Build a brand with the basics

Right near my office at Phileo Damansara in Petaling Jaya, a luxury German auto manufacturer has two billboards advertising its top of the range luxury autos. One is a saloon and the other is an SUV. I like this particular SUV so much that if I was still putting posters up on my bedroom wall, the SUV would be front and centre.

This company also has a number of billboards at other locations around the city of Kuala Lumpur and in the suburbs featuring a smaller version of the SUV (for which there is a 1 year waiting list) and other versions of the saloon. It also spends a lot of money on print ads and recently advertised their top end coupe in a Malaysian daily and a Malaysian business weekly.

Cars in Malaysia are expensive as import duties can go as high as 300% for luxury vehicles. The full page full colour ad with standard automotive blurb also stated the price of over RM1,000,000 (US$333,000). At that price, there are probably no more than a handful of people in the country who can afford the car. Even if there are a 100 or even a 1,000 people in the country who can afford the car, full page ads in national newspapers are probably not the most cost effective channels to communicate with those people.

Now I’ve actually approached this particular organisation in the past to ask if we can come in a make a capabilities presentation. We didn’t get past the marketing manager who basically said that as sales were very good there was no point meeting us.

Judging by recent reports, the company is certainly doing well after the launch of new models in 2008. In fact, the company claims to have been Malaysia’s fastest growing luxury car brand in that year with sales up an impressive 102%. Moreover, sales continued to climb in the first 6 months of 2010 with sales up 66% over the same period in 2009. Impressive figures and the company now claims to have about 5% of the luxury market in Malaysia.

Anyway, seeing this billboard on a daily basis with the telephone number prominently displayed, was beginning to get on my nerves. So I decided to call the number. After all, if you advertise your products on a billboard and display your telephone number, one can only assume that you want prospects like me to call you.

And if a prospect calls that number you better have the processes and systems in place to ensure that the person receiving the call passes it on to the right department. And you better have the right processes and systems in place to ensure that the next person in the process does what they are supposed to do. In this particular case, call the prospect back. Especially when we’re talking about a luxury product.

So anyway, I called the number and asked for information about the top of the range SUV. The receptionist was very pleasant and explained that she would get someone from the sales department to call me back. I gave her my mobile number and waited for the call. That was last Thursday, today is Sunday and I still haven’t heard anything. Bear in mind this vehicle costs over RM500,000 (US$166,000).

Generally the point of billboards is to create awareness. A telephone number is there in the hope that the keen, desperate consumer who wants the product so much that he will take the time to record the number and follow through with a call. Of course most of us just ignore billboards and the messages on them. Indeed, it’s rare for a prospect to call. But there are always incoming calls that may just result in an easy sale to one person who may become a customer for life so if you don’t have those basic processes and systems in place to take the information and pass it on, what is the point of advertising?

Here are some more tips that will help this company improve its profitability, the most important metric for branding:

1) The era of the global ad buy is over. Different markets require different communications strategies. Whilst it may make sense to create awareness of a luxury product via national papers in relatively wealthy western markets, it is a waste of money in developing markets where the demand for luxury products is limited to only a few.

2) Brand building is about the long term. When you launch new products they will, if you are extremely lucky, fly off the shelves or out of the showroom. But this is the exception, not the rule. And anyway, this doesn’t mean that you can become complacent, sit back, put your feet up and relax. Your competition will soon catch up and your moment in the limelight will soon be over.

3) The whole point of mass market advertising such as billboards and newspaper ads is to create awareness with mass markets. That is why weekend copies of daily newspapers are full of ads for hypermarkets, supermarkets, discount stores, sales and so on. But luxury products require more than a mass market tactic to make a sale. If you must use these old fashioned tools, use them to develop a database of prospects so that you can qualify those prospects and invite them to your showroom if you think they have potential.

4) Many companies will have a system in place to act on incoming enquiries. But who is responsible for ensuring those enquiries are acted on? The system must also ensure incoming enquiries are reported to sales management so that they can follow up with the sales department.

5) Brands are built on offerings of economic, experiential and emotional value. That journey begins with the first contact. It doesn’t matter how much you spend on advertising, if you can’t deliver that value, prospects will go elsewhere.

Now I’m going to call BMW to get more information on the X5.


Destination branding requires innovation and integration

About 300 kilometers south of Bangkok on the gulf of Thailand, lies Hua Hin once a quaint fishing village that was transformed in the reign of King Rama VI when it became a stop on the Southern Railroad route.

