So why do many of us spend $55,000 and more on a luxury car that Consumer Reports says won’t perform as well as a much cheaper brand?
And what makes women buy that $40,000 Gucci crocodile handbag when, functionally, it does the very same thing as a $40 knock-off from Target?
According to my friend, Harlan Bratcher, who has been creating and defining luxury as a C-level executive for labels such as Calvin Klein, Armani and Reed Krakoff, it’s all about emotion.
“We don’t necessarily buy a luxury product because of how it’s made, or even its style, but more so because of how it makes us feel,” says Bratcher. “When you drive that $55,000 car, or carry an Hermès or Gucci handbag, consciously, but even more unconsciously, you feel you have achieved your aspirations, even if that aspiration is as simple as feeling good about yourself.”
As the lead personal shopper for Neiman Marcus in the early 1980s at the beginning of his fashion lifestyle career, Bratcher recalls helping women try on $15,000 gowns, watching them slumping as they looked in the mirror. After spending time getting to know them, and helping them feel beautiful inside and out, suddenly that $15,000 dress was worth even more.
If luxury is defined by how a product makes us feel, as suggested by Bratcher, then is it possible for any brand to become a “luxury,” or something for which consumers are willing to pay a premium?
According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, luxury means:
- 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
Per the above definition, its seems a product or brand can call itself “luxury” if it makes consumers feel pampered, extravagant and exclusive.
Bratcher offers a different definition:
“A brand becomes a luxury when it becomes aspirational to the consumer. Aspiration can manifest in many ways, from elevated self-esteem, confidence and sense of self; to a personal statement you believe you deserve to make about yourself.”
While aspiration can traditionally be defined as our hopes, dreams and exquisite goals for life, its connection to luxury is taking on a new meaning in today’s consumer-driven climate. Luxury is not just about exclusive products that one in thousands might own. It is about the experience that elevates the perceived value of the product and brand.
“As CEO of Armani Exchange, my mission was to build a highly relevant experience for our customers that made them feel beautiful, energetic and happy, and in ways that helped them associate those feelings with our brand. One way we did this was to research our customers’ favorite music, and then play it loudly at each of our stores, creating that Friday night dance club feeling. Sales and customer loyalty soared.”
Beyond feeling young, urban and sexy from the purchases we make, today’s consumers are demanding a new sensation: altruism.
Research from both Cone Communications and Edelman shows that more than 80 percent of today’s consumers, from Gen Y to Baby Boomers, choose brands which can show the positive social impact they are having on the world. Aligning with social causes – not just fashion trends and glamorous living – is now becoming an essential part of branding for luxury brands in all categories – from designer apparel and vacation resorts to auction houses like Christie’s.
“Consumers today are seeking actualization in all they do, and they do this by finding purpose in their daily lives, from the deeds they do to the products they purchase, “ says Toby Usnik, Chief Social Responsibility Officer for Christie’s in New York City. “Luxury is now about a bigger brand statement than just the product itself. It’s about shared values, a higher purpose and a sustainable community.”
For Christie’s, Usnik has helped contemporize a 250-year old brand through new initiatives for giving back. This includes the creation of Bid to Save The Earth, a coalition charity auction on behalf of four leading environmental groups: Oceana, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Central Park Conservancy, and Conservation International. Over three years, this program earned several million dollars to support its causes, and substantially helped to further Christie’s profile as a luxury brand with far-reaching values.
While some might be tempted to up their price, bling their packaging and call their brand ‘Luxury,” the chances for successfully transforming a great brand to a luxury brand are greater if you follow these simple steps.
Create authentic experiences
- Armani’s nightclub atmosphere was authentic and spot-on for creating a strong dose of the emotions that make us feel powerful, awesome and in a mood to shop.
Tap into feelings that matter
- While feelings in a nightclub might be fleeting, especially when you wake up the next morning, the overall consistent feelings of belonging and self-esteem you can create with every shopping experience, service interaction, follow-up communications and events are what maintain a brand’s luxury status.
Preserve the Perception
- Once you’ve broken out as a brand above the cluttered fray, its critical to maintain your sense of luxury. You can do this not just with exclusive experiences, and short product runs for really amazing items, but with your pricing strategies. As Bratcher and Usnik both suggest, lowering your price, or offering discounts, just reprograms the status of your brand and you may never get back the status you once had.
Engage Customers in Sincere Altruism
- As Usnik says, long gone are the days when a company buys a table at a charity gala or donates here and there. Leading brands are putting a stake in the ground based on their values and communities. They have skin in the game — creating programs that support those values, having their employees volunteer for related non-profits, sharing their platforms with others committed to the same cause. Doing just that made Warby Parker a huge force in the eyewear industry, because its customers’ purchases give free glasses and vision to disadvantaged people globally.
Albeit trite and cliché to say, luxury is still in the eye of the beholder. But now more than ever, it’s in the heart, as well. Building a brand around authentic values and causes that make people feel they are one step closer to actualization, social and personal aspirations, will help elevate your brand in ways much more powerful than you can imagine.
What are the aspirations or hopes you can associate with your brand to secure loyalty and attract high-value customers? You don’t need to open up shop on Fifth Avenue in NYC to succeed. Instead, focus on the dreams, hopes and core values of your customers, and tell your story in a way that makes them want to be a part of it, and pass it on to others.
Bratcher sums it up:
“No one really needs luxury. It’s nonessential. That’s where the dream and mythology come in. And this is why my career has been about anthropology – making dreams for the moment – more than product lines.”