Many of us daydream of leading luxurious lifestyles, but what exactly is a life of luxury? The Drum Network gathers a panel of experts to ask just that, and to find out whether brands really can hit their sales targets while epitomising luxury and remaining tantalisingly out of reach.
Today, time is the ultimate luxury. Taking time to be still, to be away from the pressures of daily life, your commute, your to-do list, relationships, bills, Trump, climate change, Brexit. As well as time, we use objects to harness our status quo, to plump up our feathers and say, ‘look what I have, look what I own’.
Whatever it may be that you deem luxury, we as humans try and build a temple of luxury around ourselves that we can take solace in. Knowing that you have something that others do not is what makes it selfishly exquisite. As the world becomes smaller and more accessible, luxury brands struggle to stand out among the furore of independently handcrafted watches and artisanal gins.
So how can brands attract a new generation of loyal customers? And how do they promote themselves as a whole lifestyle as opposed to just a beautiful fountain pen?
The Drum Network brings together a panel of experts to discuss the challenges luxury market faces, and we get their predictions on what lies ahead. Joining us at Soho’s Riding House are Jessica Hodgson of Roast, Alicia Manji of TVC Group, Aesop’s Ed Woodcock, Laurel Davis of RPM, Rapp UK’s Sam Eccles, Underscore’s Samantha Gabriel and James Murphy of HPS Group.
The golden pillars of luxury
So, what is it that really defines luxury? “Scarcity is at the heart of luxury, which doesn’t really exist today,” explains HPS’s Murphy. “It’s a particularly outdated term, however the exclusivity of an object or thing propels it to unattainable levels. This out-of-reach psyche, of owning something others don’t, is what epitomises luxury itself.”
For Woodcock, scarcity is joined by rarity in his rules of luxury. “Even over generations, the one thing that breeds luxury is rarity. That is the basis of luxury which is becoming harder and harder to construct in the modern world with the advent of the internet. A lot more people have money too, so what is becoming unnecessary is becoming smaller and smaller. That’s a fundamental, structural problem of luxury.”
Not only are scarcity and rarity vital, but quality and heritage also come together to build up the pillars of luxury. If a product is not of high quality, it is categorically not a luxury.
Manji follows this train of thought by explaining: “Heritage and quality were luxury, however now those things don’t really matter. It’s narrative that breeds luxury. Brands define themselves as luxury, because they decide that’s what they are going to be defined as.”
Eccles clearly agrees, commenting: “One of the main challenges we face in the luxury sector is twisting and pulling at what luxury actually means. If you look at reports from Neilson or Interbrand, the top 10 luxury brands are defined by sentiment, longevity and turnover. For me, a lot of these brands appear to be long established and spend a lot of time storytelling their heritage, their craftsmanship and, most important of all, their authenticity.”
It all comes crumbling down
The sacrosanct pillars of scarcity, rarity and exclusivity that make up our temple of luxury are crumbling. An emerging challenge for the luxury market is the globalisation of the world we live in. The world is getting smaller, meaning things that were once a luxury, for example going on a city break, are a lot more accessible with the rise of digital and Ryanair’s £9.99 flash sales.
As RPM’s Davis tells the table: “Globalisation of ideas and style has been interesting, not in a fashion sense but in an aesthetic sense. It goes hand in hand with democratisation. Everybody now gets to participate in the luxury conversation, even if they are not necessarily a luxury customer.
“There is a tension for brands between serving their fans and serving their customers. They need to serve both, as the fans are the pipeline and potentially future customers. They are the power force. However they are not the customers. Some may also be eroding the brand by interacting with it in a way the brands don’t fancy.”
Eccles reiterates this conflict as one of the central challenges to the sector. It’s the art of “balancing brand image with sales targets,” he says.
The democratisation of luxury has spanned over generations. The next generation of luxury consumers define it differently to their elders. Instead of classing a Rolex as the ultimate luxury, a three-day stay at a spa in the Atlas Mountains holds just as much value. The value of luxury now blends the material and experiential.
Davis elaborates on the difference between generations. “That broad, elusive audience that we are all ferociously trying to reach – the younger generation – classify luxury as ‘live large, carry less’. The richer experiences and brands that have a point of view are the brands that offer premium experiences now.”
Does that mean the luxury sector is becoming irrelevant for the next generation of consumers? How should brands be approaching their new customer base?
“In a culture where younger consumers want to reduce waste and have less in the face of so-called higher consciousness, it doesn’t mean that people are less interested in having luxury things or being part of luxury experience. Brands need to scaffold the experience using the story behind the brand, the unattainable knowledge,” explains Davis.
The foundations of luxury
It’s clear that it’s not just the product or experience the brand is offering that makes it desirable, but the story and the lifestyle it bestows upon the buyer. The heritage and foundation of a brand builds up the lifestyle around it, which is its crucial selling point.
“Ralph Lauren is a lifestyle,” claims Manji, “When you say Ralph Lauren, it conjures up an image of the lifestyle in your head. The new generation might not buy into the lifestyle, but if you personify it, they can actually live the lifestyle.
“It goes back to storytelling. Video is an important tool to put forward a brand narrative that is believable and authentic. People don’t want to read reams of information, they want something compact that grabs them straight away, and video is a great way to bring them in.
“We are missing a trick about authenticity – which I believe is the key to luxury. Consumers are becoming more and more savvy about influencer and celebrity endorsements.
Philanthropy too – unless there is pause and purpose behind it. Without that thought, it means nothing and falls on deaf ears.”
Brand storytelling, as well as being creative, must also follow brand guidelines, Davis explains. “Brand guidelines flow into the brand world. The brand world is the true north for all the senses. It’s invaluable. Transforming the guidelines to these worlds is key.”
The architecture of luxury experience
Brands must provide impeccable customer service in their brand world to consumers who are parting with thousands of pounds.
Hodgson describes what the brand experience should be like: “Timothy Oulton is very good at creating a brand world feel. I can smell what Timothy Oulton is as a brand. I know more about what it feels and smells like than actually buying a Timothy Oulton piece.
“The customer end-to-end experience is key to customer satisfaction. If I order a product, I expect to have customer communication afterwards. You want personified ongoing communication so you know you haven’t been forgotten about. There is so much lifestyle building in this part of the customer journey that has been dropped.”
For this ongoing communication to be successful, PR has to be on point. Gabriel says: “PR has a huge role in luxury. Of course, mistakes do happen and if you have a successful PR strategy then you can regain loyal customers. You can redeem yourself.”
How are luxury brands performing digitally? Murphy asks the table whether they find they have to mansplain tech to traditional luxury brands. “I feel like I’m going back in a horse and cart to the 1840s sometimes.”
Digital proffers a storytelling hand to luxury brands, as Davis comments: “It’s a space where you can really create cultural capital within a brand, where conspicuous consumption is not necessarily desired. Some brands are doing a great job of this and building their stories at scale.”
It’s about feeling pampered. If you are seamlessly taken to the product, provided with in-depth knowledge of the craftsmanship, either in-store or online, the sensorial points are satisfied and the likelihood of sale is high.
Time is the ultimate luxury, so as a brand, if you use your consumer’s wisely and effectively, the customer experience is heightened.
Sam Eccles summarises the luxury market with finesse: “What really distinguishes luxury brands are enduring things, and a constant pursuit of excellence.” Brands that provide excellent exclusivity and longevity, are those that will succeed in the future of marketing luxury.
This article was originally published in The Drum Network luxury special. You can get your hands on a copy here. To be featured in the next special focused on the charity sector, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.