Rimowa's chief marketer on the luggage brand's collaborations and keeping culturally relevant

Companies spend millions of dollars on advertising to encourage people to buy their products.

But a $1000-plus luggage range from 120-year-old German company Rimowa had people camping outside stores overnight and sold out in minutes online — without a proper advertising campaign.

The people in line, which stretched past Rimowa’s New Bond Street store in London, were there in the hope of getting their hands on a suitcase designed in collaboration with Supreme, the hip New York street-wear label that started out as a clothes brand for skateboarders. Supreme’s red-and-white logo was boldly featured on its suitcases, which usually only have discreet Rimowa branding, at the April launch.

The two might not seem like natural collaborators. Rimowa cases are known for their durability and upscale following — Britain’s royal family are said to be fans — and is majority-owned by French luxury conglomerate LVMH, which bought an 80 percent stake in the company for 640 million euros in 2016 (then $716 million). Supreme, meanwhile, opened its first store in downtown Manhattan in 1994, where a large central space encouraged skateboarders to ride right into it.

Luggage company Rimowa partnered with hip label Off-White on a transparent suitcase in June 2018
Rimowa
Luggage company Rimowa partnered with hip label Off-White on a transparent suitcase in June 2018

But the limited edition partnership worked because of the enduring appeal of the suitcases, which are recognized for their signature aluminum grooves, according to Rimowa’s Chief Brand Officer Hector Muelas.

“We have a very iconic product, that’s very classic and very timeless. In a way, it's a bit like a canvas as well. So collaborations are somehow a very natural extension of our marketing ‘playbook’ (or strategy), because the product really lends itself to (them),” he told CNBC at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity in France last week.

Instead of running an ad campaign to promote the Supreme collaboration, Rimowa reached out to well-known fans of the brand.

“Supreme is an interesting example because… we didn't do any marketing, zero marketing… All we had were friends of the brand, you know posting the product organically (on social media) as they travel and that's how it became, it just happened that the friends of the brand were Kim Kardashian and (Brazilian soccer star) Neymar Jr,” Muelas said.

"Marketers have impostor syndrome now more than ever" -Hector Muelas, Chief Brand Officer, Rimowa

These hugely influential social media stars are a surefire way of getting to fans of Supreme. “That particular culture does not appreciate when they're being (obviously) marketed to or talked to.”

The collaborations work in part because of existing relationships, Muelas said. “It's got to be authentic; it can't be a head scratcher. So in that case of Supreme, you know there's been a mutual admiration for many years. The people that work at Supreme have been Rimowa users for a very long time.”

Muelas was appointed Chief Brand Officer in June 2017, after three years as vice president of content and creative at LVMH, and two as a creative director at Apple. During his time at LVMH, he’d met Rimowa Chief Executive Alexandre Arnault (son of LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault), who was keen on his tech background.

The company has also produced cases with Italian fashion house Fendi — also part of LVMH — and most recently street-wear label Off-White, founded by designer Virgil Abloh, who is now artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton. The Off-White collaboration launched at Paris Fashion Week last week, with a transparent cabin bag listed online at $1,200. It’s sold out, but more will be available in U.S. and Asian stores next week. As Vogue magazine stated earlier this month, “If ever a ribbed aluminum suitcase could break the internet, Virgil Abloh was the man to put the wheels in motion.”

Designer Virgil Abloh with an Off-White x Rimowa suitcase at Paris Fashion Week in June 2018
Tristan Fewings | Getty Images
Designer Virgil Abloh with an Off-White x Rimowa suitcase at Paris Fashion Week in June 2018

Rimowa is also working on its classic designs, relaunching its original aluminum case earlier this month, and revamped its logo in January, to celebrate its 120-year anniversary.

For Muelas, the brand wants to tap into what luxury means right now and reach beyond core buyers who are mainly interested in the craftsmanship of the products. Younger generations want to show off their cultural status, not just their financial clout.

“Luxury still means (a high) price point and exclusivity to a lot of people. But it's also starting to be other things. Traditionally perhaps, (it) was more rooted on, you know, financial status and now it's maybe also related to cultural status. So you know, it's shifting maybe a little bit from what I own, to what I know, or what I experience, or what I stand for,” he told CNBC.

To that end, Muelas looks to hire creative teams who are less about the craft of copywriting or art directing, and more interested in lifestyle.

Luggage brand Rimowa revamped its logo in January 2018
Rimowa
Luggage brand Rimowa revamped its logo in January 2018

“The younger generations, they're more curators than they are craftsmen (and) that's cool. Ultimately, I just want people to have taste, and by taste I don't mean good taste in the way they dressed, but an understanding of culture and how to affect it and how to change it.”

Along with a shift in the nature of luxury, the role of the chief marketer is also changing, Muelas said. “Marketers today have more than ever the impostor syndrome. Because it's incredibly hard to know what's going on. Anyone that tells you that they have a brand strategy or a marketing strategy is either reverse engineering something that they've done and that works or, they're just lying,” he said.

Instead of focusing on tactical marketing that has a specific aim, which might include converting online browsers into buyers, marketers should think about their brands in a broader sense, Muelas said.

“I think ultimately, we have to make sure that we build brands that help people understand what they're buying into, such as a lifestyle, rather than what they're buying, such as just a product. And that's the general sort of role of the marketer… (to) create those narratives and create that story around a brand that either creates some sort of reaction emotional or otherwise.”