51 years without Coco. What’s going on with Chanel?

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On the anniversary of Coco Chanel’s death, Rose Sgueglia, a PhD Student in Media and Marketing at the University of South Wales, explores the brand strategy of one of the world’s most successful fashion houses.

According to the late Chanel fashion director, Karl Lagerfeld, Coco Chanel made two mistakes in her lifetime: denim and mini skirts. She hated both and refused to have any in her collections. She didn’t meet customers’ needs at the time and expected to keep the brand as it was, immune from any changes to its strategy and identity.

She did have a point. To this day, the Chanel brand is highly distinguishable and very difficult to miss in the chaos of the luxury brands world. Where the logos and fabrics of other maisons are mixed up, Chanel - its logo, signature pieces, perfume, history and aura surrounding it – has maintained a strong brand personality throughout the years.

This is a testament to mademoiselle Chanel and to late director, Karl Lagerfeld. If Coco was very careful to keep the brand true to self until her death, Lagerfeld went above and beyond. When he made his Chanel debut in the 80s after a stint at the Fendi maison, Lagerfeld found himself approaching a brand no one wanted to touch. Indeed, ‘don’t touch it’ is what endless people begged of him.

Thankfully, he didn’t listen and crafted the Chanel we know today: a brand so perfectly suspended between past and present which follows Coco’s principles of understated elegance and exclusivity, to this day.

However, its exclusivity does not come cheap. Following the pandemic, the brand’s net profit followed a steep decline of 18% from its 2020 figures, according to Reuters. This is product of the maison’s caution towards the online world, particularly concerning fashion, accessories and fine jewellery. As it currently stands, these items cannot be bought online but only through the Chanel boutique network.

Our research looks at the Chanel’s brand strategy approach considering key-areas including celebrity studies, aura and brand storytelling.

In 2016, an art exhibition “La Donna Che Legge” (The Woman Who Reads) looked at Coco Chanel’s personal belongings, possessions and letters. It highlighted Coco Chanel’s most personal items including books, letters and works of art.  It was an intimate approach to the designer and an art exhibition about her life as told through different texts. “La Donna Che Legge” brought the fashion house closer to the idea of art, adding a further layer of exclusivity to its brand.

If the Chanel maison moves seamlessly in the nostalgia arena reminding consumers of Coco’s ghost at every occasion, it is equally trying to embrace the digital world.

When it comes to digital marketing, Chanel has its very own approach to it. The brand doesn’t sell fashion, jewellery or accessories online but it boasts a state of the art website, app and a strong following on social media channels. Despite Chanel counting on local customers, loyal to the brand and what it represents, it also boasts a growing customer base online. This has an impact on other areas of the business such as cosmetics (grown 113% in 2020), which unlike other Chanel products, are available to purchase online.

Our research looks at how the Chanel’s brand is shaped by polar opposite influences – the nostalgia world and the digital world – and how these impact, if at all, consumers’ choices. It analyses at what is of consumed of Chanel, when and how (for example, social media memes, social media quotes, Instagram pictures or other digital texts). The research also considers brand control and how this gets dispersed in concepts of transmediality, looking at the relationship between different forms of media about Chanel, as these are disseminated by both media and online users.

With new biographies, movies and texts about Chanel being published and dispersed, online and offline regularly, it is difficult to anticipate what the future holds for the Chanel brand’s strategy. 2021’s profit forecasts show a strong come-back for the brand with profits seeing an exponential improvement, according to Vogue Business.

With Leena Nair, formerly from Unilever, joining the French luxury giant as their new CEO, seeing whether the brand will succeed in maintaining its dual strategy or, alternatively, succumb to selling online and fully embracing the digital world appears to be a waiting game.

One thing is for sure - both Chanel and Lagerfeld crafted a brand which is perfectly suspended, or at least strives to be, between past and present.  And, in so many ways, so are Chanel’s customers, new or old and just like the brand, stuck between past and present.

The brand strategy embraces the nostalgia, the history and the charm of a glamorous long-lost past while trying to meet the latest trends cautiously. It’s different and, as Coco herself would say, that is irreplaceable.

Rose Sgueglia is a writer, journalist and marketing consultant based in Cardiff. She is currently working on her PhD in Media and Marketing Studies at USW with a research project on Chanel. Rose is the founder of Miss Squiggles, a digital magazine and content agency. Her work has been published in different publications including GQ, La Repubblica, Yahoo and WI Life (a magazine for members of The Women’s Institute). She holds a BA in Journalism, Film and Media and a Post Graduate Diploma in Magazine Journalism from Cardiff University. She published The Real Coco Chanel in 2020 and The Real Leonardo da Vinci in 2021 by history publisher Pen & Sword. She is currently working on her third book.