INTERVIEW: Alex de Blonay of Pure DNA on building luxury property brands

Former Head of Branding at Candy & Candy talks to PrimeResi about what makes a great premium brand

alex de blonay pure dnaPure DNA has helped to create and enhance many of London’s most recognisable luxury property brands. Co-founder and Creative Director Alex de Blonay – a former Head of Branding at Candy & Candy – talks to PrimeResi about what makes a great premium brand, why successful branding is about so much more than an identity, and how businesses can benefit from personality.

  • What are the differences between branding for the prime property industry, and branding for other luxury sectors such as travel or fashion?

Only when evoking an emotion does a product become a brand. And this is true regardless of the sector. Successful brands have “fans”, not customers. These are the ones waiting with excitement for the next design or product. These people are likely to even accept a faulty product because they relate emotionally to the brand and want to support it regardless. This is when a brand becomes truly powerful, when people are ready to accept imperfection. Because it is more about the feel good factor of being part of and endorsing the brand rather than the technical specifications of it. I am an Apple fan for example, and my iPhone 6 has between switching itself off automatically with the cold. Yet, I haven’t complained and I still love the brand.

So whether we are working on a luxury residential property, a hotel or a jeweller, our first task is to uncover and establish what particular emotion, lifestyle, and attitude this brand will embody and express throughout every touchpoint. In other words, what is the core idea that will rally all target audiences (staff, partners, clients) to not only buy into the brand but become active advocates of the brand.

  • It’s widely reported that “branded residences” – such as those delivered by Yoo, Candy & Candy and Finchatton – command a price premium (which Knight Frank has estimated at 31%): what makes a development “branded”?
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=”18″]A brand is a business tool and the people behind successful property ventures, such as Yoo, are the ones who have considered the brand from the start and put it at the heart of every business decision[/pullquote]

A brand is a business tool and the people behind successful property ventures, such as Yoo, are the ones who have considered the brand from the start and put it at the heart of every business decision. Philippe Starck’s design philosophy and products are linked to an ideal lifestyle. One that is based on the way design enhances one’s lifestyle. And the people they have chosen to subsequently be part of and represent the brand are very much aligned with his approach. Everything, from people, products and communication, coherently and consistently express the brand’s particular lifestyle promise – to a targeted audience who, judging by their continued success, clearly relates to and buys into it. Beyond the significant lifestyle aspect, the brand also acts as a label of quality and trust. Which, in the property world, where off-plan selling is key to a developments success, provenance and security are paramount. So regardless of whether it’s investors or end users, people are understandably prepared to pay a premium for this.

  • You were Head of Branding at Candy & Candy and worked on One Hyde Park. That scheme still sets the benchmark for a “branded residence”. What from a marketing identity perspective  made it  so effective?
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=”18″]The success of One Hyde Park was based on their vision to create something that had never been done before and to clearly aim it at the world’s elite[/pullquote]

Nick and Chris are the type of people who understand the power of a brand and the necessity to embed it in every business decision. They are also visionaries, which is another important element of the success of a brand – its vision. The success of One Hyde Park was based on their vision to create something that had never been done before and to clearly aim it at the world’s elite. The product was right because it set the bar higher than anything else on the market and the moment was right because there was nothing in London which could compete. Differentiation is also key to a brand standing out and One Hyde Park was and remains highly differentiated. The next element of ingenuity was to focus our attention on balancing a global whisper campaign with complete exclusivity of access. A tactic which is still used by most developers today.

  • Your co-founder, Giles Fisher, had quite the varied career  from shipping and recruitment to running a high-end furniture company (Dragons of Walton Street)  before co-founding Pure DNA. How did Pure DNA come about?

Pure DNA specialises in building brands, products and services aimed at the world’s elite. Through Giles’ family background growing up and through running the renowned Dragons of Walton Street, Giles has an innate understanding of the attitude and lifestyle of our clients’ target audience. This coupled with his entrepreneurial experience and his natural ability to engage with people made him the perfect partner to start the business with and to create exciting opportunities for both Pure DNA and our clients.

  •  You’ve said that “successful brands are organised around a ‘core idea’ that is activated consistently throughout the business’ ecosystem”; could you expand on that?

The key to a brands survival is to stay true to its core DNA. A business must know what not to change. And the core idea, the driving force behind the brand is one thing that should not be changed. To come back to the Apple example, consider that their brand positioning statement is “Amaze the world, Amaze yourself.” Now, the latest key note left everybody disappointed (again) that they had really not been working on anything new or amazing. They are starting to fail on their brand promise and this is when people start noticing the technical issues and start losing their loyalty to the brand.

  • What provides the greatest steer to a project: the target audience or the product?

It is clear that the best way to build a strong business, and brand, is to start with a great product or service. And the more differentiated the product is, the more the brand stands out and the less marketing one needs to promote it. But to be successful, a product or service must be clear at whom it is targeted. One can’t be everything to everyone. So they must be considered in tandem.

  • Heritage has always been an important part of luxury brands, and we’re now seeing a trend towards “story-selling” in new property developments – from glass towers in Wapping to historic conversions in Edinburgh – where a site’s history is integrated into a brand narrative. How effective do you think this is, and is it a peculiarly British trend?

The most successful brands bring themselves to life. They’re almost like real people. Real people have a point of view. Real people have back story. The more you can communicate that sense of “real person” to your audience, the more emotional engagement you create. A brand must find its own voice, build meaning and be different. So the importance of brand narrative isn’t a particularly British trend. Although, we are lucky that in London we have a lot of history which buyers are sensitive to and want a piece of.

