LONDON, United Kingdom — It's often said that Apple has applied the rules of fashion to the marketing of its popular iPod, iPhone and iPad devices. But luxury brands also have much to learn from the Apple playbook, say the authors of a recent report published by The Boston Consulting Group.
In order to succeed in today's complex and fast-changing world, luxury brands should adopt 'ecosystem models' to power a universe of external partnerships — much as Apple has done by enabling third-party contractors to generate an explosion of 'apps' that run on its products — says the report.
Many of the world's leading luxury brands seem to be doing the opposite, launching directly owned and operated stores, buying back licences and acquiring suppliers. Burberry recently bought back the rights to its fragrance and cosmetics licence from Inter Parfums and now directly operates the business under its new Burberry Beauty division. Meanwhile, Hermès, LVMH and Kering have been integrating suppliers, like crocodile farms and leather tanneries, from Singapore to the south of France.
But as rapid globalisation, emerging technology and changing consumer behaviour continue to reshape the luxury industry, growth will increasingly depend on developing new markets — each with their own cultural quirks, rules, politics and retail networks — exploiting new channels, especially online, and developing innovative new product categories, all of which will require a much wider range of ideas, expertise and knowledge than what luxury brands currently have, or can effectively develop, in-house.
"Complexity follows the rapid growth of luxury markets everywhere, including in China, India, Indonesia, Russia, and Vietnam," says the report, which goes on to note that "the growth numbers for experiential luxury — everything from spas to luxury kitchen installations — show that the category is expanding by more than 12 percent a year on average, compared with about half that for personal luxury products, such as watches and cosmetics." What's more, the rise of wearable computing — personal accessories with embedded sensors, displays and other digital technology, such as Google’s Internet-connected eyewear and Apple’s rumoured iWatch — may soon put pressure on luxury brands to develop 'smart' products or cede market share.
"Relying solely on an internal team can easily blind an organization to what’s coming next," says the report. "Companies increasingly benefit by bringing in ideas and expertise from the outside. That is especially so in the luxury world, where future growth for many companies will depend on success in new market categories, locations, and channels — and where partnerships, when thoughtfully and carefully orchestrated, can make the difference between success and failure."
To keep pace, luxury companies must open themselves up and develop and nurture an ecosystem of third parties who can build on and around their existing brand assets, much like the host of partners, from tech giants to small independent contractors, who have built apps for Apple's iOS devices, say the authors of the report. "A luxury ecosystem describes a confederation of partners assembled by a luxury brand and united over the long term by a shared vision of the future. The brand is effectively the gravitational centre of the ecosystem; it orchestrates many of the actions taken by the partners and plays the leading role in building and maintaining trust among all parties."
The approach could power partnerships that help Hermès open new stores in frontier markets, enable Louis Vuitton to expand into luxury travel experiences, or allow Gucci to develop new sustainable biomaterials, things these companies would struggle to accomplish independently in a cost-efficient and nimble way.
"A luxury ecosystem helps reduce the risks and costs of innovation because many more sources are contributing to the pool of new concepts. And it helps companies overcome the challenges of scale that affect many luxury brands today. It also provides an unmatchable advantage: agility."
To be sure, embracing an ecosystem model means companies must relinquish some degree of control over their brands, something that luxury businesses, in particular, are reluctant to do. But the example of Apple and the universe of third-party apps built on top of its iOS devices demonstrates that, with the right frameworks in place, it's entirely possible to strike a winning balance between control and openness, enabling agile innovation while ensuring a seamless and high-quality brand experience.
So who in fashion and luxury has successfully adopted this approach?
"It does not really exist yet. There are some interesting partnerships but nothing looks like an 'ecosystem' as we mean it: strategic versus ad hoc, on core business versus side business only, long term versus mid term, with aligned objectives versus conflict of interest," Jean-Marc Bellaiche, BCG’s global leader for luxury, fashion and beauty, and one of the authors of the report, told BoF by email. "Current licences and partnerships often don't match this criteria. If you are a licensee and have my brand for five years and give me royalties on sales, we will have major conflict of interest, e.g. the licensee trying to maximise profits versus the brand which is only interested in revenues; the licensee [thinks] more short term versus long term for the brand."
The report highlights Kering's joint venture with Yoox which manages the e-commerce sites of many of its smaller and mid-size fashion brands (including Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen, Saint Laurent and Bottega Veneta) as an example of a successful partnership in which incentives are aligned, as both sides get a cut of sales. "Candidly, though, it is too early to say whether any one luxury company or partnership perfectly exemplifies the ecosystem model," the report concludes. "However, providers that are already open to dealing and integrating with others… are primed for success."