Lessons in brand authenticity from an Australian success story

CEO and co-founder of Maison de Sabre talks through the brand's three-year journey and its approach in the COVID-19 crisis

Zane (left) and Omar Sabre
Zane (left) and Omar Sabre

Being authentic to your brand values is more important than ever in times of crisis, according to the co-founder and CEO of Australian luxury leather brand, Maison de Sabre. Because there are plenty of brands who haven’t been and could lose customer standing as a result.

Sabre should know a thing or two about purpose and community connection – after all, these have been the guiding lights leading the way to success for the three-year old brand.

Maison de Sabre was established in late 2017 by Omar Sabre and his brother, Zane, after facing financial hardship when their father was diagnosed with leukemia. Needing to find a way to help finance his brother’s tuition fees for dentistry, a career Omar was already working in, the pair started a small business in premium leather goods that could be personalised. First goods released were a series of phone cases that could be monogrammed, and small leather goods followed.

The business has since grown from those humble beginnings to clock $1.9 million in its first year of operation, $10 million in its second, and to acquire more than 100,000 customers globally across 131 markets.  

“The vision was to produce premium leather goods that could be personalised as a way for people to own the pieces they purchased,” Omar Sabre said. “We saw this as giving people a sense of pride, self-expression, and a way to stand out… everyone’s monogram means something different.”

A significant initiative supporting success has been the ‘Make your mark’ movement. Launched just over a year ago as a global campaign, the movement has seen Maison de Sabre partnering with everyday customers to build and promote stories around how they are making their mark on the world with whatever they’ve set out to achieve.

Sabre said the idea stemmed from early research identifying the types of customers purchasing its products and importantly, why they were doing so.

“We have artists, people in business, high-ranking CEOs, athletes and makeup artists. But the main common denominator was all of these customers are achieving or working towards achieving phenomenal things in their lives,” he said.   

In this context, having a monogram was more than just a name, it was a personal statement and way these customers expressed themselves visibly to the rest of the world, Sabre continued.

“We wanted to extend that aspect of personalisation into a statement where customers are making their mark on the world and everything they do,” he said. “It comes down to putting your best foot forward always, trying to achieve the best in everything you do, and expressing who you are as you do it.”

This concept of self-expression and achievement has disseminated into all of Maison de Sabre’s campaigns. It also extended in February 2020 to the inclusive-oriented ‘#MarkYourLove Valentine’s Day collection’ with four monogram options: Him+Him, Him+Her, Her+Her and Self-Love.  

“We find as we build stories around people, rather than product, these are the campaigns that perform the best,” Sabre said.    

COVID-19 connection

The ‘Mark your mark’ movement has also played a role in keeping the brand on track during the COVID-19 crisis. A recent campaign, for example, followed how different groups of customers were coping with COVID-19.

“Some turned out to be amazing nutritionists, people into healthy lifestyles, some were regular employees and working from home and how they’re trying to stay positive. We did these really cool features in the US, Japan, New Zealand, Australia and Korea, which worked really well to highlight how different and aligned we are as a community,” Sabre said.

Credit: Maison de Sabre

“Even though we’re really different, it showed we are struggling with the same things. We had lots of positive feedback, and it’s been great for everyone to see that everyone globally is feeling the way they do.”  

A further emphasis for Maison de Sabre is on being as transparent as possible with communications. The team has also had to re-evaluate content being pushed out, taking advantage of internal teams to rapidly change creative to make it more appropriate to the times.

“As we started doing email campaigns around sharing global stories on how people are coping in their own communities, we had a feedback section to make sure everything was to brief and expectations of the customers receiving these emails,” Sabre said. “We got lots of positive feedback, allowing people to understand there is a community experiencing what they’re experiencing.”  

Another decision was to reposition the launch of a new colour range to reflect a positive benefit of COVID-19 on the environment.

“As brand, we’d been working on a new blue colour in the last few months, and by chance, development was completed at the start of the pandemic. To bring back some positivity, we released that colour and called it ‘sky blue’, to playback the fact skies are clearer and nature has been restoring itself during this time,” Sabre said. “We positioned it as customers carrying a piece of that sky.

“We were a bit wary and carefully watched how that was received. Thankfully it was a positive response to repurposing.”

Brand purpose versus community pleasing

Sabre agreed brand purpose has become “more of a big thing” in the last few years. While it’s different for different demographics, it’s clear the younger generation – Maison de Sabre’s target market - consume information differently.

“These days, there is more mistrust of traditional media outlets, politics and government policies. We’ve seen a lot of the younger generation turning to brands, movements and celebrities that resonate and align with them,” Sabre commented. “For these audience to see brands as more than just a transaction, you have to provide some other value than just a product.

“It also comes back to the way people shop. It’s no longer just about the latest thing, it’s about having purpose behind purchases you make and a USP and benefit that provides to a greater good.”  

With COVID-19, there have been lots of opportunities for brands to take a stance on purpose and community. But Sabre said it’s in the way they handle it that makes the difference.

“Being authentic to your core purpose as a brand is more important than ever. We’ve seen this particularly in the US, where government made it mandatory to wear face masks - you saw brands suddenly developing a range of facemasks, or hand sanitiser or PPE for a profit push, rather than a not-for-profit or helping local community reason,” Sabre said. “It was shifting from core values and principles to pushing on trend. It was interesting to watch public response to those brands – because it really wasn’t pretty.”   

Authenticity during COVID-19 comes back to understanding your cultural role outside transactional benefits, Sabre said. “For a lot of brands, there aren’t as many people buying as much as they used it, but you still need to figure out a way to stay top of mind,” he said.

“It’s always good to ensure your propositions are more appropriate for the times, but you also need to stay aligned to the values you offer.”

So is authenticity a reflection your community, or is it the other way around? Sabre saw purpose-led brands building their community based on principle values they set out with as a brand.

“You’re setting out those expectations for your brand, and people who those resonate with those will come to you,” he said. “Then you’re giving them an extrapolated view of what those principles are.

“From the beginning, we did this evaluation to figure out who we are as a brand. We didn’t have a huge audience to leverage that off, but by setting out those values clearly, we were able to attract great audiences and customers we resonated with.

“Lot of brands trying to do this sporadically, but it doesn’t feel natural.”  

Sabre urged other organisations to make sure they identify what their brand purpose is in their customers’ lives in the face of COVID-19 change.

“A lot comes back to what could would you still be doing – you wouldn’t just start pivoting to something else that goes against that,” he said. “To me, it’s relatively obvious that a brand good at one thing shouldn’t be jumping to anything else.”

More broadly, Sabre pointed to Coca-Cola’s longevity as a shining light worth paying attention to. “Coca-Cola built a brand, not just a product. It instilled that in the community and it’s been successful a long time,” he said.

“Everyone’s brand values are different. But it’s important to have a proposition that isn’t just related to selling. It should be how customers connect to you on a more intimate level. Customers are really only commentating about your brand and offering if there’s that meaning behind it.

“Novelty wears off quickly, but having that value proposition is key for staying around for a long time.”  

Follow CMO on Twitter: @CMOAustralia, take part in the CMO conversation on LinkedIn: CMO ANZ, follow our regular updates via CMO Australia's Linkedin company page, or join us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CMOAustralia.  

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