France’s great luxury brands haven’t done much in this time of tragedy, and they ought to repair that
Imagine if you were the head of Dior, Lanvin, Chanel, Yves St. Laurent, or Hermes. You are sitting in your corner office in Paris– your beloved Paris- which is in a state of emergency, and will be for the next three months. What are you going to do? Do luxury brands have a role to play in times of crisis?
The simplest and easiest approach is to say nothing; to stay away from any political statement because no matter what you do, it could be misconstrued. LVMH and Kering, the two big conglomerates in French luxury, declared a holiday on the day after the Paris terrorist attacks. Some brands like Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Carven and others posted solidarity messages on the House Instagram account. But beyond that, the French luxury community (if there is one) mourned in private. Is this the right approach? You could argue it both ways, and I—at least this time—am arguing that it is time that French luxury brands speak up. Why? Because this is Paris—the home and heart of the luxury business. The place where storied brands like Cartier, Moynat, Boucheron and Balenciaga began their story. This is the city that has nurtured many of the iconic brands of the world; where they have flowered and thrived. Why go silent at a time when their city needs them most?
There are a few good reasons. The biggest is the fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. Facebook–a baby brand, relative to these guys, reacted to the Paris terror attacks and got both bouquets and brickbats. Its “safety check” feature in the wake of the Paris and Nigeria terror attacks was hugely useful. At the same time, the company was criticized for allowing users to change their profile picture to match the French national flag but not doing the same for the Beirut bombings that happened a day earlier. Mark Zuckerberg, the 31-year-old CEO of Facebook, made things worse, when he said that the company couldn’t respond to every crisis because “unfortunately, these kinds of events are all too common.” What Zuckerberg said unfortunately happens to be true. Brands are a commercial business and not in the business of messaging, condemning, criticizing or reacting to every global event. But critics were miffed. Why this selective outrage, they screamed. No wonder luxury brands want to stay out of controversy. They have seen more wars and calamities before Zuckerberg was even born. Which one do they react to?
The second reason for staying quiet is the belief that it is not their place to react. Luxury brands are in the business of curation and selection. They are arbiters of style, beauty and sensitivity. The reason for their existence–they believe–has to do with “an incessant quest for quality, innovation, and creativity.” How to deploy these brand values in a time of war? To come up with a message that is appropriate, sensitive, and in character with what their brand stands for? John Galliano tried with his “Dior not War,” T-shirts in 2005, but it was at best, an insipid response.
The default mode is do things quietly; to donate a portion of profits to the victims of the attacks; to set up foundations; or simply donate to relief agencies like the Red Cross, French Secours Populaire, or the Friends of Fondation de France Inc. Brands do this during natural disasters.
The luxury business gains over 40 percent of revenues from travellers, says Luca Solca, head of luxury goods at Exane BNP Paribas. Anything that disrupts global travel – primarily epidemics or terrorist attacks – would be a major negative for luxury goods. The terrorist attacks on Paris, says Solca, “are a clear negative on what was already a difficult market for luxury goods.”
The luxury business is also a victim of that fickle variable called “mood of the customer.” One executive wondered aloud if customers would buy a €2000 handbag in times of terror attacks. The wise approach was to hunker down and soldier on, he said. And yet….. Could a business case be made for doing the opposite? Would it make commercial sense for a brand to take a stance against global terrorism? Certainly, such a contrarian approach would be a clear differentiator; help the brand to stand out in the minds of customers. It could even broaden the customer base– and make fence-sitting customers buy that €2000 handbag as a symbol of the fight against terrorism.
When I asked Solca what French luxury houses could do at a time like this, he was cautious. “I believe everyone is shaken and feeling close to the victims, their families and their friends – in Paris, in France and the world over. The luxury goods industry – so important in Paris and so central in defining French culture and attitudes – is no exception,” he said.
Agreed, but what can a brand actually do? “Beauty, sensitivity, care and wisdom will be vital to balance the horror we have witnessed,” said Solca. “This is the role the industry can fulfill.
Tough call, and a daunting list, for sure. How does one meld “sensitivity” and “wisdom” into an anti-terror message? Then again, the vast marketing and PR tools that are available to these brands could be deployed to craft just such a message.
What about a more public role, even if it is a symbolic gesture—somewhat akin to lowering the flag to half-mast in times of mourning? Is there some gesture that a brand can make to show solidarity towards the city that has nurtured it?
Even if I manage to convince top luxury executives that that they should craft an explicitly political message, what would it be? A Singapore-based CEO suggested a “unity in diversity” type message. “When a French designer, Algerian leather processor, Tunisian embroiderer, Albanian supply chain manager, English merchandiser and Chinese store manager work together to deliver a great hand bag to its customer, we send a message that integration creates beauty. And it should be that way in every walk of life— we need to reject messages of intolerance and promote integration,” he said. Unity in diversity, or in this case, unity in adversity.
Another choice could be a variation of the French proverb: “Mieux vaut prévenir que guérir,” which means, “It is better to prevent than to heal.” In such a time, it is better to prevent and to heal. Or what Mahatma Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.”
Would you buy such a message if it were crafted into a Stella McCartney handbag? Or an Hermes scarf? Or a Celine dress? Statements like this may help a waffling customer rationalize her spend on a luxury product. Love in the time of cholera— or terror in this case, to paraphrase Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s book. One reason to buy something beautiful and unique during difficult times is if it is a message that helps the greater good; if you can view it as a retaliation to the fear and horror that has been wreaked by the terrorists. There are endless options for what the message can be for there is the will to commit; to take a stance.
Crafting such a message, either by one brand or a coalition of all the French luxury brands, is explicit, no doubt. Brands may think it uncomfortable and out of character. but the results, both in terms of goodwill towards the brand and commercially in terms of customers buying your product or remembering your brand could be tremendous. Coming up with a common message is hard to do but would reduce single-brand risk. It would be somewhat akin to musicians coming together to sing, “We are the world,” still remembered after all these years.
Perhaps it is time for the top French luxury brands to stop playing ostrich. Perhaps it is time for them to speak out in unison against the carnage that global terrorism has wreaked on their home ground. Perhaps it is time to stop worrying about the risks of saying the wrong thing and speak from the heart: authentically, emotionally and fearlessly. Why? Because it is Paris. Because it is the way forward. Because, “Qui n’avance pas, recule”
Shoba Narayan agrees with Arthur Rimbaud that Paris has “shed more tears than God could ever have required.”