Luxury brands often use a style that transcends day-to-day human reality, creating a stylish and dramatic universe. If human brands always win, I’d love to see an explanation of why bazillions of dollars are being spent to do the exact opposite.
This hyper-fashionable style follows pattern, but the Chanel Mother’s Day ad breaks from it. When analyzing strategy, it is critical to pay attention to moves that are out-of-sync with the broader approach. These are either a mistake, or they are brilliant. Chanel are world experts in branding and print advertising, so it is worthwhile to do analysis to see if we can learn anything.
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Before looking at the Chanel Mother’s Day ad, I want to acknowledge that luxury advertising can seem like a totally different beast than other forms of marketing. Analyzing a high fashion ad is like talking about playing basketball on the moon. The rules may be the same, but the underlying environment is entirely foreign. You need direct experience to understand the game.
In the case of luxury ads, the “gravitational force” that is askew is brand. Companies like Chanel have a brand status that adds tremendous value to any product they sell. At the same time, all marketing activity needs to somehow reinforce this brand effect.
What do I mean by brand? It is an attractive force like gravity, but it is hard to explain. Those who haven’t done luxury advertising should acknowledge that we may not understand how these brand effects “work” in this case. There may be a lot going on that we are missing.
Chanel’s Brand Image
Quickly think of three words you would use to describe Chanel. Mine would be chic, fashionable, and expensive. I strongly suspect few people would include words like mom, family, or mother’s day.
Why doesn’t “mom” rank? Surely many of Chanel’s customers are mothers, but “motherhood” is not cool or fashionable. Many mothers want to be stylish, but “mom” as an archetype is uncool almost by definition. Most of Chanel’s ads emphasize chic luxury, which is not what I associate with mothers. Of course Chanel is delighted for mothers to buy their products, but they take care to not to make Chanel look like a brand “for moms.”
The Chanel Mother’s Day ad deviates from its conventional image. Doesn’t this have a chance of confusing their brand identity? It is hard for something to be both “family-friendly” and “sexy” or both “motherly” and “exclusive.”
How the Chanel Mother’s Day Ad Does Not Work
Let’s get back to the mother’s day ad – how does it work? When I first encountered this ad I came up with the following five explanations. I now believe they are all wrong, or at least incomplete. Let’s go through these wrong answers first…
Getting Wives to Ask Husbands for Chanel No. 5
It is worth asking who this ad is for. This is the question that I found the most perplexing when I first saw it. Mother’s Day is about giving gifts to moms. Is this ad meant to encourage kids to buy perfume for their mothers? Obviously not. Even an adult child with the money probably wouldn’t buy Chanel No. 5 for Mother’s Day – perfume is seen as a romantic gift.
This ad also doesn’t seem aimed at romantic partners. This ad is referencing the mother-child relationship, not the husband-wife relationship. If you really wanted to get men to buy perfume for their wives, you would (tastefully) suggest that gifting Chanel will get you laid. This ad is distinctly un-sexy. Men are also substantially less likely to recognize a bottle of Chanel No. 5 than women, so they may not “get the joke”.
This ad seems targeted at mothers themselves, which is odd because most mothers don’t buy themselves Mother’s day gifts. They may be encouraging women to ask their partners for perfume. Chanel No. 5 may not be the first Mother’s Day gift you think to ask for, but this ad could get mothers to broaden their thinking.
Normalizing Mothers Wearing Chanel
As mentioned above, luxury goods and motherhood aren’t a perfect fit. Moms might see classy perfumes as too indulgent. Stereotypes around motherhood are connected to sacrifice and putting your own needs and wants behind everyone else. It is hard to square this with the opulence of a brand like Chanel.
This ad attempts to normalize luxury motherhood. You can be a mom and still want to be chic. Asking for nice things (i.e., overpriced perfume) isn’t unmotherly. It stops short of portraying “chic motherhood,” which might go too far in transgressing the brand identity.