In the reign of King Rama VII a Summer Palace was constructed for the royal family. Despite the many political and social changes that Siam experienced during this period, the Palace gave the Royal Family and their friends an escape from court life and 100 years later, Hua Hin is still a popular destination for high-society and the Royal Family still resides at the Palace for part of the year.

Hua Hin is also a popular location with five star resort hotels, luxury boutique residences and private beach front homes offering unprecedented levels of luxury. In Hua Hin alone, there are roughly 200 hotels, including 30 five star hotels in an area no more than a few square miles. Hua Hin has struggled for years to attract tourists and fill rooms. Throw in a global economic meltdown, the on-going domestic political crisis and civil unrest and the business of building a hospitality brand gets rather complicated, even in a country with such a reputation for fun.

And with Asia’s hospitality business looking good in these troubled times – over US$1.3 billion was invested in hotels in Asia Pacific in the first six months of 2010 – destinations such as Hua Hin have to be innovative to compete. And to do this, the town and tourism related businesses must work together, not compete, to ride out the storm.

Intercontinental Hua Hin Resort has come up with one creative idea to differentiate itself by offering a private air service to shuttle guests from Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport or Don Muang Airport to the beachside city. For anyone who has had the misfortune to experience the drive from Bangkok to Hua Hin, this is certainly an attractive offer! But it won’t be enough to raise Hua Hin’s profile, increase interest and ultimately drive traffic to the resorts that will allow room rates to rise and profits increase.

Intercontinental needs to work with other products within Hua Hin to offer a complete experience to guests taking advantage of this service. A personal discussion with those using the service will allow the hotel to get to know their interests and allow the sales person to offer suggestions, not from a worn brochure at the service desk in the lobby, but in the comfort of a pre flight lounge or even in flight.

Other hotels are offering free days or more traditional tactics such as large discounts. Whilst these may increase sales in the short term, they will do little to build profitable brands. These hotels need to innovate in the same way as the Intercon, to work with other destination stakeholders to ensure Hua doesn’t become a quaint fishing village for the next 100 years.

Asia is the darling of luxury brands

As the effects of government stimuli wear off and with the global economy heading towards a double dip recession that will impact the traditionally wealthy economies of Europe, the US and Japan more than most, luxury brands have been looking to Asia for salvation. And they’ve probably found it.

Despite the recession, the consultants, Bain & Co predicts luxury industry sales of €158bn in 2010, up 4% after a drop of 8% in 2009. And these sales will, on the whole be driven by Asian operations.

25% of worldwide sales
Shiseido, Japan’s largest cosmetics company anticipates sales of high-end cosmetics to grow 20% a year in China over the next 3 years. In fact, China is driving the luxury business and is now the second largest market for luxury goods, accounting for 25% of worldwide luxury sales. More than the US, Europe and Japan who each account for about 20%.

According to Capgemini there are more than 345,000 Chinese millionaires and many of them are keen to snap up luxury products that offer a little bit of exclusivity and heritage.

India crucial for long term success
But the Chinese market is not the only market helping luxury brand ride out the recession(s). In India, Porsche Design recently opened its first store in New Delhi, joining Prada, Louis Vuitton, Ferragamo and Mont Blanc who are all setting up operations in the capital of the republic. Louis Vuitton now has 5 stores in India.

Luxury jewelry retailer Tiffany & Co reported recently that sales at Asian stores open more than 12 months, with the exception of those in Japan, rose 21% during its most recent quarter. The Asia-Pacific region is driving expansion, with stores scheduled to open in Singapore, South Korea and Hong Kong.

China has the highest sales per square foot
Mainland China is at the heart of Tiffany’s Asian expansion, with the number of stores there due to rise from the current 12 to as many as 30 by 2015. Chinese stores have the highest sales per square foot of US$3,800 compared to US$3,000 in other stores.

French luxury giant Hermes reported strong growth in sales in the first quarter of 2010, boosted mainly by sales in Asia but not including Japan.

LVMH, the company behind luxury brands such as Dior, Louis Vuitton and Moët Chandon recently reported a 11% increase in 1Q 2010 sales. Watches and jewellery sales rose by 33%, wines and spirits by 18% and fashion and leather goods by 8%. Sales of Dom Perignon and other LVMH owned champagnes shot up by 33% in the same period.

