Why a One-Size-Fits-All Luxury Marketing Strategy Will Never Work!
Let me introduce you to Dr. Brian Wansink and his research into people’s relationship with food.
He is the John Dyson Professor of Consumer Behavior at Cornell University, where he directs the Cornell Food and Brand Lab.
Dr. Wansink is the most famous social psychologist you probably never heard of. He created the 100-calorie snack pack and measured that people eating on smaller plates consume fewer calories. He consults with many restaurant brands and his research has led to the widespread adoption of tall glasses for serving alcoholic beverages, which increases people’s perception of drinking more, while in fact drinking less.
Under Dr. Wansink’s guidance, the Cornell Food and Brand Lab conducted an interesting experiment about people’s dining experiences. One group in this experiment was given a basic, institutional dining experience. They were shown a plain menu card describing the meal: fish, scalloped potatoes, green beans and chocolate cake, which was served on paper plates with plastic forks, knives and spoons under standard fluorescent lighting. After dinner, the diners were asked to rate the food on a 10-point scale where 1 was poor and 10 was excellent. They gave the meal an average of 3.4 points.
Another group was given the exact same meal in a fine dining experience, with the table set with linens, a floral centerpiece and candles. Dinner was served on china with glassware and flatware similar to a nice restaurant. Diners were presented with restaurant-style menu descriptions: Panko-encrusted Mediterranean sea bass, French-style haricots verts, and so on. After the meal, they were also asked to rate the food. They gave the meal an average of 8 points on the same 10-point scale.
Perception Is Reality
This experiment illustrates how much power marketers can have in shaping a customer’s brand expectation and ultimate experience. By enhancing the customer’s perception of the brand and making it “speak” to that customer in a special way, perception becomes their reality. Customers’ ultimate satisfaction comes from their unique and personal expectation of the brand, and much of that is controlled and spun by the marketer. The more the customer is managed to expect a certain experience, the more likely he or she is to believe they got it. But when I look around at the luxury industry and see how brands are marketed and products sold, it would appear that many brands think that all luxury consumers want the same thing and all live the same luxury lifestyle.
The fact is, all luxury brands create virtually the same uber expectation for the customer: an aspirational lifestyle that is young, rich and hedonistic. Open a copy of Vogue and you see most luxury brands have retreated into this one-size-fits-all visual imaging and marketing approach in their advertising. Certainly if one is a student of fashion, one might be able to distinguish one brand from another. But the vast majority of us need the brand label to identify it. Even then, the uber image totally misses the mark if the customer doesn’t connect with, or aspire to, the image of young,
hedonistic, “rich & famous” lifestyles.
Luxury Lifestyle Branding Gone Amok
It’s critical for brands to better understand who they really are aiming for and tailor the marketing messages and selected media with the right tone, imagery and messaging. Since so many luxury brands have adopted a lifestyle marketing approach, it is essential to get clarity about the different types of affluent lifestyles. All wealth is not created, nor consumed equally.
In the luxury market, Unity Marketing’s research has identified five distinct affluent personalities who have unique ways of expressing luxury in the way they live. Interestingly, these five personalities are evenly split across the 25 million or so households that make up today’s affluent segment, defined as having incomes at the top 20 percent, starting at about $100,000.
1. X-Fluents live luxury large.
Named for “extreme affluents,” luxury touches every aspect of the X-Fluents’ lives, from the cars they drive, the way they decorate their homes, what clothes they wear, accessories they carry, and the places they stay. They are confident and live luxuriously for their own personal gratification, not to display their status to others. When marketers think about the quintessential “luxury consumer,” they usually have the wealth of the X-Fluents in mind. But while X-Fluents enjoy luxury to the fullest, they may, or may not choose the most exclusive and expensive brands. They are value-shoppers, not in the sense that they are looking for cheap or discount, but they are extremely focused on getting the most value for the money they invest. So an X-Fluent shopper may love your $5,000 handbag design, and she certainly has the money to pay for it, but she might not be willing to buy it if the brand logo is too large, the brand too common, or another less expensive brand offers the same quality and style. Today, the X-Fluents opt for value and a quieter, authentic luxury lifestyle.
