In Ep. 36 of Earned, Conor sits down with Sandrine Crener de Schutter, program director at Harvard Business School and expert in all things luxury marketing.
We start the episode by diving into the challenges and advantages of online teaching and remote learning, and hear why Sandrine believes virtual instruction can facilitate more individualized learning models for different types of students. Sandrine then shares where her passion for education came from, and describes how she helped rebuild and rebrand the International University of Monaco, which soon ranked among the top MBA programs in Europe. We switch gears to ask Sandrine, a luxury marketing professor at Harvard, what her definition of luxury is, before exploring how prominent cultural differences, and the rise of influencers and social media, have shaped global luxury marketing. Finally, Sandrine offers key insights from her case study on Supreme’s marketing strategy, and we close the show by discussing how brands can break into China—the world’s largest luxury market.
The following interview has been lightly edited for concision.
How Sandrine Transformed the International University of Monaco Into one of Europe’s Top MBA Programs
Conor: You said at one time that one of your proudest moments was being able to help revive a school. Can you tell me about that, and then, how it’s doing today?
Sandrine: I got introduced to this college that was based in Monaco. It was an American college with an American type of education, based in Monaco. The school was really struggling and basically went bankrupt, and my husband, who was in education as well, and I, with a group of friends and partners, decided to take over the school and try to revive it. So we rebranded it and rebuilt it from the ground up, and that was very rewarding. I really had a lot of fun doing that. And you are an entrepreneur, you know that when you develop something, it's really your baby, and you think about it all the time. So that was very rewarding because we got very good results very, very quickly, like being ranked as one of the top MBA programs in Europe. We had amazing students that we were able to place in great corporations around the world, some years we had 100% placement rate at graduation. So that was very fulfilling to see the success of our students. I'm very proud of that, and very nostalgic for those years as well.
Conor: What were the steps you took? So you came in [and the school was] bankrupt. What were the big changes you made that took it from there to being one of the top MBA programs in Europe? It sounds like it was both a reputational resurgence as well as a financial resurgence.
Sandrine: We had a vision, and we really wanted to create an institution that was demanding and that was providing a high quality of education. That was very important to us, to create something that we could be proud of. We had this idea of creating a kind of boutique university, with very small class sizes, very high ratio of faculty to students—we have one faculty per 10 students. That was very important to us. We created this environment that was very nurturing, so we had the systems in place and the services in place to support our students. Most of them were coming from abroad; we only had 5% of local students. So the school was home to them, they were living there and developing friendships. So we had this vision for something that was very international, very nurturing, with individual attention, and really trying to help each person to succeed in their own way, recognizing that not everybody is the same and that you don't necessarily need to be a math genius to succeed in life. People have different talents and everything, but still having very good programs and having some very strong academic requirements was important. And then, if you train your students well, then they should perform well once they are in the markets.
We were really trying to develop those soft skills. Obviously the hard skill education was there, but I think what we also tried to teach our students were those very important soft skills, too. And because they live with students from all over the world and also faculty from all over the world—we had professors from 20 different nationalities and we had students from 80 plus nationalities—you will have to adapt and adjust and be more open-minded and listen and question your own beliefs, your own behaviors. At the end of the process, I think people are probably better individuals, better citizens, better team workers, better listeners. So this is why we could place our students in top jobs, top corporations. [Companies] really liked them and would come back for more year after year. This is how we got those very high placement rates. So that was really rewarding.
“You have to communicate differently”: Sandrine on the Prominent Cultural Differences That Shape Luxury Marketing Strategies
Conor: I remember hearing Bernard Arnault describe what he considered luxury to be. I'd be curious to learn what your definition is. What is your definition of luxury?
Sandrine: Well, nobody agrees on the definition of luxury, so that’s a very hard question. Especially today, it seems like everything is luxury, and because everything is luxury, nothing is really luxury anymore. You see the luxury brands going downstream to scale, and kind of moving a little bit away from a pure luxury model, and you see the premium brands and streetwear and fashion brands trying to move up and use the luxury playbook to build the brand equity.
This is the topic of my class, what is luxury, and once again, it's very difficult. I would say there are a few characteristics of luxury brands that everybody kind of recognizes, like the quality, the excellence, the craftsmanship, higher service, higher design—you have exclusivity, you have a very high price point, you have elements of scarcity, of heritage, all those things. But those are the minimum, because you could check those boxes and still not be a luxury brand, because the luxury status, so to speak, is given to you by the perception of consumers. I know many brands do that today, they say we are a luxury brand, but that doesn't mean that they are a luxury brand. It's not something you can decide for yourself.
So there are those elements, but then, luxury means different things for different people, depending on the context, depending on your culture, depending on where you are in terms of social class or things like this. Luxury is going to mean something totally different. So that's why it's something that is very, very difficult, but what we can recognize is, in any type of sector, there is probably a pure luxury player that is implementing a pure luxury strategy. And I use those examples with my students to tell them, this is the top of the pyramid, this is the genuine luxury playbook.
I think people typically underestimate how different luxury strategy is. So that's the first thing that I try to teach my students, fighting the stereotypes and also showing them that it's different. And then there are also huge cultural differences that still exist and may become even more important in the future. We were all thinking a few years ago that there was this kind of global luxury consumer that was the same across geographies. But I just did a survey with colleagues of mine and we found out that those cultural differences are still very much alive. So once again, luxury is going to be appealing for different reasons to different customers. In China, it's more about elitism, in France, it will be more about heritage, in the U.S., people are probably looking more at exclusivity. So you have to communicate differently. You have to emphasize different attributes in your value proposition, and the benefits that you are providing to your customer.
You can watch the entire interview here, or listen to the full episode on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Google Podcasts. To catch up on our other 35 episodes, featuring leaders from brands like ColourPop, Gymshark, Summer Fridays, and Gucci, visit our Earned Podcast page.