Uche C. Okonkwo is the Executive Director & Co-founder of Luxe, E.t.c., a Paris based Strategy & Management Consultancy specialized in the luxury industry. She also will be a presenter at the MCPC 2007 conference at MIT in Boston (Oct 7-9, 2007). In her new book, Luxury Fashion Branding, she also discusses the growing mass customization trend in the luxury industry.
Uche is one of the pioneer strategy and management consultants in the luxury industry and a key player in the current re-shaping of the industry. Her company, Luxe E.t.c. advises luxury companies such as Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, Gucci, Piaget, André Ross, Daniele de Winter among several others.
A regular conference speaker, Uche is also the Editor of the luxury business magazine, Luxe-Mag.Com targeted at both the luxury business and academic communities. She has an MBA from Brunel Buisness School, London and is a guest lecturer and doctorate candidate at Ecole Superieur de Commerce, Rennes.
Her new book, Luxury Fashion Branding>, addresses the business of luxury fashion from a strategic viewpoint through tracing the origins of luxury fashion, assessing its consumer behaviour, retailing tactics, branding and marketing strategies, ebusiness, business modeling, the new luxury, customization strategies and best and worst practices. The chapter on mass customization in this book attracted me to contact her and ask her about the growing mass customization trend in the luxury industry.
Ms. Okonkwo, what trends support the growth of mass customization in the luxury industry?
The major factor driving this trend is simply the changing needs of luxury consumers. Luxury consumers worldwide have evolved in recent decades and in most luxury key markets, the consumer has become highly informed and savvy about marketing techniques (and possibilities), making them appear more intelligent. And we all know that when people become more intelligent, they naturally become more demanding of choices, options and their levels of influence. In this industry, consumers want personal recognition through a more intimate relationship with the brands. One of the most efficient ways of addressing this need is through mass customization, which provides the possibility of participation in the product creation process.
Which are some recent examples of mass customization in the luxury industry that you find most appealing?
As indicated in my book, luxury brands have been reluctant to adopt mass customization as a core aspect of their marketing/ retail strategies since it has been widely believed that mass customization robs the brands of the ‘exclusive’ and ‘distance’ factors that luxury requires to thrive. Luxury brands are however beginning to understand the multiple possibilities of customization and how these can be applied without over-exposing their brands. As a result of this scenario, there remain few examples that can be used as benchmarks. A notable one is British accessories brand, Anya Hindmarch, which allows clients to personalize their leather goods on its website. Louis Vuitton has also provided the possibility of customizing its charm bracelets on its website, in the past.
How are these developments different to the traditional bespoke or tailor-made products which often are synonymously with luxury goods?
The main feature of the current mass customization techniques for luxury companies is technology, particularly the Internet. Luxury brands have multiple possibilities to customize products, services and experiences using the Internet and their e-Databases. There is also the advanced development of customizing the customer experience through mobile applications featuring brand-specific customized content, as powered by Interactive Luxury Solutions (www.interactiveluxurysolutions.com)
Do you think that mass customization will “downgrade” the image of luxury goods if now everyone can afford a custom-made bag or custom-made shoes? How will the democratization of the bespoke tailor affect the luxury industry?
Customization in itself does not downgrade luxury goods if the other aspects of the marketing mix remain constant. There are multiple tactics that can be applied to luxury product customization that do not dilute the luxury characteristics but actually enhance the brand equity. For example, if the price of customized luxury goods remain premium and the provision of customization possibilities is time-controlled or related to special products, events or client groups, then customization will actually become an aspirational aspect of luxury retailing.
What about mass customization of services? Luxury is very much about being pampered and supported. Will mass customization also change luxury services?
Customizing luxury services is actually one of the means of enhancing intimate relations with clients and extending the pampering element. If a client walks into the Louis Vuitton store on Avenue Montaigne in Paris, and is immediately recognized, not just physically but also their product preferences, sizes and how they prefer to shop, that would be exceptional customer service. In the same way, if a client visits the Palazzo Versace in Australia and every aspect of their stay is customized according to their preferences, it will definitely enhance their brand affiliation towards Versace.
What are the main challenges in mass customization for the luxury industry still ahead?
The major challenge lies in changing the orientation and thinking of luxury companies. The majority of luxury brands have a pessimistic view of mass customization. Luxury brands need to recognize customization as a core aspect of their corporate strategies and a booster of brand equity.
What would be your main advice for a manager or a top brand in the luxury industry who wants to implement mass customization?
I would tell them to apply customization but at same time remain true to their brand identity and the core attributes that set them apart as luxury brands. This is the way to assure the feasibility of customization in the luxury arena.
To conclude: What is, in general and beyond your industry, the greatest mass customization offering ever – either one that is already existing or that you would like to get in the future?
This is a tricky one! Personally I will be thrilled the day I will walk into a luxury fashion store and receive product suggestions based on my shopping history and pre-registered preferences, both online and offline. The luxury industry is decades away from other sectors in adopting advanced customization techniques but I’d like to think that I’m wrong.
Contact Ms. Uche C. Okonkwo at author [at] luxuryfashionbranding.com