2. Aspirers have yet to reach Their endgame level of luxury.
Aspirers are on their way up, but want to be perceived as players. For them, luxury is about showing social status and prestige. They are less secure than the X-Fluents, and believe that the glitz and the glamor that comes from the status-symbol brands they own identify them as successful. However, their incomes don’t match their aspirations. Yet. So an Aspirer may want to own a showy $5,000 designer bag, but she may not be able to afford it. She is more likely to purchase the lowest-priced model of that brand’s luxury range as a stopgap, or simply wait until her income catches up with her luxury aspirations.
3. Cocooners express luxury in their homes.
Cocooners are all about the home; decorating it, furnishing it, surrounding themselves in a cocoon that makes them feel warm, secure, comfortable and happy. And they are core customers for well-designed, prestige brand bath and kitchen appliances and fixtures. Since a Cocooner tends to focus her luxury indulgences on things for her home, not for herself, she may look more fashion “clueless” than fashionista when shopping in her “mom” jeans and sneakers. Since she doesn’t look the part, she might be easily overlooked as a good potential customer for more luxurious brands. She also might be scared off if your brand or shopping experience is too X-Fluent- or Aspirer-focused and doesn’t talk to her more traditional, hearth-and-home lifestyle.
But many luxury brands are venturing into the Cocooners’ home territory, so they are increasingly going to have to speak her language. They ignore her at their peril, because she is a prime candidate for luxury brand home extensions. For her, the attraction isn’t sophistication (X-Fluents) or status (Aspirers), but genuine quality and comfort in style.
4. Butterflies value luxury experiences, not things.
While they enjoy a luxurious lifestyle and own many nice things, Butterflies prefer to experience luxury with travel and fine dining. For her, luxury isn’t what she owns, but rather the things that she experiences—and the joy she shares with others from these experiences. Quality premium brands (e.g., Coach, Kate Spade), as compared with heritage luxury brands (Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Chanel), appeal to her sensibility. She can dress herself well with premium brands bought for less, while saving what’s left for splurging on the high-end travel, dining and other experiences she craves. Luxury brands are largely missing out on selling to this highly experiential customer by focusing on selling the “thing,” rather than giving her an experience in shopping, buying, wearing, and using that “thing.”
5. Temperate Pragmatists view luxury with suspicion.
For Temperate Pragmatists, luxury is not core to their lifestyle. They may enjoy a high income and personal wealth, but they would rather save it or spend it on things that are meaningful to them. Temperate Pragmatists are a luxury marketer’s worst nightmare. This group is utilitarian, oblivious to traditional luxury marketing and branding approaches. She might own many luxury brands gifted to her or passed down from her mother or grandmother, but she will steer away from overt luxury marketing messages based on prestige, status and entitlement. In fact, it isn’t conspicuous luxury that the TP turns away from, it is luxury in general. It just isn’t part of her lifestyle. She favors brands that are solid, well crafted, lasting and inconspicuous. She may drive a BMW or Volvo, not for the status, but rather for the engineering and durability.If your brand offers a lifetime’s worth of use, you might get her business with that practical-sell strategy.
Personal, Relevant and Contextual
Think of the U.S. affluent consumer market as a pie with five slices. Each slice of that pie has unique priorities, needs and values, and must be approached, marketed and sold to in its own special way. An Aspirer’s brand may well turn off an X-fluent as being too showy or trying too hard.
The Cocooner might be ignored because she doesn’t look like, dress like or act like one’s idea of a luxury consumer, yet she comes to the store with plenty of money. The Butterfly will be drawn to brands that promise enhanced experiences. And the Temperate Pragmatist isn’t tempted by the traditional luxury pitch, yet if she considers the investment a practical, useful and good long-term investment, she may well purchase on the spot.
A one-size-fits-all strategy for marketing luxury brands that starts with preconceived, often erroneous ideas of how luxury consumers live simply won’t work in today’s increasingly diverse and sophisticated consumer market, especially with so many good products available everywhere and at every price point. To be true lifestyle marketers, luxury brands need to understand the distinctly different lifestyles of those customers who can afford their goods, but more importantly, how to attract them and convince them in their own language to invest in them—for their own reasons.