The posters started going up around Los Angeles over the weekend.
Each carries an image of a strong, defiant 20-something woman. Each is dressed casually with a simple silver piece of jewellery clearly displayed. The women stare directly out onto the street, engaging directly with anyone passing by. Next to each arresting image, a large message written in bold capitalised letters makes a very clear statement.
‘Not your mother’s Tiffany’, the ad proclaims.
Tactically, it’s a classic example of the power of communications synergy and an exemplar of what ‘traditional’ and digital advertising can achieve when we drop the silo approach that still bedevils marketing. The original posters have been placed sparingly around LA. But these images, made real by grungy locations and gonzo camera work, have been blasted around the globe via Instagram and Twitter.
And the response has been far from complimentary. A quick Instagram safari reveals the response to be a heady, unhappy mix of confusion and anger. The new Tiffany advertising is variably being described as “disgusting”, “disrespectful”, “horrible” and “vulgar”.
And if that antipathy was not bad enough, there is also a significant amount of social chatter about the ageist tone of the advertising too. Older Tiffany clients expressed their disgust at being so explicitly rejected by the brand. Younger, more politically correct observers were outraged at such a clear attempt at demographic division.
“This sounds offensive…at sooo many levels,” one unhappy Instagram user observed. “Am I not good enough? Am I too embarrassing? Too old? My values and thoughts too stupid and dumb?,” asked another. “Is everyone better than me because I gave birth? Or is it just all old women are not worth it and embarrassing?”.
So what is going on at Tiffany and why has the brand made such a sudden and, apparently, unwelcome shift in its marketing?
To understand the size and scale of what is happening in LA this week we must travel back 18 months to one of the biggest deals in the history of luxury goods, when LVMH, the French luxury conglomerate headed by Bernard Arnault, agreed to buy Tiffany for $16.2bn (£11.7bn).
It seemed like a perfect fit until all kinds of shit began to hit the silver fan. Covid arrived and damaged Tiffany’s sales in a manner LVMH regarded as “dismal”. The US proposed new tariffs on French products, creating international tensions between acquirer and acquired.
LVMH walked away from the deal. Tiffany then sued LVMH for reneging on the original agreement. And it was only after the American jeweller dropped its asking price by almost half a billion dollars that the protracted negotiations were concluded and a deal was finally done.
“Tiffany is an iconic brand and a quintessential emblem of the global jewellery sector,” announced a delighted post-deal Bernard Arnault. “We are committed to supporting Tiffany, a brand that is synonymous with love and whose Blue Box is revered around the world, with the same dedication and passion that we have applied to each of our prestigious Maisons over the years.”
For all its history and glamour and billions in sales, the brand is dusty and in need of attention.
In January the real work began. Out went Tiffany’s existing senior team and in came new management led by CEO Anthony Ledru. Ledru is a perfect transition candidate because, prior to senior roles within LVMH, he also served as a senior vice-president at Tiffany. His first major appointment – as it always is with luxury brands – was a new creative director. And in a move that shocked the industry, Ledru appointed Ruba Abu-Nimah to the role.
Abu-Nimah has zero experience in jewellery. She comes from Revlon and will be responsible for the creative direction of everything – except the product itself. Stores, windows, advertising packaging and social media will all fall under her remit.
And it is the man that she will report to who has made the most headlines. Alexandre Arnault, the 29-year-old second son of LVMH’s president and CEO, is Tiffany’s new executive vice-president. Arnault formerly ran Rimowa and did a rather fabulous job of updating and enlarging the once dusty luggage brand. He now oversees all elements of product development and marketing at Tiffany. It is Alexandre we should thank for the new billboards.
More importantly, he will now surely push for further radical change at Tiffany. For all its history and glamour and billions in sales, the brand is dusty and in need of attention. After the acquisition, Arnault’s use of the word “iconic” to describe Tiffany was not quite as complimentary as it might first appear.
On one hand, Tiffany’s classic blue and its heritage of silver and expensive stones make it a legendary brand with global recognition. But on the other, Tiffany displays all the hallmarks of a brand in need of urgent revitalisation. It is more famous for its history than its future. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is an all-time classic, but it was made a lifetime ago and all of its stars are long dead. The brand’s most famous code – its iconic turquoise pantone – is not called blue, it’s known as 1837 Blue. Its client base is old and getting older by the year.
Words like ‘iconic’ and ‘classic’ follow the brand wherever it goes. It has incredible awareness and is much loved. But anyone at the top of the fashion pyramid arriving with Tiffany on their arm or around their neck would be assumed to be either in the pay of the brand or making a clever, counterintuitive statement.
