The English comedian James Corden, best known for his viral Carpool Karaoke skits, has lately become something of a commercial darling, with brands ranging from Keurig to SK-II banking on his ability to appeal to just about everyone. It’s what made him the perfect linchpin for Gucci’s latest campaign.
In a series of videos that began appearing on social media in April, the funny man appears on a recreation of his Late Late Show set, hosting “The Beloved Show.” He welcomes celebrity guests including Harry Styles, Awkwafina, Serena Williams, Sienna Miller and Diane Keaton — all Gucci brand ambassadors. In their appearances, which also appear as campaign imagery, the A-listers sport four popular handbag styles: Gucci’s Dionysus, GG Marmont, Horsebit 1955 and Jackie 1961.
The campaign is part of Gucci’s seasonless, “always-on” marketing strategy, as Kering chief executive François-Henri Pinault put it to investors in February. In the space of a month, Gucci has launched its Corden-fronted campaign, staged a runway show featuring a “hacked” collection with Kering stablemate Balenciaga, and, last week created a virtual garden with the gaming platform Roblox. More activations are expected throughout the year, which also marks the brand’s 100th anniversary.
Combined, the efforts are a grand attempt to unite the multiple tribes of Gucci consumers, from the hypebeasts who went all-in on Michele’s maximalist vision four years ago to grandmothers who just want the latest update to their classic handbag, and the legions of consumers buying logo belts, loafers and ready-to-wear in between.
The stakes are high. To keep growing as a €7 billion-per-year brand, Gucci needs to continue milking hit styles from its recent peak without boxing itself in too narrowly. After years of driving and cashing in on the hype cycle — where logo-covered and pop culture-focused products targeted towards young shoppers consistently ranked among fashion’s most covetable items — Gucci’s performance began to cool off in 2019. Gucci declined to comment for this article.
The brand has been slower to rebound from the pandemic, which amplified the gravitational pull toward heritage brands and away from logomania. Sales totalled €2.1 billion in the first quarter, up 25 percent from a year earlier but still below the same period in 2019. LVMH’s fashion division — which includes powerhouse brands like its namesake Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior — grew by 52 percent in the first quarter of 2021 compared to 2020, and is up 37 percent from the first quarter of 2019.
Reconnecting with younger consumers, particularly in China, will be key to any Gucci comeback. But its recent marketing efforts also hint that it is hoping to build a safety net of other shoppers who can pad its bottom line.
“A small percentage of clients usually make up the majority of luxury brands’ revenue,” said Matthew Rowean, partner and chief creative officer of creative agency Matte Projects, referring to an older demographic of consumers more attracted to heritage-driven styles than those favoured by hypebeasts. “All that hype culture sometimes, while it might not alienate those clients, it no longer communicates to them.” (Matte Projects did not work with Gucci on the Beloved campaign.)
A Forgotten Generation No More
“Beloved” diverges from today’s luxury marketing playbook, which typically focuses on generating hype and reaching younger shoppers who are essential to building a brand on social media. Instead, the campaign reinforces the brand’s classics and caters to an older consumer — one more likely to make immediate big-ticket purchases.
“The part about the Beloved campaign that was different was that while it focused on being fun, it still had the ability to speak to some of those customers who have probably not been spoken to for a while,” said Rowean.
The “Beloved” campaign appears to be an attempt to double down on reaching Western consumers, in particular, ones who might not have gravitated towards Michele’s initial vision of androgynous eccentricity, luxury analysts and creative executives say.
There’s an entire two generations, Gen-X and the Boomers, who would love to love Gucci, but they want to know that Gucci loves them back.
It’s also a move to broaden its appeal across age demographics, much like the most successful luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and Hermes have been able to do. Specifically, the “Beloved” campaign is an overture to “forgotten” Generation-X and Baby Boomer consumers, said Milton Pedraza, chief executive of The Luxury Institute, who luxury fashion brands have neglected in favour of courting Millennials and Gen-Z.
