Branding, the Birkin bag and damage control

Jane_birkin_1 I managed to make it to mid life without ever hearing about the Birkin bag, but then some kinds of knowledge, perhaps the most important things, are withheld from the anthropologist.

I wasn’t ready.   I didn’t know enough.  This was insider  knowledge I would have to earn. 

Naturally, just about everyone else knew, including a dear friend, Joan Kron, who owns a Birkin, and my wife, who would dearly love to.  Birkins are made by Hermes and they cost between $6000 to $75,000.  They were named for an English singer, Jane Birkin (pictured), who took French popular music by storm in 1968 with ‘Je t’aime moi non plus," a song that drew the censure from the Vatican.  Jane Birkin won still more notoriety by appearing naked in bed with Bridget Bardot.  This plus her "I’ve been idea-free for a decade" beauty endeared her mightily to the French (who have been idea-free for much longer) and prepared her to leave her mark not just on music but on handbags. 

According to the origin myth, as reported to the New York Times by Andrew Litvak, here’s what happened. 

[Jane] was on an airplane one day, and the guy next to her was the president of Hermès. He looked at the bag that she was carrying, which was a form of the Birkin bag but was in canvas or something, and he said to her, ‘Hey, how would you like it if we designed a bag like yours?’ It would be the first bag since Grace Kelly that we’ve given an actress’s name to. And Jane said, ‘Sure, that would be great.’ So she drew up a sketch."

All brands should be born this way, from contact, between a mortal and a goddess, as they pass in the heavens.  The mortal pleads for inspiration from his muse and in her majestic way, she consents ("Sure, that would be great.")  And the rest, as they say, is fashion history.  The Birkin went on to become perhaps the single most coveted item in women’s fashion. 

But now the bad news, and here’s where it gets interesting for marketers.  According to the Scotsman, my first source for fashion news, Jane Birkin recently repudiated the Birkin and now carries a sporran she bought for £10 in Edinburgh.  Disavowed, dissed and dumped.  Dommage!

Now, if we were the Birkin brand manager, we might say, "Je m’en fiche."  What do we care if we are abandoned by a celebrity endorser?  Most women who covet the Birkin have never heard of Jane Birkin.  The brand has moved on.  Jane and the sporran are well matched.  We wish them well. 

But there is another way of thinking about this.  When Hermes reached out to Jane Birkin, she was still a creature of great exoticism, and certainly the only Hermes partner who had been photographed naked with Bridget Bardo.  (There are photos of certain senior managers, but that’s another story.)  We can assume that Hermes was displaced, as many great brands were, by the cultural shift of the 1960s and 1970s.  Connecting with a young bohemian beauty was a very good idea, and an opportunity to renew currency and altitude.

Now to lose Ms. Birkin, this might well put the brand in jeopardy.   Now the brand is simply about the upper reaches, the glory, that is the fashion world.  It has lost that connection to the great counter culture that arose at mid-20th century. 

We were noting yesterday that the winner of American Idol will combine contradictory elements.  So it is, perhaps, with fashion brands.  A little grist, type working against type, all of this is sometimes the essential ingredient in meanng manufacture and the very secret of brand meaning managment. 

Marketers are like any culture bearers.  They are sometimes lucky enough to have brands of such standing and power that they obliterate the very idea of their diminishment.  But this can happen.  And to lose an essential piece of the brand portfolio, this is the way it happens. 


Smith, Aidan.  2006.  Jane Birkin ditches Hermes bag for sporra.  The Scotsman.  March 19, 2006. here.

Wadler, Joyce with Paula Schwartz.  2004.  Can You Even Left It?  New York Times. September 7, 2004. here.


To The Agenda, with a hat tip for the head’s up here.

11 thoughts on “Branding, the Birkin bag and damage control

  1. Tom Guarriello

    The Birkin is, as you say, a fashion phenomenon. Working in and around the fashion business for the last 15 years I’ve seen scores of them; the croc version is most highly coveted. But the bag was created when Hermes (known simply as “H” by the cognoscenti) was a quieter, quirkier brand than it is today. It now inhabits Chanel/Dior territory in the brand firmament, but with more diversity of merchandise. It’s more likely that a designer-led brand like Lanvin would do the Birkin cultural appropriation today; Albert Elbaz is someone constantly on the prowl. (Have you read “The Savage Girl,” by the way? It’s relevant here.) Hermes seems content to produce magnificent merchandise that is no longer has any connection with any edge-culture, but in a class by itself. Even Gaultier scarcely made a ripple. Their stores in New York and Paris are a distinctive pleasure. They have become Jackie O.

  2. olivier blanchard

    Fascinating. Seriously.

    1) I had no idea that Hermes designed and named a bag for Jane.

    2) I hadn’t even thought about her since the last time I listened to my collection of Serge Gainsbourg 33’s. (It’s been a few years.)

    … And I guess that’s what I am getting at: I didn’t know that Hermes had any connection with the Gainsbourg/Bardot/Birkin trio. Even so, Birkin’s cultural significance (much like the Beatles, for example) is firmly anchored in the ’68-ish era… as is the bag’s, to some extent. So my two questions are:

    1) Is a brand a brand when nobody knows about it (or nobody knows its meaning/relevance anymore)?

    2) If the bag’s mystique is firmly anchored in a culture and era that has absolutely nothing to do with today’s world, does it really matter if the now-irrelevant icon who inspired it has finally decided to update its accessories?