Look at Tiffany’s balance sheet and this is a brand at the peak of its powers. Look behind the numbers at the more important, enduring lead indicators and it is a brand that needs updating.
LVMH knows these kinds of brands. It specialises in them. We might even say that the company’s core competence is revitalising brands like Tiffany so they can shine all the brighter. Whenever the company has tried to create a brand it has failed miserably. But give it a stumbling giant and LVMH rarely, if ever, fails.
At the heart of this competence is a confidence that forcing change on great iconic brands is not just possible, but essential and incredibly lucrative. The company did it for Louis Vuitton, Tag Heuer, Loewe, Hublot, Dom Perignon, Fendi and a string of others.
And it will do it again with Tiffany. Over the past six months the new team has studiously built a new brand strategy that will aim to propel Tiffany back to the top of the luxury ladder. And the key point: sacred cows will – must – be slaughtered if the bet is to be won.
Most mortal managers finding themselves in charge of an iconic brand like Tiffany become overawed by its size and stature. They forget that the men and women who originally helmed these now giant icons were entrepreneurs and transgressors. Louis Vuitton, the man, was a pirate; Richard Hennessy a literal assassin. Coco Chanel was a spy, for the wrong side! Madame Clicquot ran a black market liquor operation selling booze into Russia.
History forgets the chances that these danger-loving people once took. A few hundred years and many billions of euros later, their replacements are paralysed by a respect for the past and a fear of the future.
Not LVMH. It has too much proven experience in bringing old brands back to their dangerous best. “We try to make the founders turn over in their graves, but in the best way,” Louis Vuitton’s CEO Michael Burke recently explained to the New York Times. “Some of our biggest brands have a tendency not to see it’s in their best interests to stay plugged into the contemporary world.”
Alienating older customers
And it is with that confidence and search for the contemporary world that Tiffany will be revitalised. The shift began in May when the brand began to play with its formerly untouchable code of 1837 Blue. Flagship stores were temporarily painted yellow and every vestige of blue replaced by yellow inside the boutiques too. Chairs, lighting, even (look away now) boxes were transformed.
The move had four immediate impacts. First, acres of coverage in the fashion press. Second, playing with the colour code actually reinforced the power and prevalence of Tiffany Blue. Like most code play, when you take it away consumers actually notice it more. Third, the yellow colour helped promote the brand’s push into yellow diamonds – a significant new product activation. And finally, the move signalled that there was a new, modern confidence at work at the brand. If they could kill off blue, everything was up for grabs.
A month later, Tiffany was at it again. This time with a very limited-edition collection of sporting products sold exclusively at the company’s Cat Street store in Harajuku. The Tiffany brand and signature colour was now emblazoned across rugby balls, skateboards and other sporting products.
And now we have the new outdoor campaign. It is designed to achieve several key goals. First, it pushes Tiffany forward in terms of its fashion credentials. It will also cause a stir and ensure the brand is talked about. Never forget that proper luxury brands are built on notoriety not salience, and this campaign will achieve plenty of that. Finally, there is a very literal attempt to bring new, younger clients back into the boutiques and to embrace the brand again.
Yes, that strapline will alienate older and more loyal clients, and spark significant criticism for its aggressive, ageist tone. But if LVMH has got it right – and I suspect it has – two things will now happen. First, younger and more fashion-forward clients will consider Tiffany again. And when they do that, the older existing clients will stop complaining on Instagram and return to the store and its products. It’s a bet – a big bet – but one that originates from an expert gambler that knows the odds and exactly what it is doing.
And in a strange way, the moves at Tiffany align with the modern changes taking place within brand management too. Over the past decade the discipline of brand management has swung away from the ideals of image, consistency and meaning and embraced salience and ‘system one’ thinking in their place. Having the brand come to mind is more important that what that mind might then associate with the brand.
In the world of luxury branding this is playing out with a radical remit to modernise in a manner that exceeds the original brand DNA and pushes the outer limits of what makes for expedient brand strategy. Where once we might have spoken of gentle revitalisation, today’s luxury brand aims for far bolder transformations.
If your brand is big enough, famous enough, iconic enough, you can push very far away from its original conservative base and still achieve significant commercial success. You need great product. Proper distribution. An inalienable disgust at price promotion. And daring communications that seduce those at the top of the fashion ladder and the start of the demographic curve. But if these things are in place, as they surely are with Tiffany, the biggest risk of all might be to resist modernity.