September 25, 2018
"I don't do 'experiences' or 'storytelling'... I hate when people say 'your package is beautiful'. We are not about 'status' ... we are all about selling the best product!" Such statements might surprise, coming from Ramdane Touhami, a serial creator of Prestige and Lifestyle brands who has more recently focused on transforming businesses long on history but short on relevance into coveted Prestige brands - notably Cire Trudon and Buly - that stand out offering inspired, total ... experiences. - Sorry, Ramdane.
As we question him on these bold statements and probe deeper into what he means by 'selling' or 'best product,' it becomes clear that Touhami's definitions diverge from the norm and that he follows rather unconventional strategies. And, staying true to a reputation for being 'outspoken' he does not shy away from contrasting his approach to brand building - he talks about "building an institution" - to those of other players ranging from Aesop and Glossier to L'Oreal and Shiseido.
To us, it is a prime example of myth-making in marketing¹ when someone feels compelled to build a neo-romantic beauty boutique (half Classic, half Art Deco), calls it 'L'Officine Universelle Buly' (after a perfumer, distiller, cosmetician and boutique owner 'Bully,²' who, in 1809, invented an iconic multi-purpose 'vinaigre de toilette') and locates the it in the Rue Bonaparte or the former foundry where Rodin cast 'The Thinker' in Paris. And, in case you miss the mythic connection, a commemorative plate next to the door will tell you that Bully was the inspiration behind one of Honoré Balzac's heros (César Birotteau - its contested). Cards placed throughout the store and the uniformed boutique staff will share - in a whispering voice - stories about the place and each of the hundreds of products and potions on display. The 'vinaigre,' we are told, can tighten the skin as well as refresh the mouth.
Ramdane calls it "education" and the environment "hyper-real," with a reference to Umberto Eco³.
But hi-/story is just one ingredient. Touhami really employs all the latest strategies and tactics one finds in modern Prestige brand building and crafts them into unique expressions of Buly. As Ramdane tells us, the brand is on an important mission: To save traditional but effective beauty secrets from extinction. Products are made of exotic, artisan-sourced and elaborated ingredients from around the world - but eschew synthetic preservatives. (Does that sound traditional, yet 'of-our-time'?). Extreme attention is paid to package design featuring vintage graphics, glass, even marble and heavy metal lids. And what about the environment? The desire is for this exceptional packaging to be re-discovered and "re-used for decades to come".
The 'selling' includes a lot of un-hurried, highly choreographed rituals (taking time is luxury, after all) such as the origami-like⁴ folding of wrappers over your purchase complete with hand-calligraphed labeling. - That's called 'Personalization' in modern marketing speak. And, like most modern 'retail experiences', the latest Officine Buly has a 'food & beverage component'. But, of course, it is special one. The 'Cafe Tortoni' is a revival of the famed Paris cafe once frequented and written about by famed authors like Stendhal (in the 'Le Rouge et le Noir'), they serve Madeleines in honor of Marcel Proust... (you get the hang of it?)
Finally, we were told that a major investment into bringing Buly to life (and to your shopping cart) digitally "with a WOW" is close to coming to fruition. (Aka omni-channel and owned-media strategy.)
With this bit of background and our Ueber-Branding framework at hand, you are ready to dive into the interview with Ramdane. His wife, Victoire de Taillac-Touhami, makes a 'guest appearance' as well. Its rapid-fire and 'Franglish' at times but we are sure you'll find it inspiring and will want to study this "polymath entrepreneur" and his brand creations more once we are done (further reading provided right below). - Enjoy
For more insights into what drives the success of modern Prestige brands like Buly and many more read our book “Rethinking Prestige Branding – Secrets of the Ueberbrands” about the Ueber-Branding model and method of application and other posts on this blog-cast.
If you want us to help you elevate your own brand, then write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
¹ Read this article for a summary of the Ueber-Branding approach and this one specifically on Myth-Making and modern Prestige branding.
Here are links to the official 'Officine Universelle Buly' website as well as the Cire Trudon websites, and our Ueber-Brand case study of Cire Trudon - at a time when Touhami was still involved.
² The story has it that Touhami dropped the second 'l' in the original Bully to get around the unfavorable meaning in English.
³ Umberto Eco talked about a 'better-than-real' or 'fantastic past' as he explored American commercial life and visited Disneyland, which makes some sense when thinking about Buly. Read an essay on Umberto Eco's writing on Hyperreality and judge for yourself what the two brands might have in common.
Ramdane and his wife Victoire de Taillac-Touhami in the boutique in Daikanyama, Japan, the first outside France. This one is built-out half Modern-Minimalist , half Classic - literally.
Here is an interesting piece Dana Thomas has written about Ramdame, his legendary backgound story and his "French Empire" for the New York Times. Contrast it with an example of how it reads when a Luxury magazine reports on the 'historic French brand' or a fashion blogger's perspective - Blogger Irene says she loves the 'Pommade Virginale' and the brushes engraved with your name...
⁴ Another anecdote: Buly’s 'head wrapper' was trained by the only family that practices origata—the complex craft paper-folding previously reserved for the imperial Japanese court - of course.
For more about that origata wrapping technique, 'A day in the Life of Ramdame Touhami' - and the myth that Touhami's life itself has become by now - in this article in Kinfolk.
A bit of historic research into Jean-Vinvent Bully, the link to Balzac's hero (or not) and the re-interpretation by the Touhami's (- its in French).
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Ramdane Touhami - portrait by Lawrence Mynott