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The importance of the rare element of surprise in luxury

By John Speers | Head of strategy and performance



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September 11, 2020 | 6 min read

Luxury is about much more than the physical product. The real appeal of a premium product exists primarily in subverting consumers’ expectations.

Kemosabe reflect on the renewed importance of experience in luxury retail.

Kemosabe reflect on the renewed importance of experience in luxury retail.

What is luxury? Your mind immediately springs to ‘minted’ and ‘upmarket’ products which usually come with a tidy price tag.

The standout example from a technology perspective is Devialet speakers. And in particular, the ultimate of high-end sound, the Devialet Phantom. Check it out. One small speaker? That’ll be two and a half grand please.

When I say check it out, that’s exactly what I mean. Not visiting their website but going into one of their very small stores, shutting the door and then getting your ears blown off in the most pleasant way possible. If there was a speaker that takes you into Warp Factor 10 Scotty, then it’s this bad boy.

How should it be marketed? Well, they’re already onto something with the website talking of ‘unreasonable sound’ and surrendering to ‘indecent power’. Sounds like puffery? It ain’t.

You’ll always remember your first time, and my first Devialet encounter was in New York in an outdoor photography exhibition by gritty New York shooters; each of whom had a shipping container with one end ripped off and the shots mounted on corrugated iron walls inside. Clever Devialet took one of these containers, sound insulated it, then proceeded to blow every unsuspecting wanderer’s ears off. And this is my point. If luxury is “something that gives you a lot of pleasure but cannot be done often”, then that’s an experience I’ll never forget. And I’ve lusted after Devialet ever since.

Luxury marketing wasn’t like that before. It would have been in a rarefied and cosseted ‘luxury’ environment, but this was a gritty container in a parking lot and that made it all the more, well, luxurious - because it surprised you. You’re not expecting it, so you remember it so much more. There’s a lesson here - sneak up where your audience is least expecting you.

Don’t sell specifics

The other note to this example is there’s no hint of how they actually technically deliver such an ‘unreasonable’ sound. It reminds me of when I used to work on Dell and we said “look at Apple; they don’t sell spec.” The rest is history and we don’t need another Apple case history here. But what I find myself doing (right now in fact) is following the subtle clues or ‘crumbs’ that Devialet leave dotted around their site.

A couple of things like 4,500 watts (WTF?) and the fact there’s 160 patents out on their technology. There’s a mention of ADH but no further explanation as mere mortals would not be able to fathom what the Devialet crew in their Paris “atelier” concoct. There’s another clue – not a shop or a workshop, but an ‘atelier’. A nice luxury cue but not said in a ‘haute couture’ way. So, you end up trying to find out how the ultimate sound is achieved by following the crumbs and clues but end up without real tangible answers except to just hit the BUY NOW button. There’s another lesson there I feel.

The other example I’d refer to, along similar lines, would be Tesla. Again, this is nothing to do with an ad or a website really, or even the car. It was the experience. And this started way before I climbed into the car. Rejecting ‘dealerships’ (tired old places with middle aged car salesman peddling metal and rubber), Tesla chose small hyper-cool locations for their “galleries’; funnily enough again in a funky cool art district in downtown New York, a million miles from other car ‘dealerships’ in form, shape, size and creed. Very cool twentysomethings greeted you in racing one-piece outfits, and one invited me and my son for a spin. We boarded the Tesla Model X Performance, the fastest SUV on the planet with a 0-60 of 2.6 seconds.

Forget SUV, that’s about the same as a McLaren for Pete’s sake. We saw a button that said ‘Ludicrous mode’ and my co-pilot (not salesman) teased me to press it. If you’ve never experienced G-force in a car then get saving up. Apparently, Tesla do a roaring trade with fighter pilots wanting the same thrills on land.

The commonality between Devialet and Tesla? Both turn convention on its head and use language the opposite of ‘refined’. And unlike those fancy shops down Bond Street, they both invite participation and play. Both say “Book a demo” as the call to action as they know it’s the experience that’ll get you truly hooked, not any campaign.

John Speers, head of strategy and owner at Kemosabe.

Digital Advertising Agency

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