Branding Louis Vuitton: Behind the World's Most Famous Luxury Label

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You know the bag.

The chocolate-brown leather canvas emblazoned with quatrefoils and the LV monogram is immediately recognizable as the international symbol of globetrotting luxury. The Louis Vuitton brand is the most valuable brand in luxury, according to a new study from Millward Brown. But in a world with knock offs on street tables from New York to New Dehli and rappers like Kanye West pronouncing himself the "Louis Vuitton don," how does the world's most famous luxury brand protect its image?

Colin Mitchell oversees Ogilvy's Global Strategy and Planning Group, which handles some of the world's most famous brands, including Louis Vuitton. Walking me through the basics of brand management, he told me the firm's signature framework for building brands is called The Big Ideal.

"We go through the exercise, where we complete the sentence 'The world would be a better place if ...,'" Mitchell said. "The thing that finishes the sentence gives us a big ideal."

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The Big Ideal doesn't have to be noble. For the fruity, fizzy soft drink Fanta, the company designed the ad campaign "More Fanta. Less Serious." around the ideal of play. For Louis Vuitton, a travel company with its 19th century origins on Rue Neuve des Capucines in Paris, the ideal that centers the LV brand is journey.

"We say that travel has lost its romance," Mitchell said. "It's become an onerous duty rather than a pleasure. When there's tension like that between ideal of travel as romantic and the reality which falls short, that's an opportunity for brands to come in and make a statement."

One of the biggest losers in the global recession was luxury and travel, which threatened to strike the heart of Louis Vuitton's business. LVMH, the holding company that owns Louis Vuitton and other luxury brands like Dom Perignon, saw its stock plummet from 40 to 10 at the end of 2008. But Louis Vuitton didn't change its message to fit with the time.

"It's crucial for luxury brands to be consistent and authentic," he said. "They become cultural reference points as the world shifts. It's not that they don't take account of cultural forces, but they can't react. They have to be beacons of a certain point of view."

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LVMH's stock has recovered to the high 30s, a few points from its all-time pre-recession high.  In 2010, Louis Vuitton's net profit jumped 73% led by the Asian market. A strong brand reduces business risk precisely because it stands for something more than affordability. Companies without focused brands -- Mitchell named Oldsmobile -- are in danger when affordability is the only selling point, because "somebody builds a cheaper or more convenient product, you're irrelevant."

As China and Brazil lead the race among emerging nations to enter the global middle class, Louis Vuitton suddenly finds itself with millions more potential customers outside its typical market of Europe and North America. "These people are very interesting because they're arriving in massive numbers and in a single lifetime they've made transition from villages to cities," he said. "They're looking for brands as signifiers to make sense of a new world."

The new world in advertising is moving away from the glossy magazine pages that often make a home for thickly coiffed men in shades and a Vuitton bag slung over their shoulder. The ad world has become a hectic, decentralized ecosystem of apps, targeted Web ads, and Facebook pages. After surviving the recession, Louis Vuitton's next challenge is to navigate the narrow channel between mass market technologies and a high-culture message.

"We talk a lot about roots and wings," Mitchell said. "We need roots, a back story, but also we need wings to stretch forward into the future. Managing that tension is what agencies are supposed to do." Louis Vuitton still banks opulent photographs on wide magazine pages. But its newest creation is Amble, a mobile app that lets users follow celebrities' favorite city experiences or create their own online journals with photos, videos, and notes.

Will Kanye West, the Louis Vuitton don himself, someday make an appearance in an LV advertisement? Don't count on it. "We can't be opportunistic about whoever endorsed us this week. I think Cristal champagne, Tommy Hilfiger and Burberry, all hurt their brands with overexposure to celebrities. We use Sean Connery, Keith Richards, Bono. These are famous travelers. They're more aligned with where we want to take the brand."


Images: Louis Vuitton/Facebook; agsw/Flickr;
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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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