Watches and timepieces, there is a difference you know, have also had a bumper start to 2010 and the mood at Baselworld, the world’s largest watch and jewellery fair, was bullish after positive announcements from Bréguet, Blancpain, Omega and Longines whose sales were up 46%, 48%, 50% and 49% respectively in January and February 2010.

Mobile phones
Due partly at least to the fact that it doesn’t have many high end high margin devices, Sony Ericsson has been plagued by declining sales for years and hasn’t made a net profit since 2Q 2008.

However the firm moved quickly to develop high end phones and launched the Xperia X10 and Vivaz last year. The result, the company reported a net profit for 1Q 2010 of €21 million, compared with a €293 million net loss a year earlier. Analysts were expecting a €128 million loss.

US leather goods maker Coach has relied for years on the domestic market and Japan. However, after a slow start, it is ramping up operations in Asia and expects sales in China to rise to US$250 million by 2012, up from almost US$100 million this year.

Luxury brands will have to make significant changes to the way they operate in Asia. And they must learn to understand Asian consumers, learn how to build relationships with them, what are their influencers and how best to engage them. If they, they will find salvation not in the short term, for some time to come.

Louis Vuitton in a spot of bother over print ads

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in the UK has received complaints that print ads for Louis Vuitton created by Ogilvy and Mather suggest that the products were made by hand.

Certainly looking at this ad that shows a woman creating the lines for the folds of a wallet

and also this ad that appears to be a woman stitching a handbag

It is easy to see why there have been complaints. Especially as the copy states, “infinite patience protects each overstitch… One could say that a Louis Vuitton bag is a collection of fine details.”

However, according to marketingweek Louis Vuitton defended the campaign by saying that “their employees were not assembling pre-packed pieces but were taking individual handcrafted and hand-sewn parts through a range of hand-made stages to reach a final item.”

Louis Vuitton added that the use of hand sewing machines and associated tasks were “part and parcel of what would amount to ’handmade’ in the 21st century”.

So handmade doesn’t actually mean handmade in the traditional sense?

If that is the case does that mean then that the iconic hand made Hermes Birkin bag that can cost anything from US$10,000 to well over US$100,000 isn’t actually hand made?

Does this mean that the animal skins used in a Birkin bag are not actually spread out on the floor of the processing room and screened by a number of artisans before being measured and cut by hand as required?

Does this mean that the bottom of the handbag is not sown by hand to the front and back with waxed linen threads?

Does this mean that the handle of the Birkin bag is not manually stitched until the shape comes to the fore?

Does this mean then that the artisans don’t use sand paper to smooth rough edges? And does it mean therefore that hot wax is not applied to the handles to protect them from moisture?

And all the effort that goes into the front flap, the metal and lock is not actually done by hand?

Does it mean that the craftsmen in France that all work out of the little lane in Paris don’t actually exist?

And advertising agencies wonder why 76% of consumers don’t believe that companies tell the truth in advertisements. In Malaysia that figure is 86%!

The number one element in any relationship is trust. If a brand wants to build a relationship with a consumer, that consumer must be able to trust the brand.

An element of doubt in communications is not a good way to build trust.

Another argument for building brands

A year ago, the Wall Street Journal was telling us that wealthy consumers were suffering from ‘luxury shame’. Others were talking about the end of the luxury business. Certainly, the luxury business took a massive hit when the sub prime crisis blew up and the repercussions were still being felt at the end of 2009 when many luxury manufacturers and retailers reported poor sales over the traditionally lucrative Christmas and New Year period.

But even a global financial meltdown doesn’t seem to be able to keep the wealthy out of the stores for long as the luxury industry outperformed the MSCI World Index over 1Q 2010. And unsurprisingly, the wealthy don’t head for the department store to save pennies on same store brands.

So what brands are people, sorry the fabulously wealthy buying? Here’s a quick round up of the most popular brands at the mall or wherever it is the wealthy shop!

Last weekend, the Ferrari 599 GTO was officially unveiled at Modena’s Ducal Palace in Italy. This is the legendary brands fastest road car and does 0 – 100km/h in 3.35 seconds! Although a number of key clients were at the launch, all 599 units of the US$450,000 (RM1,500,000) monster have been sold.

