When a luxury company sets out to create an object of desire – not an experience, but an actual item, like a piece of jewelry, a handbag, or a coat – how do they do it successfully? If there’s no new technology, no new performance enhancement, no functional reason for a new purchase, how does one create desire? Is there a formula? Or is it pure luck and serendipity?
I recently had an experience that made me ponder this question, and I’ve concluded that it’s not luck – at least, not just luck. There are 10 specific steps that brands can take to make the launch of a new product or line extension based solely on aesthetics more likely to succeed.
The example I have in mind is “Masters,” the limited edition line of handbags, backpacks, scarves and small leather goods recently released by Louis Vuitton in collaboration with the contemporary artist Jeff Koons. There’s a slideshow at the end of this post for your perusal; the basic idea is that iconic works from five of the most famous classical painters in the world – Da Vinci, Rubens, Titian, Van Gogh and Fragonard – are rendered on LV bags of varying sizes and shapes, with the name of the artist emblazoned on the front of the bag in metallic letters.
When I first heard about these, I was absolutely, completely uninterested. A handbag with the Mona Lisa’s face on it? You mean, like something you could buy from a street vendor outside the Louvre? Or from a museum gift catalog? Nah, I’ll pass.
Fast forward to last week, when I happened to be passing the LV flagship store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. The windows were filled with the various pieces from this collection, and despite the Trump Tower crowds, I decided to go in and have a closer look.
Well, dear reader, I bought one.
Here’s how I went from disinterest and skepticism to enthusiastic purchase in only about 20 minutes:
1. The item was limited edition. It’s obvious, but bears noting: creating desire is in part about scarcity – limited time, limited quantities, one-per-customer, that sort of thing. Urgency is part of the mix right from the beginning. Part of the reason I wanted to see these bags up close is because I knew that they would not be for sale forever. I didn’t know it at the time, but LV also decided not to sell the collection online, or at wholesale, and to offer the line only in certain Vuitton stores and a special pop-up store in Manhattan. So carrying one becomes like carrying a trophy – you live in the right city, you know how to get what you want, and you have sophisticated taste.
2. It was designed to be instantly recognizable and distinctive. To create desire, the aesthetic decision has to be bold, even polarizing: it has to be noticeably different from anything else on the market, even if that means that (like me, initially) lots of people will decide up front “that’s not for me,” or even “I’m offended by the very idea of that.” If you can see the object from across the room, and it triggers an intense reaction, then it’s working. The object becomes iconic, and emblematic of many other things, including which tribe you belong to.
3. The window display did its job. I had a passing knowledge of this product line, but the LV merchants succeeded in turning the bags into something magnificent that demanded further attention because of the way the store windows were designed. One bag might not have done it, but an army of them, well lighted on sparkling pedestals, proved to be irresistible. I had no plans to enter the store, but I couldn’t quite make myself walk by.
4. The salespeople initially left me alone. Once inside, I wanted to understand what I was seeing. So I wandered a bit, peering closely at each of the designs, and then paused to reflect. It was only after about 5 minutes of this that a friendly saleswoman approached me. I have to assume that she had me in her sights all along, but there was no overly-eager approach, no pressure of any kind, just a respectful, “can I help you with something?”
5. Upon closer inspection, the product exceeded expectations. It turned out that the sales associate could help me. Having scrutinized the bags up close, I saw all kinds of things that I loved that made them clearly not the product of a museum or street hawkers’ storeroom. The images of the paintings were embedded deep in the leather, and the colors were gorgeous. The color palette chosen for the leather to complement each of the paintings was surprising and refined (coral, turquoise, lavender, raspberry, Yves Klein blue, and peach), giving the bags the exact right mix of heaviness and lightness, seriousness and whimsy. The hardware sparked, each bag was adorned with a bag charm in the shape of a Koons rabbit, each one bears the logos of both the artist and LV, and the bags themselves were cleverly and beautifully designed: the interplay between the leather accents, the hardware, and the images was complex, whimsical and striking. Definitely worth a closer look.
6. The product was sold out. Sadly, disappointment soon ensued. The helpful sales associate informed me that the bags were so wildly successful that they were completely sold out. She gestured to the ones on the shelves that I had been looking at, and said that they were all for display only, and could not be sold. Some styles were being reordered, and a 100% deposit was required if I wanted to do that. Well, we all know what happens when you start to want something and then you’re told that it’s so popular that you cannot have it. It makes us absolutely ravenous for that thing, whatever it may be (this works in romance, too, BTW, just sayin’). So at that point, of course the salesperson had my full attention.
7. But wait . . . there might be one left in the back. Together the sales associate and I walked the floor, exclaiming over the bags and debating which one was the best. At that point, I was just having fun chatting with her, and her enthusiasm for the product made me want to linger. I don’t like waiting for accessories (I’ll wait months for apparel, but for me, a handbag purchase is about immediate gratification) so I had no intention of getting on their waiting list. I asked which bag had sold out first, which one was her favorite, things like that. Then she casually mentioned that there were a small handful of pieces still left in the back room, and that if I had a specific one in mind, she’d see if they had it. I narrowed my preferences with a sharper eye, now that the hunt was actually on, and identified two that I would happily own. After a short wait, she returned, beaming, with one of them in her hands, in exactly the style that I wanted. Last one in the store! Yay!
8. The product was smartly priced. At that moment, I realized that I had no idea what this bag cost. Given all the hoopla and scarcity, it could easily have been out of my price range. I had a number in my head, and with some trepidation, I asked for the price. Believe it or not, it was only two-thirds of what I had expected. No wonder they’re sold out! That’s a lot of fashion for that price. If it were Chanel, it would have been two to three times more.
9. Inside, there was a surprise. At that point, I was basically giddy with excitement about this bag which was soon to be mine. But there was another wave of pleasure on the way. An Easter egg, as they say in the business. The sales associate and I opened the bag together, and inside was a stunning lining of the same color as the bag’s leather accents. Embossed on the lining in the same color ink as the hardware was a detailed essay about the artwork and its origin, and on the other side was Jeff Koon’s signature. It felt as if he had made just that one bag, just for me. I literally clapped my hands and laughed out loud, and the salesperson joined in. She said “when they showed us these bags on paper, we were not very excited. Then when they arrived in the store, we opened them and we all did what you just did. They are so much better than they look on paper!” Something about them makes you feel happy.
10. The object was both beautiful and functional. As we wrapped up our conversation, the sales associate quickly showed me the functional elements of the bag – the outer pocket, the inner zippered compartments, and the clasp. All good. I know from experience that LV bags are well-made and last forever, so there was no issue that the bag would do its job. No guilt, and no regrets. This bag was smart and pretty, and it was time for us to go home together.
A few minutes later I made my joyful exit with my treasured new handbag, already planning when to debut it and with what apparel. As a consumer, I could not have been happier. As a business executive and marketer, what did I learn from this little adventure? That creating and selling an expensive object of desire is really a three-step process: make something wonderful, price it well, and make it just a little bit difficult to acquire, but still attainable.
Very easy to say, very hard to do. Well played, LV. See you next time.
P.S. Since there’s already talk of another iteration of this idea, how about adding works from contemporary painters of color to the mix next time? My personal wish list includes Kerry James Marshall, Hurvin Anderson, Lubaina Himid, Henry Taylor, Kehinde Wiley, Lorna Simpson and Kara Walker. Romare Bearden or Jean-Michel Basquiat would also be excellent. If you do that, Louis Vuitton, I promise I’ll buy two.