Why in the World Would Anyone Want Anything Else?
Do We Really Understand Luxury?
The saying often goes:
“If you don’t GET or UNDERSTAND something, it often says more about YOU than IT.”
The above quote captures the definition of a true Luxury very well. It’s how we should think of Luxury and how we position it in the marketplace or inside the broader commerce landscape. A true Luxury is one that only a very select group choose or can even appreciate. Most people don’t recognize that it is a Luxury in the first place, and this my dear friend is by design.
This explains why so many of us have a love/hate relationship with Luxury. It explains why when we really *get* a luxury we pour ourselves into it and love it. Yet, if we come across a luxury we don’t understand, well, this is where we dismiss it as grandiose, inflated or just plain stupid. The simple fact is, that when we don’t understand something or think something is completely amiss, we are often quick to criticize or judge it. We’ll even resort to name calling while also throwing sticks and stones. All the while, we’ll never consider the context of the thing. Or, we’ll often never look at ourselves to see if we could be the ones missing something. Maybe we are the ones doing the misperceiving? The answer is often yes.
Sometimes to understand the mind of a luxury consumer, you need to find a new kind of “invisible” door. For, to be a luxury, many times its attributes, qualities and features are hidden, something only a few can really see. On the outside the cues that signal luxury are often very, very subtle (and their customers know this and appreciate it). It’s not a LOUD logo or catchy slogan.
At times, luxury is defined purely by the materials used in the product and the method of construction or fabrication used to create it. At other times, it may simply be what the brand stands for, which may be its unique backstory or could be its un-waiving point-of-view (POV). This is one of the luxury’s attractive qualities: you have to understand it is a luxury, to know that it is a luxury.
Yet, Luxury is still often thought of as indulgent excess or that it’s a matter of pulling the wool over one’s eyes. So many people I talk to think Luxury is built on top of an over inflated façade. But often this is a symptom of mistaking a specific brand as a luxury when it is not (i.e. an aspirational brand or a premium brand like BMW). Or, it is not appreciating what certain luxury the brand truly represents. One of the worst things that can happen for a Luxury manufacturer is for those who don’t understand it to suddenly buy into it. Luxury’s nightmare is to become a trend or popularized outside of its context (e.g. as a status symbol), often spiking the demand for the product without an appreciation of its use. True Luxury can’t support artificial or temporary demand increases, it is not built to scale.
Consider what makes a luxury. To those that “know”, there is a process to the luxury that makes it scarce. There’s an editing. There is a continuous simplification to focus on that which adds meaning and adds value to the product; all while allowing absolutely nothing else to get inside. This process (along with the Luxury’s unique POV) requires strong control mechanisms not only in production but in communication as well. Anything less is faux luxury or aspirational.
It might be better to say, luxury doesn’t even belong in *the* broader market. This is one reason why so many marketers have a love/hate the Luxury space as well.
In production, there is a bias in Luxury towards artisan or crafting. It is preferring the Human element over automation or machines. This gives the Luxury an element of time, that time is being spent or poured into the product (e.g. small, limited batches). This is unlike most goods or products that we interact with every day, that strive to scale and gain efficiencies in order to reduce their prices or create line extensions to reach more and more people….to become bigger in the market. Yet, Luxury is being matched with the right market, not more market.
I recall a time when I was in El Paso and watching an elderly man with a mouthful of nails, pound wooden pegs into the leather soles of hand made lizard skin boots. “How did he learn to do that and how many boots does he make a day,” I asked the foreman?
“Oh, he learned it from his father, who also used to work here in the ’50s. I’d say he’s good for about a boot every three days,” he answered.
This highlights another quality of Luxury. Often it is traditional, techniques handed down from generation to generation, supporting a way and appreciation of life.
With luxury, there is a personal touch within the product. You could say it has “soul”, though that’s probably going a bit far. But, you could certainly say that in luxury there is a humanity; however egotistical or vain this sounds. And, here is one of Luxury’s real secrets that separates it from so many other products in the marketplace: Luxury strives to be capture a “living” essence rather than simply be something that is consumed or used as a means to an end. Luxury is a means, not an end.
This extends to the materials used by luxury; usually highly regional, scarce and hard to handle (often necessitating humans to produce it, thus making it even more human). Combine this with a strict, almost too rigid of a quality control process that discards finished product almost on the slightest sign that something seems to miss the quality needed and you have waste in time, process and materials. Yet, true Luxury celebrates that it’s inefficient, like one’s life.