Still with cars, top end ‘more affordable’ brands are also performing well, despite current figures reflecting the anniversary of the peak of the scrapping scheme in Europe. In Germany, car sales plummeted 26.6% last month, year-on-year, but Mercedes declined only 6.1 per cent, while BMW sales rose 9 per cent. During the same period in China Mercedes and BMW both increased their sales in 1Q 2010. Audi meanwhile was up a respectable 77%.

Here in Malaysia where cars are subject to astronomical taxes, BMW Malaysia sold 250 of the 7 Series from January 2009 to March 2010. With the cheapest 7 series costing around RM650,000 (US$200,000) and the top of the range 760Li costing RM1,400,000 (US$435,000), that’s impressive and shows the resilience of luxury automotive brands.

Down south in Singapore, Mercedes-Benz delivered 1,139 passenger cars in 1Q 2010, a 22.7% increase over the same period in 2009. Not to be outdone, BMW sold 960 units during the same period, a robust 29% increase over the same period.

Porsche meanwhile announced last week that orders for the latest version of the Cayenne SUV, due to arrive in European showrooms in May 2010 and priced at €56,000 (US$75,000) price tag, were ‘stronger than expected’.

Over in India, Porsche Design recently opened its first store in New Delhi, joining Prada, Louis Vuitton, Ferragamo and Mont Blanc to name a few luxury brand also taking up residence in the capital of the republic. Louis Vuitton now has 5 stores in the country.

LVMH, the company behind luxury brands such as Dior, Louis Vuitton and Moët Chandon recently reported a 11% increase in 1Q 2010 sales. Watches and jewellery sales rose by 33%, wines and spirits by 18% and fashion and leather goods by 8%. Sales of Dom Perignon and other LVMH owned champagnes shot up by 33% in the same period.

Watches and timepieces, there is a difference you know, are also having a bumper start to 2010 and the mood at Baselworld, the world’s largest watch and jewellery fair, was bullish after positive announcements from Bréguet, Blancpain, Omega and Longines whose sales were up 46%, 48%, 50% and 49% respectively in January and February 2010.

Meanwhile, due partly at least to the fact that it doesn’t have many high end high margin devices, Sony Ericsson has been plagued by declining sales for years and hasn’t made a net profit since 2Q 2008.

However the firm moved quickly to develop high end phones and launched the Xperia X10 and Vivaz last year. The result, the company reported a net profit for 1Q 2010 of €21 million, compared with a €293 million net loss a year earlier. Analysts were expecting a €128 million loss.

With the consultants, Bain & Co predicting luxury industry sales of €158bn in 2010, up 4% after a drop of 8% last year, it seems ‘luxury shame’ was nothing more than an itch!

Luxury branding in developing markets requires a different approach

Patek Philippe, the eponymous luxury Swiss watch, or should I say, timepiece brand is known for running the same advertising campaign for years. Although the images may have changed, the tagline “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.” has remained consistent, usually along with a jaw droppingly handsome and immaculately dressed and coiffured ‘father and son’ portrait.

For the target market, the aristocracy and the wealthy of the world, and those that aspire to the class, the ads say many things, including ‘buy one and you’ll be like us and ‘You have class and you know class’.

The ads are a wonderful example of luxury branding – a great product manufactured with precision engineering, immaculate heritage, an aristocratic client base and creative genius in the advertising that communicates on a level that the target market will connect with and explains, in the limited time available to garner interest, the timeless character of the brand. And I am sure the quality of service at the point of sale will be equally as impressive.

PP has recently launched a new global print advertising campaign that focusses on the values of the company established by two Polish immigrants, Frantisek Czapek and Antoni Patek in Geneva in 1839. I’m not sure if this campaign is to replace the old one. I for one hope not.

The latest campaign revolves around the personal letter concept and has the current president, Thierry Stern waxing lyrical about the steps involved, the time taken and care and attention to detail invested in the production of a PP timepiece. He talks about ‘polishing steel wheel teeth and pinion leaves with wooden leaves and countersinking wheel holes’ and the fact that these efforts are ‘inspired by functional not just aesthetic objectives’.

He goes on to mention the Patek Philippe Seal, an ’emblem of horological excellence’ that appears to be an internal ‘quality benchmark’ that claims to be ‘beyond existing standards of the Swiss watch industry’.

The ads are set to appear in ‘quality daily newspapers and influential trade publications’ around the world and will also appear at the point of sale.

The first ad (I think) appeared in Malaysia in the New Straits Times on 15th April 2010. I can understand (although I don’t agree with the tactic) the mass market approach of running an ad in the New York Times or the London Times, South China Morning Post etc or any other developed country where there is significant market potential.

