Samsonite's brand folly

The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday (August 17) that Samsonite luggage is trying to go high-fashion.

What a waste of a good brand.

The company owns the "sturdy" image, a critical niche in the luggage (and handbag) space. Yet the CEO wants to be more like Burberry or Coach and has hired British designer Alexander McQueen to make suitcases that can compete with these brands.

The designs pictured in the Journal are terrible--who is going to buy a suitcase shaped like a ribcage and what does that communicate about the brand, anyway--and the Samsonite name is still being used, so all the brand associations that go along with Samsonite still exist.

In my view -- to take a lesson from Seth Godin's book Purple Cow -- Samsonite should stick to its knitting and build even more remarkable sturdy luggage and handbags than it ever has. If they want higher margins, the company can brand its suitcases a la the Panasonic Toughbook and charge a price premium for their ultra-durability.

This is not to say that a brand cannot make itself over into a new image. Look at what former monopolist IBM did by embracing open source brand Linux. But even then, the old image still sticks -- IBM will always be "Big Blue." The difference is that IBM updated its image to adapt to the context of technology services today, and as a result looks jazzier and more nimble -- a needed change.

Samsonite has a goldmine in its "sturdy" image. Wanting to be something you're not -- to go from middle market to upper-class brand -- seems like mere CEO vanity. What do you think?