Prof. Dr Felicitas Morhart from the University of Lausanne is Professor of Marketing at the Department of Economics. Although she never intended to pursue an academic career, the right doors opened for her during her studies, as she tells us. Prof. Dr. Felicitas Morhart teaches mainly in the field of branding with a focus on luxury brands and is also the founder of the Swiss Center for Luxury Research. We talked to her about her work in the field of luxury brands, learned about the importance of branding in the luxury sector – and whether the pandemic has changed that.
Prof. Dr. Morhart, thank you very much for being with us today! In addition to your work as a marketing professor, you are the founder of the Swiss Center for Luxury Research – please tell our readers a little about it
The Swiss Center for Luxury Research is an academic institution, but it has a public-private partnership with a medium that has also just been founded and that specialises in journalism about the luxury industry. This business partner and I have noticed that there is no luxury expertise, especially in Switzerland, that really specialises in this topic. There are consultancies that do studies on the industry, there are also events on the topic, but the research has not really specialized in it because it is not recognized as an independent domain – not yet. In journalism, too, the topic has so far been regarded as too small a field. We have seen a niche and seem to have struck a chord with the zeitgeist as companies are extremely grateful that this think tank now exists – especially because the industry itself is struggling a bit with its image. It is a very glamorous and interesting industry, but it is not recognised as a real “hardcore industry”. It’s the business of the rich and beautiful, but you can’t really take it seriously – to put it bluntly. Of course, it helps to institutionalise the whole thing and say, for example: OK, what can we foresee for the future? This industry in particular is subject to unbelievable changes due to increasing democratisation, digitalisation and globalisation, and is also subject to great criticism in the area of sustainability and the increasingly widening gap in social injustice.
In your view, what is the importance of brand in the luxury sector? Where are the differences to brands in other sectors?
I hope I’m not stepping on anyone’s toes here, but I would say that in the luxury sector, the brand is the most important asset of all. Hardly any other sector can say that the brand is so expensive, that it costs the customer so much, because the big difference in the luxury sector – also in contrast to premium products – is that often the brand itself is a certain performance attribute and there is also a relationship between the functional or economic value of the good, the brand and the price one pays. In the case of the luxury brand, this functional or economic argument is not given; there, the financial value is primarily charged by the symbolic and experiential value – and of course all of this is in the brand. The brand has the story, has the whole universe, has incorporated the whole dream, which of course also costs money to maintain.
Luxury brands often have a large fan base. In your opinion, what is important when a company wants to win over its own employees as fans and ambassadors?
In my opinion, it’s best if employees are brand ambassadors right from the start – it’s difficult to turn employees into ambassadors afterwards, in my opinion. But I know what you’re getting at – for me, it’s important that the intrinsic motivation of the employees is there, i.e. real enthusiasm for the brand, for the employer, for the products, for the community of this brand community. In my opinion, it is important that a company pays attention to whether the people have the same values, whether they are interested in the company. Luxury brands, for example, have an extreme advantage because there are many young people who are already involved with this market purely because they are fans. Even though they don’t even own a product from this brand – for them it’s simply the dream of being able to work for this brand, because for them it embodies a story, values or a world that simply resonates with their identity. And that is of course the best prerequisite if you already have fans who love the brand from the start.
The inevitable question: How does the COVID crisis change the brand environment in your view? Will these changes be permanent or temporary?
Such a difficult question! In fact, it would also be presumptuous to think I have an answer. So I can only give my own highly unqualified opinion. I think that it will depend very much on how much the consumers have been affected by COVID.
On the one hand, people have been hit hard financially, so the issue will be that people will spend less money, some will have to switch to white labels or simply take the cheaper option, because their wallets are simply tight. But then I also believe that people have had time to think during the crisis and that many have reflected on the things that are important to them – things like clothes, food, a lot of quality consciousness and value consciousness has arisen. The topic of sustainability has naturally become more present, which is why I believe that the brands that have always been strong and have always stood up for values will continue to do well. I see that there are extreme differences in what has happened to the brands in the luxury industry. Some brands have had better years, even during COVID, and then there are those that simply continue to reflect this stability of value. Especially in times of crisis, we want to have security and luxury brands or strong brands radiate this security. And then there are other brands that have been on shaky ground from the start, that were either still very fresh or that have often lost their way, and they simply cannot reflect the security that people actually want to see and that cannot offer this stability of value. I think there are winners, but they will be the usual suspects, who have always been on the right track.
And last but not least: What was your favourite brand in your childhood and what is it today?
That is also a really difficult question. Since I was a child, I’ve had a total fascination for Switzerland, even though I’d never been there as a child. But I knew I wanted to live and work in Switzerland one day – it was probably due to Heidi. And my favourite brand was Lindt. Unfortunately, that didn’t last – but not because I don’t like Lindt anymore, but because I simply don’t eat chocolate anymore. That’s sacrilegious here in Switzerland, of course, but things have changed so that today my favorite brand is simply Switzerland itself.