    No offense to Jane or Hermes. I’ve always been a fan of both… although Hermes is better at designing than jane ever was at singing. 😀

  3. Grant

    Tom, wow, brilliant brand map, thank you. And it sounds that Hermes has undergone an apotheosis that makes Jane Birkin quite irrelevant. Olivier, raises a similiar issue and let me take up my reply in my response to him. Thanks, Grant


    Very good “tree in the forest” question. If no one knows about Jane Birkin, what difference can her defection make? Tom suggests this is a difference that does’t matter. Joan Kron, another expert in these matters, says the Birkin connection does not matter. (Pam, my wife, suggests that hands-on contact is called for before she can make an exact determination.) Me, I have a sneaking suspicion. And it goes back to the Jonathan Miller “casting against type” thing we have talked about before on this blog. Brands with a diversity of semiotic materials seem somehow to live. When brands are bundles of redundant meanings, there is the possibility that they “go out.” And what if no one knows? Brands are perhaps a little like stars. They shine with a light that was manufactured a long time ago, and it takes awhile before changes become evident. This is to say that as long as some people know and care the Birkin brand has been diminished, and while it will take awhile, eventually this new signal will reach the rest of us. Hermes, save thyself. Thanks, Grant

  4. Tom Guarriello

    I concur with your thesis that brands need fresh meanings to keep from “going out.” Hermes no longer casts against type…no Chrome Hearts expensive charms for them! What do those brands which reside at the highest levels of craft, beauty (and price) do to retain their cachet? If you go to their web site (ecommerce being a relatively new devlopment for them) you’ll see they’ve integrated whimsical cartoons into their identity with relative ease. You’ll also quickly notice that there are no bags for sale on the web…for those, you need to go to a store, speak to a salesperson, and qualify to be placed on a waiting list. Scarcity of their key products still makes Hermes a powerhouse.

    We should all have such brand problems!

  5. Bob M

    Ms. Birkin is quoted in The Scotsman article as saying that she ditched the Birkin due to tendonitis. Hardly a repudiation of the House of Hermes and her connection to it.

    The sporran? She says, “It’s the envy of Paris.”
    Well, Paris Fashion Week was just held recently. Didn’t see any sporrans on the runway. Didn’t see any sporrans being sported by the audiences in crowd shots either.

    Could The Scotsman be indulging in a wee bit of nationalism? Could Ms. Birkin be playing to the local audience, or reporter?

    Hermes hasn’t got too much to be concerned about yet, but every challenge presents an opportunity. If Ms. Birkin wants a smaller bag to relieve her tendonitis, surely Hermes could design one, or indeed to play to the legend Ms. Birkin could design it, and they’d make it? Via the smoke and mirrors of luxury goods marketing, Hermes should be able to get people to pay just as much for a smaller Birkin bag. Cost of production would be lower too. I see some fat profits ahead.

    Oh. My. God. A thought just occurred to me. What about a Birkin sporran by Hermes? In croc?

  6. Jack Yan

    I have a feeling only the French remember Jane Birkin these days, with the occasional Paris Match appearance. In England, she might be remembered for having been married to composer John Barry. And as you say, Hermès is in such realms, so far away from counterculture, and probably wants to stay there now. Kim Cattrall mentioned the Birkin once on Sex and the City and that seemed to be good enough a positioning for the brand alongside some of the more exclusive shoe brands of the Continent.
    Yes, in some cases, the disappearance of an endorser may be harmful, but I don’t think this is one of them.

  7. Grant

    Tom, exactly, renew from below, or from the edge, otherwise the meanings of the brand become ever more thin and bloodless, rather like the descendant of an ancient family. New blood, that’s the thing. Thanks, Grant

    Bob M. Tendonitis is a small price to pay for being fashionable, surely. I mean, come on. Real fashionistas are as beat up as professional football players. They know how to play in pain. But I think the real give away is the replacement: a 10 pound sporran. If this isn’t a rude gesture in the direction of Hermes, I can’t imagine what is. The sporran is wrong is so many ways they are hard to count. Thanks, grant

    Jack, thanks, this is the key question, as brands climb into the status heavens, as they become ever more bloodless, do we as brand managers just let them go? Or do we try every do often to infuse them with new blood? I think there has to be an argument for the latter. Because I think it’s possible that brands that are rising in a brand ascent are always in danger of disappearing from view. Thanks, Grant

  8. Auto


    check out the 2003 movie “le divorce” starring kate hudson.

    the birkin bag figures prominently. evidently, rich middle-aged men taking younger women as mistresses buy them a birkin bag to seal the deal. a good-looking young woman carrying such a bag is understood by parisians to be a rich man’s mistress.

    whether this is in fact true i don’t know. but that’s how the movie has it.

    i would think that from a marketing perspective, this is not the reputation hermes would want the bag to have.

  9. Grant

    Auto, great datum, container of currency as a currency, and not just payment, but value that makes a statement, “the deal is sealed.” And I guess this means that it’s not everyone woman over 30 who wants one of these bags, now many men over 50 could use one too. Thanks, Grant

  10. Jack Yan

    Grant, I think we hold on to the brands but redefine them in the case of Hermès. Let it go upward into the stratosphere and have brand managers who understand that change. No, don’t let go, but adjust to the upmarket-rising of the line. I would imagine whomever oversees the Birkin line at Hermès wouldn’t remember Jane Birkin anyway—I only do because of Barry. Though I do know that Bardot film. It was the last time we saw either actress before BB became a right-wing extremist, and Jane, alas …
    ¶ Yes, there is a strong argument for infusing the brand with new blood—I say let Hermès be receptive to the next starlet who comes along and let her design another bag. This has been happening, though the newer bags don’t take on the celebrity’s name these days. I think Hermès might be a touch fearful to let that happen, sadly. But this may well suit where it wants to be: exclusive and, as you say, ‘bloodless’.

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