Louis Vuitton knows how to target an audience with rock celebrities. The iconic luxury brand is working with another iconic brand, David Bowie, to produce the second television spot ever aired in the company’s 160-year history. The ad, an installment in Louis Vuitton’s “L’Invitation au Voyage” series, will feature the Thin White Duke in an as-yet undefined role. But given Bowie’s well-known sense of style and visual storytelling, you can be sure the ad will be memorable — and another smart musical pairing that positions Louis Vuitton as a classic, upscale choice for the affluent Baby Boomer generation.
Louis Vuitton’s advertising relationship with musicians is somewhat complicated. On the one hand, hip-hop artists such as Kanye West and Wiz Khalifa have name-checked the company in their song lyrics. West is a self-proclaimed Louis Vuitton Don and designed his own line of Louis Vuitton sneakers. In fact, the 2000s have been cited as “the decade of Louis Vuitton” in the hip-hop music industry, so often have hip-hop artists attempted to appropriate the brand in very public ways.
But just because hip-hop loves Louis Vuitton, it doesn’t mean Louis Vuitton loves hip-hop. In 2008, the company (along with Gucci) stopped rapper TI from releasing a video for the song “Swing Ya Rag,” because the TI used the company’s products in the video without seeking permission. Kanye West says the company shut down his attempts to market the sneakers he designed. And Louis Vuitton has largely steered clear of hip-hop in its own marketing. Instead, the fabled brand has worked with mainstream rock artists, typically established names such as Bono, Madonna, and Keith Richards.
The ads have typically featured rock artists in their natural element, with Louis Vuitton products inserted naturally into the moment. For its 2010 series with Bono, Bono and his wife Ali Hewson toted Louis Vuitton bags while departing a small plane wearing clothing from Hewson’s Edun label, which seeks to encourage trade in Africa (a famously important cause to Bono).
A 2008 advertising campaign featured Keith Richards strumming on a guitar in a hotel room. He sat on a bed, with a book and teacup resting on a custom-made Louis Vuitton guitar case at his side. The room was decorated as you might expect a room inhabited by Richards to look: adorned with scarves (printed with skulls) and a skull resting on a table.
Significantly, Louis Vuitton depicted Richards as we know him today: an accomplished, weathered guitarist who changed rock history — not the anti-establishment, drug-addicted gypsy he actually was when he was having his biggest impact on music.
The Richards ad was part of a series focusing on “achievers who changed things,” such as Mikhail Gorbachev. At the time, Antoine Arnault, Louis Vuitton’s head of communications, said the ads were created to play up Louis Vuitton’s heritage and court older customers who had been alienated when the brand became more fashion conscious.
“Keith Richards is timeless and ageless,” said Rita Clifton of brand consultant Interbrand. “He’s lived his life on the edge, but he’s not a sleaze bag. He’s lean and mean and he’s still current.” It’s doubtful that the Keith Richards of 1968, who once uttered, “We are not old men; we are not concerned about petty morals,” would have found a home with Louis Vuitton, for the same reason you don’t see the likes of marijuana-smoking hip-hop stars like Wiz Khalifa or 2 Chainz in a Louis Vuitton ad anytime soon. They’re just too risky.
Which brings us to David Bowie: here’s a man as legendary for his decadence as he is for his music. The rocker has openly admitted that his heavy drug use in the 1970s nearly killed him while he was creating transformative record albums such as StationtoStation and Low. But the drugs are behind him. The 66-year-old Bowie circa 2013 is known more for being a musical innovator with a keen sense of style. Six of his works rank in Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest albums of all time. He also earns a spot on Esquire‘s list of “The 50 Most Stylish Musicians of the Last 50 Years” for his embrace of androgynous fashion.
In other words, David Bowie circa 2013, not David Bowie at the height of his fame in the 1970s, is the perfect fit for a brand that describes itself as “a world of elegance, inspiration, and innovation.” And like Bono, Madonna, and Keith Richards, Bowie is the kind of star who now appeals to a Baby Boomer generation — the affluent demographic that has become increasingly larger and more important as our population ages.
Louis Vuitton has not forgotten the younger generation, though. Its Journeys Awards short film competition, juried by a decidedly hip, young group of artists, courts younger filmmakers. Its Webby award winning NOWNESS digital magazine clearly targets a younger audience through the content it curates. For instance, the NOWNESS music section recently featured articles about younger, indie musicians such as Danish group Efterklang and hip-hop performance artist Zebra Katz. NOWNESS shares branded editorial content, which gives Louis Vuitton license to act more like a publisher.
Publishing a content destination for a younger audience while focusing on the Baby Boomer demographic with its celebrity advertising is a smart strategy: the company can push the boundaries of its brand while still playing it safe for the affluent Baby Boomers. Louis Vuitton has figured out how to have its cake and eat it, too.