This explanation is weak, partly because it is assuming people put a lot more thought into the ads they see. As everyone should know, most people try to avoid paying attention to ads they see. Indirectly suggesting there is nothing unmotherly about expensive perfume is very unlikely to actually effect sales numbers.
Chanel No. 5 Is So Iconic that Even Kids Recognize It
Perhaps this is just a statement about how iconic the perfume is. It seems strange to advertise that you are iconic – that should be self-evident and is not a feature or benefit you experience when using the product. Still, popularity and fame are seen as a proxy for quality, so bragging about how well-known you are suggests your product is fabulous.
Maybe this is meant to actually be a joke? I don’t think many kids would recognize Chanel perfume, so the idea that a child would know what it is and decide to draw it for their mother is kinda funny. If this is a joke, one could ask questions about the effect this would have on their brand image. Luxury goods are inherently ridiculous, but they take themselves quite seriously.
We notice things that look out of place. This ad uses a style typical of other Chanel ads. The minimalist white, the defined shape of the bottle, and the bold black lettering. Here is what you see if you try to buy Chanel No. 5 on their website:
The Chanel Mother’s Day ad flips this on its head. Things that contradict our expectations really catch our attention. Once we notice it, we think about it, and then talk about it.
This explanation is probably the closest to what I now feel is the “correct” answer, but it lacks an important part – how are you influencing sales? Sure you get people thinking about the ad, but you still run into the problems around selling perfume on Mother’s Day.
Media Attention on the Chanel Mother’s Day Ad
In line with grabbing attention, Chanel might be hoping the campaign attracts a few articles in fashion blogs and popular media. Generating “buzz” is attractive, even if you are a fancy luxury brand.
In fact, a brand like Chanel wants to portray itself as more than a luxury brand. They want to act like they are a unique piece of culture. By generating online chatter about their advertising, they make themselves look more important than they are.
How the Chanel Mother’s Day Ad Actually Works
I originally wrote this article in May of 2022. I thought about this ad on-and-off for the past year, coming up with different theories and explanations of how it works. I have read multiple books, on brand and marketing, which have helped me piece together an explanation of how this ad works.
The first lesson that is important: this ad isn’t necessarily about driving short term sales. At the time I was originally writing this article I knew many forms of marketing had long-term effects, but I never really thought of advertisements that way. This concept is covered in many places, but I will specifically recommend the work from Les Binet and Peter Field.
One of the most important features of effective advertising is the use of distinctive assets, meaning logos, colors, characters, sounds, or other elements that are distinct to your brand. The role of advertising is to build, refresh, and reinforce our mental models about a specific brand. This leads to better “mental availability.” This is all explained in the highly influential “How Brands Grow” by Byron Sharp.
While these two ingredients explain a lot of what is happening here, I still didn’t quite understand how they operated in practice, or how this Chanel ad actually functioned. Was the kid’s drawing just designed to generate attention? Perhaps, but there is a deeper story, which was answered for me in “Make It Stick“. Seeing an image that uses the code of a brand does refresh our mental model, but asking the viewer to connect some dots greatly adds to the robustness of this effect. Piecing together the light “puzzle” of this ad magnifies the effect.
Is Chanel a “Human” Brand?
Whatever the reason, most of these explanations only work because Chanel is an “un-human” brand. Chanel has a specific brand image, and they are transgressing it in a clever and self-referential way. Imagine if McDonald’s ran a campaign like this – the juxtaposition wouldn’t have the same resonance, since kids drawing a burger and fries is far more common than luxury perfume.
None of this is to say “human” advertising is bad. Alchemy by Rory Sutherland, which discusses the advantages of human irrationality and its relation to branding and advertising. One point he makes is, “Sometimes the opposite of a good idea is also a good idea.” In this case, extremely human ads can be just as effective as extremely un-human ones.
Chanel’s ad campaign for Mother’s Day 2022 was a riff on the 2015 campaign. I think this lacks some of the elements to make the original campaign work. Would someone who hadn’t seen the 2015 campaign “get” it?
Still, you will notice that most of their advertising in the intervening 7 years does not follow this style.
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