25 April 2011

Class to Mass, a luxury brand degradation tale

Having spent a great deal of my career in brand building and marketing, I've learned that there are some steadfast rules when it comes to creating a brand, or at least I thought so. Over the last decade, there's been a shift; it seems as though the rules no longer apply.

I suppose what astonishes me is the success of some brands - they seem to be flourishing by defying the very definition of themselves.

Good brands are born out of ingenuity, design and quality - I say they are born, but we all know it's more scientific than that, perhaps created, invented, formulated and planned would be more apropos. Being unique or the best at something often times is enough of a foundation for a good brand and that's where the planning begins. In creating a business, one ensures there is a demand, this is not always the case for a brand - some of the best brands in the world were the first of their kind... they created the category.

A good brand creates demand. A luxury brand creates more than that.

I have done some work on luxury brands, a category unto itself - marketed much differently than any other brands. Luxury brands introduce a complexity of psychological elements such as conspicuous and invidious consumption, aspirational marketing and status. It's all very heady, actually, as a marketer, it draws you in until it's all quite obvious as to how it works.

Never have the rules of marketing applied more than in luxury brand marketing. You used to be able to tell a luxury brand by the sheer fact that it was exclusive and inaccessible to the average consumer... inaccessible, by location and by price.

A true luxury brand should be something that is unattainable to all but a few that can afford it, all others aspire to own these products. This is what's called 'craving', a mindset luxury marketers try to create amongst consumers that can't purchase their product. Craving a luxury brand furthers the desire amongst other consumers. The more consumers crave a brand that they can't have the more that brand is elevated to a sought-after luxury brand.

A very good example of this is Ferrari; everyone wants one, people wear their products, play with their toys and hang their posters - but most people can't afford one, will never afford one... ever. Does this stop the craving? Absolutely not, millions of people having aspirations to own one is exactly what causes those who can afford one to purchase one. There is an appreciation of quality and design that transcends ownership but is inherent in the brand. This means that ownership of a Ferrari is really telling people that you are special - if for the only reason, because you can afford a Ferrari.

So, with that rule firmly embossed into the fabric of luxury branding, why are so many luxury products ignoring it? And, how do they continue to be successful at it? Are they still true luxury brands at all?

We've seen a shift from these luxury brands being unattainable to being not only being attainable, but on every corner. There was a time that you used to have to go to Paris to buy Louis Vuitton and New York to buy a Coach handbag. Now, luxury retail has gone from the manufacturer with a flagship location to select locations in wealthy shopping areas to the mass market by way of strip malls and shopping centres everywhere. You can get a Coach handbag as easily as a Starbucks coffee, and for nearly the same price. Coach has made their product more accessible than many lesser-priced brands.

Finding luxury brands is more common than uncommon. Let me remind you that being common is not what makes a luxury brand. Yet, people are still buying them.

Rules, schmules.

The most common offender of this rule seems to be in fashion brands such as Coach, Burberry, Lush, Armani, TAG Hauer, Versacci, Luis Vuitton, Persol, Mont Blanc, Tiffany, Fendi, Chanel, Omega,... once all highly praised for their quality, craftsmanship and/or crave factor are now available in abundance in nearly every local mall. Some still hold onto the original brand attributes such as quality, some have even gotten even better in craftsmanship (ie. Lamborghini) but this class to mass shift has really taken the wind out of the exclusive sails.

Words like proletarian, erosion and dilution all come to mind. If everything is special, nothing is special. I mean, if Ferrari made a new model that sold for $25,000, they could sell millions of them. But, they would likely cease to sell $500,000 models as their brand would be eroded and diluted to the point where nobody would notice them, nor care about them. Ferrari's would become commonplace, nobody 'craves' commonplace, especially not commoners.

You no longer have to go to Paris, London, New York, Beverly Hills or Hong Kong. What was once unattainable for most is now commonplace, yet people are still falling over themselves, opening their faux Gucci wallets to spend excess amounts on items that are no longer considered unique by even the most generous of standards.

Luxury goods promote ones status, purchasing them validates the self importance of the consumer. However, some brands are so 'in your face' and gaudy their only purpose is to tell people you have that brand. (Thinking Ed Hardy now). This leads me to believe purchasing these products is more about keeping up with the Jones' and less to do with the status the brands bring. This is true invidious consumption and this is really disheartening as it speaks to just how shallow and selfish we have become as a society.

Quality, craftsmanship and price be dammned, my neighbor has it; I want it too.

As luxury brands move from class to mass, it will open the space for more specialized, even more exclusive brands to fill the void. I wouldn't be caught dead in a Ferrari if there were 4 others on the block... which is why the Bugatti Veyron makes so much sense. A whole new level of extravagant, lavish, creative and remarkable products will enter the 'exclusive' void and begin this whole process once again.

It's the circle of life - start saving up now.


Watch for my upcoming article: Brand Whores; Harley Davidson finally draws the line on logo placement... not.


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