Today in my class on Customer Experience Management (the name makes it sound contrived but it’s a great class) we had some discussion on this article about the trademark battles between Christian Louboutin and Yves Saint Laurent (owned by PPR). If you would rather watch a video than read the backstory, here is a video.
From a business standpoint, it makes perfect sense for Louboutin to go after other manufacturers that could “cramp its style” – but does it honestly matter in the business of fashion where imitation is rampant and normal? Moreover, if Louboutin is successful, will it hinder the creative process that drives fashion? My answers are “no” and “yes” in that order, but I’d love to hear what some of our fashionista readers think. I’ll even give you the opportunity to write your own post on this topic if you have more than four lines of thoughts on the issue.
From a branding standpoint, this argument is stupid because Louboutin’s efforts indicate a lack of confidence in its ability to wow its customers with more innovative sole solutions (pun intended). Great brands are not built in courtrooms, but in the hearts and minds of consumers who are able to discern the specific message a firm is sending. The capitalist argument could be made that if a brand is truly worth its premium, then the market will continue to reward it for its unique value. A court ruling will not help Louboutin in this specific instance, where I believe damage has already been done to the consumer’s perception of the shoe brand.
The business of luxury is partly about leadership and confidence. As a manufacturer, you have to be comfortable with being the leader of a segment. That means that you will be in constant struggles with competitors trying to unseat you. A luxury firm should also be confidently engaged in activities that attract an astute customer. One strategy that can really help companies defend and grow their territories is differentiation. However, true differentiation should be sustainable in order to give a firm long-term benefits. You won’t get differentiation from being able to do something better if that something is not part of your core mission.
For example, Walmart (not luxury, I know, but apt for this approach) is focused on giving consumers low prices – that is where it leads the retail industry. Its success comes from doing everything and anything that will help it continue to be the low-cost provider. As I have learned in case studies and personal experiences, that capability comes from its robust expertise in supply chain analytics. However, Walmart’s direct and indirect competitors have also latched on to the benefits of supply chain management. So, in order to keep its lead, Walmart has to continually improve on its ability to get you what you want, exactly when and where you want it. That is how I believe Louboutin should approach this matter. The trademark issue is a reasonable threat, but it’s certainly a strong opportunity.
Louboutin should look to innovate and do more amazing things to delight the people willing to pay huge premiums for its shoes. In fact, I think the red-sole shoemaker should be thankful that a segment of the market (i.e. manufacturers) is giving them this timely message:
Red soles don’t cut it anymore. Show us something more amazing.
I’m not against the enforcement of intellectual property rights in the fashion industry. I’m more worried that this spat could hurt the brand image and ultimately the bottom line. I don’t know how companies like Tiffanys & Co, and UPS were able to get legal protection for their colors, but I think that this color controversy could open a very distasteful can or worms. In the extreme case, just about anyone could trademark a specific color shade, and before too long the entire Pantone color system would have been privatized. It’s no different from the millions of websites that claim to have the authority to register a star for you or that special someone. Can you really lay a claim to a sphere of gas held together by its own gravity, light years away from Earth? That is the same approach I take to laying claim to a color in the fashion business.
Maybe it’s time for Mr. Louboutin to innovate. I hope I get a rebuttal.