Brands are getting much more intimate in their conversations with consumers, and the luxury market is leading the way, says Vicky Bullen, ceo of Coley Porter Bell
Walk into a store belonging to upmarket perfumier Le Labo in London, New York or Tokyo and you enter into a far richer transaction than the usual cash-for-product exchange. You don't simply buy a perfume off the shelf, you choose a scent from their collection which is then compounded in front of you.
“Knowledge, in perfumery as in everything else, is essential to free choice. Our main goal is to help you open your nostrils in the same way good books open their readers' eyes to life,” says the company.
Cleary Le Labo sees itself as much more than a mere vendor of expensive fragrance. It has adopted the role of an educator, liberating its customers from the tyranny of ignorance. It's a long way from the shallow bling and superficial sparkle recently associated with the marketing of high end luxury goods. But it shows that Le Labo understands the profound changes that have affected the $150bn a year luxury goods sector since the economic downturn of 2008.
We have recently completed an in-depth analysis of what consumers want from luxury products and how luxury brands are responding to those changes. Our most striking finding is that the idea of luxury has changed from an outward-focused concept based largely on status and sparkle to an inner focus with more depth, honesty and discretion.
It seems that the decline of the global economy in 2008 and 2009 has transformed the way that more sophisticated consumers view luxury goods, shifting it from the tangible to the intangible, from bling to substance, from surface to back story.
I say ‘more sophisticated consumers’ because of course the idea of less conspicuous consumption is not equally true everywhere. We questioned 1750 consumers in nine countries for the study. More than half (52%) agreed that perception of luxury has changed since the recession. However the top line figure concealed enormous differences between the developed and developing world.
In the US 61% of respondents agree that perceptions of luxury have changed, in the UK 56% agreed. In India however only 31% thought perceptions of luxury had changed, rising to 34% in China. In the UK fewer than one in five answers suggested that luxury is primarily about status. Clearly trends are a bit like a snake - the head can be pointing in one direction and the tail in another.
Given these findings we conclude that rather than simply bombarding consumers with aspirational imagery, marketers of luxury goods need to connect more deeply by emphasising authentic stories and sincerely held values, such as social responsibility, humanity and craftsmanship.
This new incarnation of luxury brings craftsmanship to the fore and encourages brands to share their cultural savoir faire.
The implications for luxury goods marketers go way beyond simply making the logo smaller, which some luxury brands are doing. They involve developing new relationships with consumers based on trust and integrity. And they involve being sensitive to environmental concerns, reflecting the shift from 'me' culture to 'we' culture.
That all sounds jolly good, but what you might ask should brands actually do about it?
In design terms it means adopting a pared-back look with simple clean lines and organic shapes with little unnecessary embellishment. Craftsmanship should be allowed to speak for itself. So this year's new bags from even the glitziest brands like Gucci and Marc Jacobs are plain and simple compared to recent offerings.
This may involve moving away from manufactured uniformity to the embrace of imperfection. So when Hermès launched its Shang Xia brand in China, it put on displays of artisan skills in-store.
When it comes to materials, natural products with untreated finishes are the order of the day. Earthy, tactile, almost artisanal aesthetics represent the polar opposite of bling. Even this year's most luxurious wedding had a surprisingly natural backdrop. Remember those trees in Westminster Abbey for the royal wedding?
Then there's the move from selling to providing experience. Just as many modern restaurants have the kitchen on show to create theatre round your meal, luxury goods need to open up their craftsmanship, conveying the human story to create not only a sense of theatre but also a way of demonstrating the brand's pedigree. These days Dunhill calls its flagship stores 'homes'. And they are... complete with café, barber and private cinema.
With the new emphasis on things of substance, consumers are happy to engage their intellects, even when shopping for fripperies. Many luxury brands are becoming curators of culture. Look at Louis Vuitton's new flagship store in London. Crammed with artworks, half the second floor is a bookshop selling expensive tomes on art and design.
Another key trend is that conscience is very much in for the forseeable future. If you've got values and virtues you're proud of, share them. Upmarket Above magazine launched recently, dedicated to luxury values and preserving the environment. And in Paris, Merci, the first non-profit luxury emporium has opened, where top brands such as Stella McCartney and YS, donate their profits to an orphanage in Madagascar.
You may well be wondering what has all this got to do with me? The fact is that what happens at the high-end today often appears in the mid and mass market tomorrow.
So in the luxury sector today and the rest of the world very soon, brands will be having a new type of more intimate conversation with their customers. It comes from knowing them a bit better and having a shared understanding of what matters.