Luxury – what happens when the world redefines what it means?
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Opinium considers how brands need to rethink how consumer purchasing habits are changing
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Luxury – for years researchers, marketers and brands have argued over its definition. A proliferation of webinars, workshops and articles have told us that luxury is intangible; that it can only be described as a feeling, an experience or an outcome.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary, however, disagrees. Flying in the face of controversy, the dictionary offers the following three classifications of luxury: “a condition or situation of great comfort, ease and wealth; something that is expensive and not necessary; something that is helpful or welcome and that is not usually or always available”. Semantics? Perhaps. But these three definitions arguably offer a lens through which to view not only consumers’ changing perceptions of luxury but also value in a post-Covid world.
At the time of writing, small freedoms have been transformed by the rarity of their occurrence. Dinner at a restaurant, meeting friends inside a building, having face-to-face conversations – these were not and arguably still should not be considered luxuries according to Merriam-Webster’s first two definitions. Yet their lack of availability attributes value to these once-commonplace means of connection.
To put it simply, we want what we can’t have, what we’re told we shouldn’t have.
This sense of restriction is made all the harder because almost everyone has not only experienced but has recent memories of such small freedoms. While we, therefore, attribute a heightened sense of value to these personal, human interactions, it’s difficult to see them (yet) as aspirational, as unnecessary or as a condition of wealth.
In a lockdown world, however, it is not just the lure of the unattainable that transforms the everyday into a luxury. But rather, it is the break with the everyday that this provides.
The much-touted ‘lipstick effect’ – the theory that consumers will still spend money on small indulgences or little luxuries during recessions – testifies to this phenomenon. History has shown how sales of ‘cheap thrills’, from takeaway coffee to expensive soap, can surge in a downturn as consumers avoid big-ticket items and seek relief in small moments of escapism.
Although sales of lipsticks will no doubt continue to thrive over the next few months, it is possible to claim that the pandemic has imposed another new definition of luxury upon us: one that is people-driven, rather than simply product-led. One in which access is granted not by the wealth of the few, but by the health of the many. And one that, with perhaps the exception of Dominic Cummings, is universally applied to all.
Make no mistake, Covid-19 is no great leveller. The pandemic has exacerbated and accelerated inequality across the UK. But the resulting societal restrictions it has imposed may have created a new form of luxury based on the value of fleeting moments of human connection. Whether this continues once the lockdown has lifted remains to be seen, but, regardless of sector, product or service, brands and businesses will need to think more carefully about the ways people want to connect – to one another and to them.
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