But I can’t understand the purpose of running the ad in a developing country such as Malaysia. A quick search of the net finds a rather old PWC report, that states ‘the mean monthly gross income per Malaysian household increased from MYR2,472 in 1999 to MYR3,011 in 2002, denoting average growth of 6.8% per annum’. So if we use that growth rate to bring us up to 2010, the mean monthly gross income per Malaysian household is now roughly RM5,096 or US$1,358. Don’t forget that is gross and does not take into account the impact of the economic crisis.

Another search of the Internet would suggest that the cheapest PP watch is around US$4,000 and the most expensive sold some time ago for about US$11,000,000 (that’s RM36 million in real money). The majority of PP watches appear to be in the US$10,000 to US$35,000. At those rates, the potential market in a country the size of Malaysia is tiny and an ad for such a luxury product in a daily newspaper is essentially a waste of money.

Just to put things into context, the ad after the PP ad is for Honda and the ad after that is for Panasonic household appliances such as an Alkoline ionizer, hair styler and hair dryer and men’s shaver (inner Blade and outer foil).

So what should PP do in developing markets like Malaysia?

Here are 5 suggestions

1) Rethink the one-size-fits-all mass market approach to building a brand, especially in developing markets. The consumers who can afford your products can be engaged much more effectively in other ways.
2) Build a database of prospects and customers. But all markets require different strategies and data collection techniques will be different.
3) Build relationships with your existing customers. Existing customers are often ignored by companies scared of asking too many probing questions. And certainly timing is important. But well trained luxury retail staff can build relationships with wealthy customers who are likely to be successful businessmen and politicians and their opinions will carry a lot of weight with prospective customers.
4) Advertising is important, but choose your channels carefully. Mass circulation newspapers and magazines are for shavers and hypermarkets.
5) Content is important too. I’m not sure anyone really cares what is hidden away inside the shell of a product with almost 200 years of heritage. After all, if the quality was a given in the previous campaign, why must it be addressed now?
6) Integrate your digital commuications with mobile channels to engage with prospects and customers interactively when they are on the move.

Building a brand is hard enough. PP has done it successfully for 200 years. But treating every market the same and using mass marketing tactics that belong to an era that no longer exists, will make it hard to do it successfully for the next 200 years.

What is the impact of the mosques referendum on the Swiss brand?

Last month a much reported public referendum in Switzerland voted to implement a complete ban on the construction of minarets in the country.

The referendum, sponsored by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party sparked numerous national debates and 57.5% of the electorate voted in favour of the ban. This despite the protestations of the ruling pary of Switzerland, religious and business leaders who all campaigned for a no and public polls that suggested a significant majority opposed the referendum.

This is not a political blog so I won’t go into the details, but I am curious to know what people think about the consequences of this decision in respect of the impact it will have on the Swiss brand. Switzerland has an image of a country that has respect for human rights, no doubt influenced, ironically, for a tradition of religious tolerance. Although the decision is likely to be overturned in the European Court of Human Rights, the Swiss image of neutrality and tolerance may have been damaged. If it has, what are the consequences of this, from a branding perspective?

After all, the country is home to many international brands, especially from the financial services industry and luxury brands. These luxury brands and financial institutions are popular with Muslim consumers from all over the Muslim world.

Will we see these Muslim consumers withdraw their funds from Swiss banks and transfer them elsewhere? Will they shun shops selling Swiss watches and other jewellery? Does anyone have any thoughts or firm data on the impact of this decision on the Swiss brand?

How not to sell a London property to Malaysians

I spotted the sign below on a lamp post in Damansara this morning. In case you can’t read it, the content is as follows:

London – Condo
Good Buy & Invest (sic)
West London £220k
Call for Preview

I cannot believe that a genuine UK property developer or estate agent would encourage a company to sell million Ringgit properties with signs on lamp posts. After all the UK property market, and in particular the London market is benefitting from substantial investment and has hardly been affected by the global financial crisis.

Commercial property
Jones Lang LasSalle expects the total direct investment in commercial real estate in the UK to be around £23 billion (RM125billion) for 2009. Prime yields in the West End are 5% and in the city, around 6.25%. That’s impressive compared with a bank rate of, well about 0%.

