How consumers’ ideas about ‘luxury’ are changing

As buyers shift their priorities from material possessions to experiences and social capital, how can communicators and brand managers position their organizations as ‘elite’ and ‘exclusive’?

Many marketers believe we are in a paradigm shift around consumers’ definition of “luxury.”

The luxury item, a status symbol for the owner and a flashy representation of their power in the marketplace, is changing. According to a report from WARC:

Lyle Maltz, a Director with Kantar Vermeer, WPP’s global marketing consultancy, says that quality always will be essential to luxury, but now emotional value and a strong, personalised relationship with consumers are of paramount importance in the new luxury world.

… “Customer-centricity is more important than ever, as the consumer’s own brand is just as crucial as the brands those consumers buy and wear,” he continues.

Even the matter of who is allowed to identify their product as a luxury item is changing, as brands like KitKat try to capture status seekers. How should marketers and brand managers define luxury today and position their organizations to be desirable to consumers?

Phil York, Infiniti’s senior director of global marketing and brand, says it’s important to understand how consumers’ desires and needs are changing.

“What we’ve seen is a shift over recent decades from luxury about what you own to a luxury about how you live,” he says. “It’s much more about experiences, much more about well-being and, essentially, time.” 

At the top of the list for many consumers is a desire to reclaim their time.

“Time is almost the most important luxury nowadays,” says York, “which you never would have heard in the 1980s when status was the priority. Now, it’s turning off your WiFi, turning off your phone, getting your time back—and what you do with it that is today’s ultimate luxury.”

Luxury products also don’t have the power to define someone’s status, as more people are able to purchase an expensive item, something of a catch-22 for brands looking to grow sales and still retain the panache of exclusivity.

 “We’ve seen quite a lot of clothing brands, for example, that have become mainstream and have lost their once-exclusive position,” says York. “Affluent people are finding other ways of living in luxury and showing their status and, more often than not these days, that’s through experiences more than possessions.”  

The desire to do good

The rich and famous aren’t immune to the desire to do good—or at least be seen to do good. York says one of the biggest changes for luxury brands in the current market is consumers’ desire for their favorite brands to exhibit social responsibility.

“People are looking for genuine experiences in products and services where they feel they don’t have to justify themselves,” he says. “In other words, they feel good inside if what they are buying has less of an environmental impact or has been produced by fair trade, people-first companies. These types of criteria are increasingly important for consumers.”

Luxury buyers want to have a unique experience and be early adopters for trends that have the power to transform how the world operates.

“In the automotive sector, we can see that with the rise of the hybrid vehicle in the U.S. and the electric vehicle in other markets,” says York. “There’s a sense of superiority in being an early adopter, someone who leads the pack to a new technology. It’s almost a status symbol in itself, which is completely different from the bling and the gold and the glitz that we might have associated with luxury in the past.”

Knowing your customer

If you are going to sell to a discerning and selective clientele, you have to know them inside and out. “Know your audience” is an established admonishment for PR pros, but capturing a luxury shopper requires extensive attention to detail.

For Infiniti, York describes the kind of person who buys the brand’s cars—and he uses that to inform the company’s messaging.

“We have a very clear idea of the kind of people that buy an Infiniti,” he says. “We know they tend to be self-driven, open-minded and forward-looking. Looking at these qualities, we know they are much more likely to be inspired by what they can contribute, how they can stand out and how they can reflect their own personality rather than conforming to any view that comes across in advertising.”

By thinking carefully about the audience, York and his team had a breakthrough. Instead of trying to reflect the customer—consumers who already know themselves and what they want—why not try to communicate what the organization stands for and how that aligns with these choosy consumers’ values?

“Much of our communications in the past have been about reflecting, about showing customers an image of themselves,” says York. “Rather than reflecting them, what we need to do as a brand moving forward is to establish what we stand for that could inspire and attract customers. It was important that we simplify what Infiniti believes and what Infiniti stands for to better appeal to our target customer.”

That’s how Infiniti came to create its global campaign, “Luxury Should Be Lived In.”

“It’s a belief that luxury isn’t about owning something,” says York. “It’s much more about living and what you do with it that counts, which is consistent with how the brand started out. Now, we are simply reasserting that to use as a clear signpost for our consumers.”

Digging into the data

York underpins the campaign with audience insights that help sculpt Infiniti’s message.

“We looked at what luxury means for different demographics,” he says. “The younger population, the under-40s, are going to become an increasingly important consumer group for luxury products as we go forward. We can already see a different pattern of spending and consumption from other age groups; certain things are much more important to Generations Y and Z.

“Their disposable income is spent much more on experiential goods and services, such as travel, eating out, phones and other technology that connects them to people, rather than on the traditional possessions that you might associate with luxury, like clothes or jewelry.”

How are you talking about “luxury” with your audiences, PR Daily readers? Please share in the comments how you would position your organization as a luxury brand.


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