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What Makes a Luxury Brand?

In my twelve years working in the luxury industry — first as a leading salesperson with Tourneau, the largest retailer of fine watches in the world, and then as President of The Lilian Raji Agency — I’ve had many opportunities to consult, create and execute marketing strategy for both small and global brands.

To better service our clients, I’ve spent countless hours researching and observing what brands do wrong and what they get right. This research is a critical part of the brand building process and it’s the first lesson I will impart to you in this series on how to build a luxury brand.

And it bears repeating:

If you want to build a successful luxury brand, you must first understand the market.

We’ll come back to this again, but first things first: what exactly is a luxury brand?

When you think of a luxury brand, do you have visions of Cartier dancing in your head? Or are you right now looking at a very ubiquitous Michael Kors’ handbag and thinking this is luxury?

In 2007, the first gold flecked toilet paper was introduced to the world. This was followed in 2013 by an even more ambitious, $1.3 million per roll, 22K gold toilet paper, whose manufacturer promised, “As you use the toilet paper, 22-carat gold flakes will fall onto the floor and your behind, taking you to another level of sophistication.”

The modern definition of luxury has faded significantly as more companies call themselves luxury simply because they charge a ridiculous amount of money for a product no one ever requested.

Because of this, luxury cannot be defined by price alone.

For something to be truly luxury, it must first be something that is wanted, coveted by an audience that feels its price – whatever that may be – is worth it.

And to be worth it, that item must be made of the finest quality, with substantial attention to detail, and a clear understanding that this item will last a lifetime.

Yet quality alone does not build a luxury brand, although it certainly is a prerequisite.

Once a brand’s standard of quality is irreproachable, the next most important thing is how a company treats its customers after a purchase.

I mention Michael Kors earlier, and most likely offended quite a number of people in the process. Given Kors latest earning statement, however, my point speaks for itself.

Because of Michael Kors, Coach is no longer the most popular handbag in America. However, Coach gets what being a luxury brand is about. Their handbags last. And when they don’t, and something happens, a simple call to the company will get your bag fixed.

Dooney & Burke is another company with a stellar after-purchase record, even going one step further. The handles on my patent leather Dooney & Burke handbag began to crack, simply from wear and tear. The company offered to buy back the bag by giving me credit towards buying a new one – with the credit they offered being half the price I paid for the purse five years prior.

Of course, those that own a Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Prada and other well priced handbags are accustomed to this level of customer service. That Dooney & Burke and Coach also offer this at their price point is testimony that price alone doesn’t justify the title luxury.

Ultimately, luxury can be defined by how a product makes a person feel. They’ve splurged a bit to buy something they’ve always wanted, and they feel very good about the purchase. They know the item is made of the finest quality. But if something goes wrong, if there’s an unfortunate defect, they also know the brand will stand by its product and make things right.

This, first and foremost, is what defines a luxury brand. Only when this minimum is accomplished can price become part of the equation.

In the second part of this series, we will introduce you to the luxury customer.