Residential Property
Meanwhile, the residential market is also performing strongly. International buyers increased by 25% in 2009 compared to 2008. Most of the investment is coming from Europe, Russia and the Middle East. Knight Frank estimates demand from new buyers is “almost 25% higher than a year ago” and “prices have now risen 13.8% in the nine months since March.”

In fact, most of the investment is coming from the overseas market. Foreign buyers account for 80% of the investment, the highest ever. Indeed, the average over the last 10 years has been closer to 46%. The latest sources of this overseas investment include Oman, Libya, Lebanon, USA, Korea and Ireland.

UK property roadshow
Little wonder then that Malaysian firms want to get in on the act and sell UK property. I can’t find any figures on the total Malaysian investment in the UK or London property market however, the recent launch of a luxury development at Imperial Wharf, London, Malaysian buyers purchased £9.25 million (RM56 million) worth of luxury apartments and penthouses over the 2-day road show in Kuala Lumpur.

Olympic games
With more than 10,000 Malaysians studying in the UK and a number of companies keen to make the UK their European HQ, there are going to be plenty of willing buyers. Especially with the Olympics to held in London in 2012.

Wrong way to sell
But this is not the way to sell those properties. It dilutes the value of the property, negatively impacts the credibility of the local representation and makes it harder for future efforts to sell UK properties here in Malaysia. But worst of all, it portrays Malaysia as an amateur in a professional world.

Updated: 11th January 2010. I have since called the number on the bunting. I spoke to a nice guy with a pleasant attitude. I asked him where the property is. He stated the property was in South Ealing. As I know this area well I asked for the exact location and I consider it to be more Brentford than Ealing. He asked for my email address and promised to email me more information.

That was last Thursday, I have not received anything as of today.

Luxury branding in Malaysia & Asia

Despite the global economic meltdown, the development of the retail sector in Malaysia continues at a phenomenal pace with over 1,000,000 square foot of additional mall space becoming ready this year. Passing almost unnoticed however is the proliferation of international luxury brands in many of those malls. Familiar international names such as Asprey, Giorgio Armani, Prada, TOD’s, Van Cleef and Arpels and so on, have all entered the local market in recent years, encouraged by the success of exclusive names such as Bulgari, Cartier, Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Rolex and other famous names already familiar to KL shoppers.

Unusually in Malaysia, The Pavilion has clustered its luxury boutiques into a high profile area facing Bukit Bintang. Globally, this clustering of stores is nothing new. For centuries stores have organized themselves into districts based on what they sell – think Saville Row in London (tailors), Faubourg Saint-Honore in Paris (designer boutiques), Deira in Dubai (jewelry), and so on. The cluster approach allows the rich and famous to be dropped off in front of the store, rush in and make a purchase that would make a small African country drool and then rush out into the safety of the limousine without having to rub shoulders with the rakyat.

With its double story street facing façade the luxury section or ‘couture precinct’ of the Pavilion is an exciting development in the evolution of the retail sector in Malaysia. But there is one thing missing from this development. That is a luxury Malaysian brand.

And as Malaysia moves from an Original equipment manufacturer (OEM) economy to an Original brand manufacturer (OBM) economy, and the government rams home the need to move up the value chain, the retail sector, where so many Malaysian OEM cut their teeth, should be at the forefront of this step up the value chain. Especially as according to the MasterCard Worldwide Insight report, the value of the market for luxury products and services in the Asia-Pacific region will jump from US$83.3 billion in 2007 to US$258.7 billion in 2016. Not a bad segment.

What’s more, there’s already a ready made market because the largest number of tourist arrivals to Malaysia is from ASEAN countries, followed by Japan and China with India and the Middle East not far behind. And the burgeoning middle classes from these countries are notoriously brand conscious.

This interest almost obsession with brands is likely to continue according to Radha Chadha, author of “The cult of the luxury brand”. She believes that the Asian interest in luxury products is because of the massive changes – social, cultural, economic and political that have been affected by the traditional attitudes to who you are and where you are in the societal food chain.

She believes that over the past 50 or so years, many of the traditional cultural indicators of social standing in Asia – profession, family, clan, caste have been eroded by the onset of globalization, migration and education. Free of rigid social hierarchies, mass migration and the development of urban areas, more people are making money and making it faster. The way to differentiate oneself is by purchasing a luxury product that shouted, “I’ve got money, respect me.”