In communication, luxury products communicate, or stand, on its own. There is very little verbal or written explanation for “what it is for”. Why point out the obvious? If there is communication, it is often visuals or it is a hands-on demonstration of the product. Or, as we know, sometimes just the brand name is mentioned and nothing else. There is no exhaustive benefit statements or mention of getting a deal. To have to market a Luxury becomes idiocy and insults potential customers as well as the makers of the product. Often organic word of mouth is the main marketing mechanism (if that’s marketing) of how people here of the brand.
Going a bit further, when you go into detail and explain the luxury it’s insulting all around; to the person having to explain & the person procuring the product. You either appreciate the product or not. You either get it or don’t. That’s why so many luxury products consider marketing vulgar. It’s not an egotistic snobbery…..well maybe it is, but for good reason. Think of Rand’s Fountainhead in which the book makes it very clear who’s buildings spoke to other builders and not to the masses. The simple fact is Luxury is not for everyone. And, it doesn’t want to be. That is its essence. That’s its value.
For example think of a pen (e.g. Montblanc John Lennon Pen) Who writes anymore? In a digital age, it’s like buying a hand-wound pocket watch. How unnecessary. How pointless. But if life is all about getting from point A to B, then you’d be right. But, we know it’s not. It’s not a race. It’s not about efficiency. It’s about enjoying the time you have in your life. It’s about enjoying the moment, savoring the simple, which on the surface, seems like trivial things. And, in the broader sense, it may be trivial. Yet, a Luxury consumer knows it’s about the experience, the feeling, the emotions. For you beer drinkers, think Olympia light v. a regional highly handcrafted, small batch Abby beer supporting the lifestyle of those in the Abby.
The economics of luxury are hard for the modern business person to understand. It is built on the idea that being for everyone is not for everyone. Luxury looks at everyone and wants to resonate only to a focused few. In exchange, it will “charge” these focused few, what seems to everyone to be an extreme amount of money for the said product. But, this is exactly what keeps everyone away and allows the luxury producer to continue to employ its inefficient process, methods and lack of mass marketing. On top of this, luxury products don’t necessarily want to be friends with their patrons, clients, and customers. They want a relationship based on mutual respect for the work that went into the product’s quality. Did you say you’ll use discounts to grow sales? Do you want to give me a deal? Don’t be ridiculous.
And here is the subtle difference between marketing a good a-to-b product versus a luxury product. Luxury products target those who don’t need to be marketed to. These people will seek the luxury out for themselves either through their passionate want or through a highly trusted word of mouth. They want to remain private. They seek the product primarily, which will then build a relationship to continue to supply that product upon respect. It’s a discreet, one-on-one exchange.
Meanwhile, the “good” products out there, with their machine-powered efficiencies driving value pricing (using scales of economy) will try to match themselves to the biggest market possible with overt ad statements and catchy mottos.
This is why people think that Luxury doesn’t “get” the Internet. Or, that they don’t understand Social Media. But, again, it’s more of a by-product of everyone not understanding what luxury is. The Internet is open to everyone (all you need to do is type in a URL). If I were a luxury site, I’d make it completely private and to enter you’d have to pay or be invited by another well-trusted person, just to see the website. Think how novel this could be in today’s marketplace. It makes one think of Pine & Gilmore’s excellent HBR book: The Experience Economy.
And social media? Anyone and everyone can “do” social media: absolutely everyone. There is no expense, no time or effort spent to “connect” online. Everyone can effortlessly “like” or access each other….without anyone really *knowing* any one of them. It’s like everyone doing the “robot” in the guise of connectedness. In a way, social allows businesses to look and act human even when they are not. Big brands and huge corporations even get trained to “act” human when using “social” media.
When you are a big vast 15,000+ corporate entities, social media quickly gives you the appearance that these companies are one person, with a human voice. But, usually, these social media outlets just become a place to placate customer service complaints, offer discounts or push out special “content”.
And this is exactly what they want. These big brand, huge corporate backed products are built on what’s “now”, the trend, what is normal. They are temporary, satisfying an immediate need or filling a trendy want (that won’t exist two months later). They are built for you to replenish or buy more (Gillette razor v. a silver shaving kit): They are means to an end. While Luxury, true Luxury, is simply a means.
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I wrote this above post originally back in 2010. While the links and some of the material has become dated, the points have not. If anything, with the proliferation of the Internet and Ecommerce, real luxury is getting harder and harder to distinguish and the term Luxury is being tossed around to many brands who are not.
Like this article if you agree. Or, if you have a comment and aren’t a troll, please do so. Would love the feedback and thoughts.
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This post was originally published on Dec 1st 2010 on Wordpress.