For the benefit of those with a little extra spending cash lying around, a one-way ticket from Paris to Istanbul on the Venice-Simplon Orient Express now costs $10,340. You certainly wouldn’t want to miss that train, so why not buy a decent wristwatch, too? Say, a nice Patek Philippe chronograph in rose gold? That’ll add another $79,800 to the old platinum card.
As we all know, brands that can command prices like this are not great in number. Neither are the consumers who can pay them. You might say they’re all members of a kind of exclusive club, a club whose members respond to a rare but proven marketing strategy that’s on glorious display in the ad on the far right. Sometimes, there’s no better way to advertise a legendary brand than by showing it in the company of another legendary brand.
“This is a technique that’s been used for a long time,” observed Hayes Roth, CMO for global brand consultancy Landor Associates. “The principle behind it is that a luxury brand doesn’t say ‘We’re a luxury brand.’ You’re just supposed to know.” The means of knowing, Roth continued, occur “by inference. They’re able to say what they need to say with context.” It goes something like this: If you’re the sort of consumer who recognizes this train, then you’re probably the perfect buyer for our watch. Or, as Roth put it: “If you’re in the know, then you’ll know.”
Patek Philippe is by no means the first to display its product beside a much-storied brand and bask in its aura. In 1949, Cadillac dubbed itself the “matchless jewel” of automobiles by draping Cartier’s famous Alexander II emerald necklace over its new Fleetwood sedan. Ford tried the same thing in a 1970 ad, showing a Thunderbird parked on the tarmac beside a fleet of Pan Am 747s, unveiled the previous year as the final word in luxury air travel. It’s anyone’s guess how well those pairings worked (Caddy was a nice ride, but even a 747 couldn’t lift Ford to luxury altitude). In the current case, though, Roth believes the Orient Express/Patek combo is right on the money. “You may not even know what that train is, but it doesn’t matter,” he said. “The setting is obviously the first-class cabin. It conveys history and heritage—it’s perfect.”
Roth points out that the grayscale photo lends the railroad platform a timeless aura that fits neatly into Patek’s positioning of its watches as heirlooms. The funny thing is, the air of legend surrounding the Orient Express owes itself as much to modern marketing as the Agatha Christie novel. While the original Simplon Orient Express famously chuffed royalty, rogues and spies across the continent in the years between the world wars, the train made its last run in 1977. Today’s Orient Express (revived with $31 million of an American mogul’s dough) appeared in 1982 and, as this partial-page ad from New York magazine shows, required a staged photo and some velvety prose to revive the old legend.
But no matter. Both the VSOE and Patek Philippe have true legacies and craftsmanship behind their stratospheric prices, and both of them are no doubt magnifying their own images by sharing the same ad. And that’s all that’s really necessary for this kind of marketing and the lesson it teaches: Sometimes a brand can polish its reputation not with the right copy, but the right company.