Displaying one’s status through outward appearances of rank and wealth is nothing new but Asians seem to have taken to it like the proverbial duck to water. And those LV bags, Chanel suits, Jimmy Choo shoes aren’t simple female indulgences, they are part of a new world order that identifies the wearers position in society. Indeed, these luxury brands are a modern set of symbols that Asian consumers are using to redefine their identity and social position.

The Japanese have been devouring brands for years. 94% of Japanese women in their twenties own a Louis Vuitton bag. In fact, the Japanese as a whole are the most brand conscious and a staggering 92 per cent of Japanese women own a Gucci bag, 57 per cent own a Prada one, and 51 per cent own a Chanel bag.

In fact, Japanese passion for luxury brands is so huge that they account for over 40 per cent of worldwide sales for most major luxury brands. Meanwhile, Asia accounts for a third of Louis Vuitton sales worldwide whilst Cartier depends on the region for half of its worldwide sales.

And what of China? According to the China Brand Strategy Association, 175 million Chinese people can now afford to buy luxury products. By 2010 their number is projected to reach 250 million. Already, Chinese consumers are responsible for about US$10 billion of global luxury sales. Following the announcement of the US$586 billion stimulus that is expected to encourage increased spending, 70% of consumers confirmed that they will spend more in the next 6 months than they did in the previous 6 months.

Rolls Royce, the iconic British luxury brand owned by BMW, expects to double annual sales volume from 1,000 to 2,000 when the new, smaller ‘Ghost’ is launched in 2010, many of the early enquiries for the yet to be launched model are from Asia. Not bad considering each car will cost over US$200,000.

So, with all this new found wealth in Asia, the time is ripe for the development of Malaysian luxury brands. And the good news is, Malaysian firms know how to manufacture quality products. They’ve been doing it for years for iconic brands such as Apple, GAP, Guess, Ralph Lauren and other well known global brands.

But developing a luxury brand is also like raising a family – it requires a long-term commitment and investment, attributes that don’t sit well with corporate Malaysia. It also requires limited production, value over volume, even with a successful line. It also requires quality, not only in production but also in marketing and service, especially service. Training of staff is key. Walk into the Cartier store in Kuala Lumpur and the staff will assess you based on a number of pre-determined factors. Pass the test and they’ll offer you a bottle of champagne to anesthetize the pain of the purchase!

Ongoing research is also critical to the long-term success of the luxury brand. Back in 1837, when Hermes was building its brand, the founders lent new products to customers to get feedback on how the products could be improved. Zara applies the same tactics today. If a new line doesn’t sell, it is pulled off the shelves immediately and replaced with a new range based on customer feedback on styles.

One mistake many brands make is that they ignore existing customers, preferring to always acquire new customers. The successful luxury brands have an ongoing relationship with their best customers who become brand ambassadors and grow the family.

And for those cynics who don’t think Malaysians can build luxury brands or that there is any money in luxury brands, think of Jimmy Choo, the closest Malaysia has come to a luxury brand. Six years after Jimmy Choo sold his 51% stake in his own company for US$25 million, TowerBrook Capital Partners recently paid more than US370 million for ownership of the iconic brand named after the charming cobbler born in Penang in 1961. And with annual sales that have grown since 2001 at a compounded rate of over 45% to more than US130 million today, the purchase looks like good value.

Another British based private equity group, Permira, paid US$3.5 billion a couple of years ago for the Valentino Fashion Group. This was one of the most talked about acquisitions of the year because although Valentino is a well respected brand in Europe, it does not have the penetration in Asia of say Giorgio Armani. This is reflected in the global sales of US$340 million for Valentino compared with US$3.1 billion for Giorgio Armani.

There is also a strong argument to suggest that luxury brands are recession proof. At the end of last year, when the American economy was in free fall, Saks Fifth Avenue had a massive sale, offering huge 70% discounts on iconic brands such as Manolo Blahnik and even Prada. However, at the Louis Vuitton shop inside the luxury department store, nothing was reduced. Recently, Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton announced that sales in its fashion and leather goods division, which includes Louis Vuitton, increased by 11% to $2.1 billion in the first quarter of 2009.

So, as the average tourist spends only 22% of his budget on shopping in Malaysia compared with 50% in Hong Kong and Singapore, the time is ripe for Malaysian firms to start building brands that can take pride of place alongside Canali, Ermenegildo Zegna, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Versace in places like the Pavilion, Star Hill and other prominent malls in KL.