Is luxury history?
While the topicå might have been a rhetorical question with an obvious answer, the presentations yielded some fascinating perspectives on both the history and the future of luxury in this age of rapidly-changing technological and social landscape.
There was a fascinating connectedness to the presentations, probably best expressed by Jean Noël Kapferer’s core theme that “as soon as you begin to justify a purchase, it is not luxury, luxury is a religious belief system”.
According to his definition, luxury is performance beyond function, while comparison (pay more for better) is the language of premium and fleeting imitation (pay to be uniquely like everyone else) is the language of fashion.
Luxury is superlative, relying on intangible desires and acting as a social stratifier in terms of both money and taste.
This approach suggests a number of interesting ‘rules’ to the strategy of luxury. Not least that consistent price rises and a controlled supply ensure that demand always outstrips supply. In the words of Patrick Thomas, CEO of Hermes: “When one of our products begins to sell too much, we discontinue it”.
Only by displaying such tight control and discipline, can luxury brands tread the tightrope necessary to become what Kapferer calls “the ordinary of extraordinary people and the extraordinary of ordinary people”, while maintaining enough exposure to propagate the religious fervour and, at the same time, controlling distribution enough to intensify desire.
This theme was picked up by Imagination strategist Tony O’Toole, who discussed the interplay of luxury and technology, and particularly the role of technology in the language of luxury brands.
For anyone who knows Tony, his insistence that technology should be understated, simple and elegant in its delivery will be no surprise. For those who haven’t visited one of his examples of this in action – a place like Burberry’s Regent Street flagship with interactive digital mirrors – the potential will have been striking.
Digital exposure, a slightly poisoned chalice with its tendency towards ubiquity and democracy, can still have a crucial role in strengthening luxury brands
It may be in creating a shop-window not with the purpose of selling directly, but to have the masses press their noses against it full of wonder and aspiration, creating a living heritage and the opportunity for participation in the myths, even if not in the consumption.
It can be a means of recreating a disappeared past, and cultivating its value as embodied by the product.
This kind of mythology and legend was consistent throughout the presentations, and any religion needs its cathedrals.
Ross Klein, from Imagination America, gave us a guided tour of just such hallowed institutions (and the digital and cut-price ‘outlet’ competitors that they must stand against).
As he pointed out, one of his slides included two cathedrals: St.Patrick’s in Manhattan and Saks Fifth Avenue.
Ross also raised some interesting points about the nature of today’s prophets, with the authentication and approval of luxury goods coming not from a class or even education-based stratification, but increasingly form the cult of celebrity.
The issue of celebrity neatly brings me back to the day’s first presentation as it raises the question of the changing context of luxury, which was starkly outlined by James Lawson from the Ledbury Group.
In a few simple slides, he outlined the gradual shift of global wealth East, from an epicentre over Manhattan in 1995, moving first at the pace of a snail and, in the post-Lehman’s world of 2008-2013, speeding up by a factor of 20 to the pace of a Galapagos Tortoise to reach its current epicentre South of Europe, moving inexorably towards Asia.
I obviously can’t do full justice to what was a vibrant collection of fascinating and inspiring addresses, further content from which will be released by Imagination shortly.
Instead, I’d simply like to thank the speakers and the attending audience for creating a highly enjoyable day, and to leave with the thought that if luxury brands are actually built on religious belief systems, then does that mean that the gradual shift of economic power East will lead to those belief systems needing to adapt culturally to a whole now model of aspiration and faith?
If so, what experiences and technologies will best deliver this change?
Luxury is not history, but more than ever its future depends on clear strategy delivering intangible value to fervent new audiences in a highly disciplined way, using an ever increasing range of marketing tools, experiences and behaviours.
If that sounds tricky, maybe you need to use a bit of Imagination.