes “one acting on one’s own authority,” from autos “self” + hentes “doer, being.” To the concept of the added sense of “entitled to acceptance as factual” is first recorded 1369. “Authentic” implies that the contents of the thing in question correspond to the facts and are not fictitious; and “genuine” implies that the reputed author, the maker, is the real one. And what this sequence of etymological references suggests is that luxury, as a true brand — is true. That the value of the brand proposition is about truthfulness in the telling. There is history; there are layers of experience — that in each generational expansion, offers deepening value.

What that means, in telling the “true story,” is that luxury brands must hold to their distinctiveness to support the evolution of their value. And what that means — during these challenging financial circumstances — is that they must hold to the truth. Sure, there can be sales, progressive markdowns and reaches to relationships to support the staggering empires that many brands uphold — with international overhead — but there must be, as well, an understanding of resilient “right-sizing” to accommodate change. And if there’s a challenge in the marketing, cost and cuts must be made — then that’s the truth of the matter. It’s happening everywhere, and to everyone. So trying to change the story to simply sell, will spell long-term dissipation of value. The value of luxury, in truth, purports that the very making of the object of contemplation is more costly because of the authenticity of its fabrication — and the evolutions of design — and the brilliance embedded in the historical heritage, that are attached to it.

What does that mean to the considerations of strategy?

  • Think about the character of the human mind in settling marketing planning. We gather input less in the form of facts, and more in the context of narrative telling. It’s been referenced that the human mind is about retelling frames of experience. Hence, the legacy of Nordstrom’s return policy, the visionary DNA of Gabrielle Chanel, or the current campaign of Louis Vuitton — with Keith Richards, Sean Connery, Francis Ford and Sofia Coppola — are more memorable as “stories that can be shared” — and extended into community for relationship development. They’re more memorable as stories of distinction, than abstract representations of “inspired visioning.” In speaking recently with the Paris-based brand leadership of a luxury fashion empire, she tells me stories, less than marketing sales figures, as a way of defining her relationships with customers. And her brand — her telling is more about stories — in the richness of the human connection. Those are held in the mind with greater currency. “Did you hear that story…?” And those are shared with countless others.
  • Speak the truth. People all over the world are challenged by our current circumstances — and sharing connections that are real, heart felt and truthful are far better for building relationships; you are selling your offerings to a community that would like to have a relationship, not to be off put by “stories” that are fabricated. We all know when something smells of untruth. Being open about understanding your community, your customers, is far better than implying that you, your brand, are untouched. “Yes, surely these are hard times for us all, but above all, we cherish our connection to you — and if now isn’t the right time for a purchase, then we’ll be there for you when it is! Let’s stay in touch.” And, hopefully, in retaining and building community, that promise will be held true.
  • Hold to the human brand. Bear in mind that virtually every luxury brand has a person behind it. In my experience, it’s crucial to think of this action as reflective. People don’t merely have a relationship with the clothes of Karl Lagerfeld, they have a relationship with Karl. Or Nicholas, or the family Guerlain, Monsieur Yves Saint Laurent, or Stefano. There are paths to uphold that character brand legacy — whether living or passed on. Facebook fan sites, an accessible “sense” of presence, legends, storytelling and sharing “tales,” site historical brandstories, community links, blog forums — all of these build on the rich character of humanity. And sharing. So whether it’s Steve Jobs, or Tom Ford or Clint Eastwood, the point is to recognize the profound power of the person(al) in brand positioning, legacy and evocation. The human brand. And finally, understanding that this relationship is reflective — it’s not only about the foundational genius; but it’s about the reflective mirroring of that legacy in the person that is part of that brand. Luxury, perhaps more than any other category, captures the sense of the dream, the desired state of experience, that many aspire to in their pursuit of a luxury brand relationship.

Evocation, in brand, is like the word implies, it is the voice of the story; and in brands that last, it is the true story that clasps the heart of the beholder.

tsg | decatur island