From the Brand Historian’s Timeline: 1921
A hundred years ago the laughter was returning to France, the economy surging after the calamitous bloodshed of the Great War, and Paris renewing its licence as the creative magnet for artists and innovators of all kinds. Surrealism and ragtime mélanged with Ballets Suédois and the chit-chat of modernist salons like Gertrude Stein’s in the Montparnasse. It was amidst the chaotic collisions of les Années folles that two iconic French brands made their first appearance.
Léon Bel and Gabrielle Bonheur Chasnel were born within a few years of each other at the end of the nineteenth century, and whilst they came from widely differing backgrounds and had very contrasting experiences of the Great War, they were both exceptionally gifted managers of brands who knew how to deploy complementary talent, great design and technical innovation to great business effect.
Gabrielle is better known to us as Coco Chanel and in 1921, on an eventful journey that had taken her via Saumur, Deauville and Biarritz to Paris, where she was now buying up most of the rue Cambon to sell her hats, clothes and accessories to the well-heeled, she launched her own fragrance and called it Chanel No.5. It became the signature scent of the garçonnes or flappers of the Jazz age.
All of Coco’s life experience went into the creation of her new fragrance. Her English Cavalry Officer lover’s travel kit probably inspired the shape of the bottle; the fragrance was designed by Ernest Beaux, an acquaintance of another of Coco’s companions, Grand Duke Dimitri, who had introduced them in Cannes; and the name itself – one of a number of samples labelled from 1 to 5 and 20 to 24 – had to be No.5 because this number had always held a profound significance for her following her upbringing by nuns at a convent in Aubazine. The Cistercian pursuit of clinical simplicity can be seen everywhere in the Chanel brand’s look and feel, and No. 5 was seen as the elegant antidote to the o-t-t elaborate fussiness of the leading scents of the day.
In a long life worthy of multiple seasons on Netflix, Coco said a number of eminently quotable things, one of which was “A woman who doesn’t wear perfume has no future”, in this, she displays a natural skill for what today’s Brand Strategists call Brand Purpose.
A hundred years later in Chicago, the Brand Purpositas are active again, this time to unfurl a new campaign for another French brand with origins also dating back to 1921.
Léon Bel came from the Jura in Eastern France, close to the Swiss border. Léon’s father had a creamery in the town of Lons-le-Saunier, whose principal claim to fame thus far was to be the birthplace of Rouget-de-Lisle, the composer of La Marseillaise. Returning from the Great War, Léon set about transforming the family business into what would become one of the world’s greatest processed cheese businesses. In his defining new product, he blended cream, milk, fresh and aged cheese, particularly comté and pasteurised it to stop the ripening process. He made it versatile and portable by wrapping individual portions in foil wedges and putting them into a small, round flat box. On top of this platform of technical innovations, he added a dollop of brilliant branding by employing as his salesperson, a cow – in fact, a laughing cow.
La Vache qui rit takes its name from the dark humour of the Western Front and a travelling meat wagon Bel saw called La Wachkyrie, an allusion to the Valkyries who in German sagas took away fallen warriors to the feasting halls. In the first packaging design the cow wasn’t laughing, wasn’t red, and didn’t have the now familiar ear-tag portions of cheese but Benjamin Rabier one of the pioneers of cartooning changed all of that and created one of the world’s most powerful food brand icons and helped Bel register one of the first trademarks for a food brand.
Fromageries Bel is now perhaps the world’s greatest house of cheese brands, but The Red Cow remains its star brand and recognising the power of its laughter, the American affiliate has recently announced that the new brand purpose of The Laughing Cow is to Inspire people to choose to laugh at life.
Perhaps in a time of global pandemic, that’s not a bad thought with which to start the new year. Bonne Année from Coco, Léon and from me….
Some music to dance off the hangover:
Beautiful Faces need Beautiful Clothes Irving Berlin