“There’s an entire two generations, Gen-X and the Boomers, who would love to love Gucci, but they want to know that Gucci loves them back. I think that’s what this campaign is about,” Pedraza said. Where “Beloved” cast global celebrities who appeal to older consumers, like Corden and Keaton, a November campaign directed by Gus Van Sant put the focus on young-skewing, up-and-coming stars, like the non-binary actress Silvia Calderoni.
Highlighting classic handbag styles like the Jackie 1961 or the Horsebit 1955 was just as important as mixing in Gucci’s more recently introduced styles, those which lean away from seasonality. The clothes — a rainbow sequin number on Dakota Johnson or a bold floor-length floral dress on comedian Awkwafina — were nevertheless quintessential Michele.
However, for a brand that’s spent the past half-decade targeting a younger audience, speaking to older consumers is something of uncharted territory. The Beloved campaign’s social media impressions might suggest lukewarm consumer reception: the campaign’s most-viewed YouTube video, which features Harry Styles, earned just over one million views over two weeks. The others averaged 152,000 views over the same period.
In fact, paparazzi photos from the set of the upcoming film “House of Gucci,” starring Lady Gaga and Adam Driver (which the brand is helping costume) did more to drive digital engagement than Gucci’s recent campaigns, said Annie Brown, associate at the firm Brand Finance, which ranked Gucci as the second most valuable apparel brand in 2020.
Then again, if Gucci’s target audience was an older consumer, social media impressions may not be the best metric to judge by, as they do not spend their time on social media with the same frequency as Gen-Z shoppers. Instead, next quarter’s sales may do more to reflect how effective the brand’s recent marketing efforts have been than social media analytics.
Still, the campaign might have resonated more deeply with its target audience if it had considered a more experiential element or partnership with a streaming service, Matte Project’s managing director Kenneth Barlage said. The Beloved Show, for example, could have been an actual programme instead of a spoof while still retaining its ironic sentiment, and given the brand access to a streaming platform’s audience.
“They could have said, ‘let’s let the clothes, the fashion speak for itself but maybe [the show] gets to the heart of stuff with purpose, that is what we’re craving as humans: for the purposeful, the meaningful, the things that make us feel alive,” Barlage said.
High Stakes After a ‘Creative Lull’
Gucci’s experimental phase comes at an apt time. Michele was appointed to the top design spot at the brand in January 2015. According to Bernstein analyst Luca Solca, that makes him just past his prime. Beyond five years, Solca said, designers tend to repeat themselves, creating a sense of predictability that can negatively influence business performance and share price.
But early signs of a Gucci sales rebound do not completely address what Solca called a “creative lull” — meaning the brand repeatedly offered many of the same ideas, in part in an attempt to veer away from seasonality, but in such a way that failed to inspire young Chinese consumers in particular.
Bernstein believes Gucci must then convince those shoppers to buy again, this time at higher prices for the same products. The Gucci-Balenciaga “hack” — perhaps one of the most prominent examples of a hype-driven project — and a recent capsule collection featuring the Japanese cartoon character Doraemon has aided in these efforts, according to social media reception among Chinese shoppers, Bernstein wrote.
These efforts also deviate from how competitors have focused more explicit efforts to court the Asian customer. While Louis Vuitton just signed K-pop group BTS as ambassadors, for example, the stars featured in Gucci’s latest campaign are all Western.
Analysts and creative types alike believe Gucci’s marketing experiments, ranging from the Aria collection to the Beloved campaign to its collaboration with The North Face, do not inalienably alter the brand’s maximalist proposition to consumers, but rather incrementally broaden how consumers think about the brand.
“While the brand is still on a stable, solid growth trajectory, I don’t think that these campaigns or anything that they’re doing is enough to create sort of a big shock,” Brown said. “There’s a real challenge for luxury brand marketers to do things that are innovative, but still focusing on their roots and focusing on their heritage — and doing it in a way that is exciting and new.”