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How the Birkin Bag Keeps its Cool –– The Ultimate Lesson in Exclusivity as a Product Marketing Strategy

Tracey Wallace / 3 min read

The “It” item comes in many forms, most of which you know well by name alone: Birkenstocks, the Fendi baguette, Chanel No 5. All brands seek to create the next must-have, but “It” items are not fleeting. They are not part of a larger trend, they do not seek virality. They are, to say the least, staples in cultures throughout the globe –– and it is most often the luxury brands among us which create them.

The most notorious “It” item, however, is the Birkin bag, originally designed for actress and singer Jane Birkin, who needed a carryall bag to handle her Hermès diary, among other things. Since that first production, the Birkin bag has become for the fashion world what Babe Ruth is for baseball –– a unicorn, of sorts.

The Birkin bag is as elusive as it is exclusive, in both price and availability. The bag has remained the handbag industry’s most coveted item for more than 20 years. That is some serious staying power for a relatively simple bag (in looks alone, the design itself takes some 18 hours and is done by a single craftsman).

Of course, this exclusivity is likely what keeps the bag at the top of every single list. It is impossible, for instance, for you to walk into an Hermès store and simply buy one –– even if you could afford to shell out the minimum price of $10,000. No, to get a Birkin, you must be on an elite list.

“No one can walk in and buy a Birkin ‘from the back,’” Michelle Goad, CEO of P.S. Dept., a personal shopping app that services 20,000 luxury customers globally, told the Business of Fashion. “The key to getting one is to find someone who has a relationship with one of their associates, [which means they’ve] bought one in the past. Think of it like being interviewed. You have to have a purchase history at the store to just get started, then they meet with you, assess how serious you are about spending, and then you go on their list.”

That list, by the way, can produce a 10 to 15 year wait time. So, to be sold a Birkin, you must have already bought one –– unless you happen to be lucky enough to know someone who has and is willing to recommend you. But, this is the secret to Hermès’ genius Birkin bag marketing: exclusive referrals which breed high-profile publicity.

Indeed, Hermès does not market the Birkin through traditional print, online or TV advertising. Instead, the company relies solely on the function of desire, allowing want-to-be customers to produce their own marketing. Among the books and TV shows that not only mention the bag, but center episodes, chapters or entire novellas on it include:

  • Sex and the City
  • Gilmore Girls
  • Bringing Home the Birkin: My Life in Hot Pursuit of the World’s Most Coveted Handbag
  • Primates of Park Avenue

And that isn’t mentioning the nearly 17,000 news articles on a subject of which its design hasn’t changed in two decades. In other words, the Birkin bag is not news –– it is pop culture.

Secrecy and success seem to be quite correlated when it comes to the Birkin bag, and Hermès has never released numbers on the amount produced each year nor the sales generated from them. But, according to Business of Fashion, “in Hermès’s 2014 fiscal year, sales of leather goods and saddlery reached $2 billion, up nearly 13% from 2013. And in the first quarter of 2015, category sales jumped nearly 25% from last year’s same quarter.”

Keep in mind, this is all occurring at a time in which most luxury brands are struggling globally in the face of changing Chinese and Russian markets, and when major currency imbalances among regions has chilled shopping on the higher end. It’s why so many luxury brands are finally turning to ecommerce and luxury marketplaces –– because they need that extra revenue to stay afloat.

But not Hermès –– and that is likely thanks to the Birkin. In fact, as the Birkin bag’s production has increased, so too has demand, and Hermès seems to be doubling down on the reliable sales of the bag, with some 200 new craftspeople being trained in the category every year. Don’t worry, though. This won’t immediately increase the bag’s availability. Craftspeople for the Birkin are trained a minimum of five years –– more if they want to work with exotic skins.

For reference, the new 40 cm crocodile Birkin is priced at $68,000, and vintage bags are being auctioned off in Dallas and Hong Kong for upward of $200,000. Those are numbers not even Chanel can pull in.

“Hermès was very smart in not flooding the market with Birkins,” said Mario Ortelli, a luxury goods analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein, referencing the bag’s first 20 years of existence. “Even as it has become more mass, it’s distributed around the world and not very exposed.”

In all, the Birkin bag’s popularity is due to extremely strategic product marketing efforts in which a brand avoided mass hype, rewarded those with friends in the right places and used craftsmanship, exclusivity and secrecy to build success sans any type of hard sell.

“Sooner or later, there will be another iconic product from another iconic brand,” said Ortelli. When, which brand and what product that will be is in the hands of creative and innovative marketers the world over.

Photo: Flickr, Wen-Cheng Liu

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