  • A rebrand whether a complete re-imagining or just a design tweak is a major undertaking for most organisations. How do you know when such drastic action is required?

Branding starts with one’s business strategy. What one wants to achieve, what makes one different and what one’s customers are looking for. To create a brand, one has to be focused. You have to establish a clear mission, a core message that resonates with people. You build a brand by staying aligned, coherent and true to your core mission at all times and across all business activities. So I would really only advise a complete rebrand, and by that I am not just meaning graphic work but firstly strategic work, if a client’s business strategy is fundamentally changing or if that business never properly built its brand foundations from the outset and the client is finding it difficult to communicate the business vision and get buy-in from all of its stakeholders (staff, suppliers, clients).

  •  How deeply is a brand entrenched in a business or new development: can a simple “badging” exercise ever work, or does it need to be integrated from an early stage?

It really depends on what the business objectives are. In the property boom we have experienced in London in recent years, there has been a lot of “badging”. Products were shifting. Now that things are slowing down and so many units of near equal quality are coming to the market, the ones that will succeed are the ones which will have a solid brand behind them. If the location is similar, the product and prices are similar, people will give their trust to brands who have a proven track record and the ones who offer a lifestyle, a brand promise which resonate with the buyers. When it comes to products, and even more so in the luxury industry, it is clear that the businesses who choose to go down the “badging” route inevitably realise that to compete they need a differentiated image, voice, positioning. Strategic brand development is the foundation from which all effective brand communications (advertising, marketing, PR, etc) must originate. It is the starting point of any successful brand journey. That’s where we come in.

  • Branding is clearly important, but it seems to be essentially intangible; how can you put a value on a brand identity?

There is a difference between branding and a brand identity. A brand identity is only one expression of a brand. Branding defines exactly why your audiences (employees, partners, customers) should trust and remember your advertising, marketing and public relations.

Branding answers the questions of who you are, why you matter, what makes you different, what you stand for and why your audiences should believe in you and buy into you. A brand is the memories, the experiences a customer has with you. It is the overall experience.

A logo and all other communication platforms are tools used to reinforce, over time, what your brand is about and why people should keep buying into you. So in a way, marketing, advertising and PR are tactics to promote the brand and as such can be seen as cost centres. Branding is about building trust, credibility, loyalty and therefore long term value in your business. Investing in your brand also means investing in your employees. When employees know and buy into the brand they work for and what it stands for they give a better service. So the ROI is recognition in the market and a constant building of a business’ reputation. And one can’t grow without the other.

  • High-end brands used to be able to be very particular about where and how they appeared in the media, but the internet and social media has made such control almost impossible. How can premium brands harness – and protect themselves from – viral media and the “free web”?

I think the question of losing control online is not a relevant one anymore. Luxury brands have mastered social platforms which have been migrating towards a visual conversation made of ‘likes’ and ‘hearts’. By spending a little time exploring today’s successful platforms, such as Instagram or Snapchat one can instantly see that luxury brands are in control of they way they choose to bring to life their distinctive personalities.

  • Which new technologies most excite you for their potential to transform and enhance branding?

I guess like everybody else across most markets, VR is probably the most exciting technological advancement. We are currently using it in one of our property projects and looking into developing it further for a hotel project. As I said above, the more a brand comes alive the more people connect with it and VR is the next best thing to reality. Especially when selling products that don’t exist yet or can’t be experienced in person. I look forward to the day when the senses of smell and touch can somehow be added to the mix.

  •  Which Pure DNA project are you most proud of, and why?

I am really proud of all our projects and clients. They all present a different set of challenges and business objectives and we enjoy working through them to find strategic and creative solutions for them. In terms of pride, I guess the thing I am the most proud of at Pure DNA is our team. It really feels that we are on a journey together and every day, each team member is fundamental in shaping what we will be tomorrow. Pure DNA and our clients are very blessed to have a focussed collective of individuals that work really hard and are amazing at their jobs.

  • Is there a particular luxury property brand that you wish you had created or been involved with?

I think the next generation of luxury property brands to hit the market are the ones that excite me the most. I am particularly excited to see the redevelopment of the Old War Office buildings which will undoubtedly change the face of this part of London. I am also really excited by the redevelopment of the American Embassy. The iconic nature of the building and the opportunity to give this prestigious square a pumping heart open to the public will be formidable. The Lodha scheme on Grosvenor Square is also very clever and differentiated because of who they have on-board to create the product but also who they are targeting it at. I am also anticipating great things with the Alchemi scheme on 5 Strand. Between them and David Adjaye, there are some exciting and differentiated developments which will revive this side of St James’.

  • You host regular lunches for key players in the luxury property industry at some of London’s top venues; how important is it for Pure DNA to be seen as a facilitator for business as well as a branding house?

de blonay fullIt is not so much a question of “being seen” but actually doing it. Facilitating new business opportunities for our clients is very much part of our DNA. It is actually the “A” of our DNA. We call it “Alchemy”. And it is a crucial part of our offer. Because the brands we help build are an infinite priority to us. We constantly think of ways to create new business connections and opportunities and our lunches are a wonderful way to connect with like-minded people on a personal level.

  • What, in your view, are the most exciting luxury property brands operating right now?

There are many new players in this market who have assembled world class teams to deliver hugely iconic projects. I am excited to see what they will deliver.



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