Note: This column originally appeared on the Forbes CMO Network on July 9, 2012.
It came as quite a surprise recently when iconic fashion brand Yves Saint Laurent announced that it will change its name to "Saint Laurent Paris."
Why, I wondered, would one of the most well-known, respected, and historic couture houses put its considerable and longstanding brand equity at risk? What could removing the founder’s first name accomplish? Why would newly instated creative director Hedi Slimane rename the label before his first collection even hit the runway?
Despite all the buzz that the announcement created, there was nothing to back it up. No logo design previews. No interviews with Slimane. No substantive explanation.
Shaking my head in bewilderment, it occurred to me: Could this be a red herring?
Rebranding almost always causes a stir. A new name or logo gets people thinking and talking, and all of a sudden everyone has a point of view. Remember the Gap fiasco? Press coverage skyrockets and emotions surface that consumers didn’t even know they had. People who may have never owned anything from the YSL brand are finding themselves feeling sad and nostalgic. But why?
For Slimane, this could all be some kind of performance art, extending the spectacle of the runway to a larger, and longer, exhibition of the brand itself. He could argue that announcing a new name is a gesture toward Saint Laurent’s trademark penchant for controversy—pants for women, ready-to-wear clothes, black models, perfumes called "Opium," and so on. Whatever the explanation, the practical gains would be tons of publicity—for both the brand and Slimane himself—and broad crowdsourcing, all at virtually no cost.
If "Saint Laurent Paris" is a reality, it’s a risky choice. To begin with, distancing the brand from its namesake—the man who truly personified its style and vision—could alienate longtime loyal customers. Few brands have a compelling and iconic ambassador, and the ones that do (Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Ralph Lauren) celebrate rather than downplay them.
Adding "Paris" to the brand name is equally questionable because it takes the brand down-market. Firmly established in the small and exclusive canon of haute couture, YSL would compromise that status by heavy-handedly pointing out its flagship location. Very few other prestigious brands include their place of origin in their names. Instead, they assume an informed customer base—one who either knows their brand for its products or image, or one who is educated enough to guess that "Georgio Armani" is Italian and "Christian Lacroix" is French. "Saint Laurent Paris" implies a much less sophisticated audience.
At this point, there is nothing left for the fashion community to do than to sit back, speculate and wait to see what Slimane has up his haute couture sleeve. Maybe, come the spring shows, Slimane will reveal that he’s not changing the name—and never planned to. Or maybe he will. If the objective is to build buzz, then he has succeeded beyond belief. If the objective is to revive the 1960s look and feel, why not simply use “Rive Gauche,” in homage to the 1966 YSL line, "Saint Laurent Rive Gauche" (and the eponymous boutique on the Place Saint Sulpice)? Adding "Paris" is just, well, gauche.
About the Author
Barbara Apple Sullivan is Managing Partner of Sullivan, a brand engagement firm she founded in 1990.
Barbara holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a BS in economics from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
Follow Barbara on Twitter @bapplesullivan