In our Brand Profile Series, we take a closer look at surging brands across the world. In our fourteenth profile, we take off with 120-year-old German luggage maker Rimowa.
A new journey
2018 is setting out to be another busy year for Rimowa. Following its 2017 purchase by luxury conglomerate LVMH, the storied luggage brand, based in Cologne, Germany, just unveiled a complete rebranding to celebrate its 120th anniversary. The effort is part of a plan by Alexandre Arnault, the LVMH scion who led the acquisition of the brand and now serves at its CEO, to modernise the brand and transform it into the ultimate “travel company”. Now is a good time, then, to take a look back at how the company went from small artisan workshop to globe-trotter staple, and where it can go from there.
Rimowa’s strategy can be summed up in the words of former owner and CEO Dieter Morszeck: “handmade meets high-tech”. Where companies like Goyard or Globe-Trotter have remained specialised in 19th century style trunk making, Rimowa constantly improved its luggage to adapt to the evolutions of travel, coming up with the first aluminium trunk in the market in 1937. As air travel explodes in the second half of the 20th century, the need for lighter, sturdier and more practical luggage is met by Rimowa, with innovations like polycarbonate shells, multi-wheel configurations or electronic luggage tags. Interestingly though, the brand managed to mix these innovations with manual assembly and true artisan labour, preserving the luxurious image (and prices) of the brand against new competitors such as Samsonite or Tumi. This is representative of a certain approach to luxury, more commonly found in countries like Germany or Switzerland, where the mix of innovation and craftsmanship have led to the creation of luxury icons like Mercedes-Benz cars, Rolex watches – and Rimowa luggage.
Rimowa's new groove
A trademark style is often what differentiates an icon from the rest of the luggage carrousel. A cult monogram (think Louis Vuitton’s Iconogram), an instantly recognisable logo (Polo Ralph Lauren’s pony) or even a namesake colour (Ferrari Red, for one), can turn a mundane object into a style statement. That is very much the case with Rimowa’s emblematic grooved design. The grooves, which have adorned most of the company’s collections over the last 80 years, source their inspiration from the first passenger planes during the golden age of aviation. Even though advanced alloys, carbon fibre and plastics have long replaced pure aluminium in both plane and luggage design, the “original luggage with the grooves” still conjures up images of a time when traveling was a more glamourous affair, with great commercial success.
In this context, the new branding, unveiled in January 2018 to celebrate the brand’s 120th anniversary, sends out mixed signals. The grooved design, streamlined to an almost abstract evocation, makes its appearance on product packaging, price tags and stationery alike. The logo, however, with its recognisable wide, utilitarian font and capsule design, is replaced by a slim, elegant if somewhat boring sans serif logo. Similarly, the new monogram, inspired by the original design, fails to distinguish itself from other well-known M-based logos from brands like Monocle or Moncler. Overall, the redesign pushes for a more streamlined, black & white minimalist take on the brand image. Does it look more luxurious? Certainly. But it also displays considerably less personality – and unicity – than the previous iteration. For a company hell-bent on becoming the luggage choice for (affluent) millennials, it remains to be seen whether that choice is the way to go.
All aboard Air Millenial
At just 25 years old, Alexandre Arnault, the new Rimowa CEO is very much in tune with changing trends in customer engagement. His arrival at the company launched a complete rethink of its sales and communication models. In late 2017, whilst celebrating the launch of a new Rimowa pop-up store in LA, Mr Arnault confessed his ambition for Rimowa to become the “one place where you can find everything related to travel — not only products, also services.” Retail-wise, that means upgrading their network of stores, which will be more “experiential”, and may sell products from other brands: magazines, travel books, toiletries or stationery, and more. The company is also stepping up its e-commerce efforts, acknowledging that people are more and more switching to online shopping for bulky objects like luggage. The aim, according to Mr Arnault, is to become the ultimate travel brand for millennials. To achieve this, the company will have to seriously rethink both its physical and online presence, and start a real conversation, with original and insightful content, with its community.
A risk of turbulence?
Historically, the Rimowa brand has flourished on the wings of the growing travel industry. With air traffic set to grow at an estimated 4.4% per year for the next 20 years (source: Airbus/ICAO, 2017), the need for light, stylish and durable luggage is only set to grow. But as is often seen nowadays, rosy prospects don’t necessarily translate into easy profits. The disappearance of brand loyalty, the rise of cheap, qualitative alternatives by industry newcomers and changing styles and tastes make for a challenging environment in the best of times. Luckily, Rimowa can count on the resources of its new parent company LVMH to help it grow and transform from a luggage brand to a travel company. Let’s hope it manages to do so while retaining its singular identity.