Let’s review the bidding.
- The hottest bauble in Tiffany? A breakfast seat at the Blue Box Café. It’s nearly impossible to get a reservation here, unless, of course, you’re a high roller who’s escorted into the Holly Golightly inspired eatery by your personal sales associate. Don’t expect to gain entry based on the purchase of a sterling key chain. Nope.
- The smartest stocking stuffer this past Christmas season? The Dolce & Gabbana hand-wrapped pasta offered exclusively through Neiman-Marcus, augmented by the D&G bespoke small appliances in brilliant Sicilian-motif designs.
- Prada’s newest accessory: A pop-up private club opening in Paris, as reported by The New York Times (January 23, 2020). It adds to a roster of clubs privés that includes The Palazzo Ralph Lauren, Alfred’s from Alfred Dunhill and Giorgio’s from Giorgio Armani. Ralph, of course, has long known the power of moving into restaurateurial fashion. His Equestrian Private Dining room within The Polo Bar seeks to out 21 the 21 Club in mahogany-infused emerald enameled walls, chock-a-block with period English horse paintings, of course.
The article in The New York Times quotes Caroline Bremner’s 2017 Euromonitor International report, “Creating experiences that surround a brand through the customer journey acts as an antidote to commoditization and declining loyalty.” It surely could be the quest for margin inducing, loyalty inducing experiences that ensure we feel remarkably special, as long as we purchase the requisite amount to ensure we gain entry to these lofty dining spheres. However, could it be, too, that designers are learning to navigate the troubled waters of experiential luxury with celebrity food branding?
We constantly ask our clients, “When people no longer to leave home – when absolutely everything is delivered and work is done exclusively from home -what will make them want to leave home? We know we’ll go to Starbucks, right? And movies. Both are often solitary experiences with like-minded individuals who don’t force us to engage. The celebrity halo for these outings is the paparazzi photo of a megastar with her soy latte go-cups. We see red-carpet starlets being queried about “who” they are wearing. We see our aspirations being made explicit for us.
But as next-gen body-obsession pushback and #me too realities begin to take the luster off the sheen of red carpet glamour, then how do we aspirationally connect the Vox Populi with celebrities to keep the world united? Food, right?
Designer Dining Experiences
Designer food experiences are brought to us by, you guessed it, designers. Everyone eats, so the natural market is there. The past decade has shown that even though Grubhub brings every possible food option to us, we still enjoy the sensual pleasures of going out to eat. Typically with friends. And often, in carefully selected designer outfits. So poof! A winning formula.
Experience, experience, experience. Or, is this simply a desperate plea for attention from the one percent?
These new designer spots, just as their bespoke couture, set the high-water mark of the consumer culture. Entrance into these worlds is courtesy of a price tag/passport that guarantees only “people like us” gain entry. Often times the private clubs are tethered to the couture shows of Milan and Paris, as well as to the brands, working hard to differentiate among rivals to ensure that famous “customer journey.” These brands are dedicated to maintaining an exclusive image that caters to an exclusive customer. It is a carefully crafted experience designed to please the core customers and create a longing for belonging for the aspirational fan.
So, let’s take this to its logical extension on experience creation, a marketing form of world-building. Mall developers careen from nine-story slides-down-the-atrium rides and snowboarding escapes in the hopes of attracting tourist shoppers. Hudson Yards developers stocked the mall with food service experiences in the hopes of making their luxe shopping center relevant to local residents and more far-flung consumers. Yet, on a recent visit to Hudson Yards, the maître d’ at one restaurant told us they typically close at 8:30, since nobody’s there. Note to the world: that’s 8:30 PM in the midst of New York City. Imagine a restaurant with no customers worth staying open for. Hmm.
On the other hand, Ralph’s RL restaurants are exactly where they ought to be: London, Paris, midtown New York and Chicago. But what if they had an authentic version located in the more sophisticated upscale malls and mixed-use centers? Could it work? Can Prada, for example, open a darkened and exciting bars and club to attract customers at The Grove?
Food is the New Fragrance
The legacy retailer used fragrance to introduce consumers to a ‘taste’ of the designer’s luxe world. The affordable indulgence was the gateway drug of aspirational retail. Chanel No 5.
Opium. Miss Dior. We still see this with celebrity endorsers of various scents, but the magic alchemy of “I want to be like Julia Roberts so I will wear…” or, “I like Johnny Depp, so…” has celebrity emulation, left to moments of panic-stricken parental and sibling birthdays and urgent Valentine’s gifting.
So, we may well ask, will luxury dining branding work? This strategy to extend luxe into the body, just not onto it? Well, let’s recall for a moment, Marlene Dietrich’s observation that we Americans and even more we Americans comfortably cossetted within the one percent are “hungry for everything except food.”
In other words, it will probably work, perhaps for a while, while it retains the frisson of the new. We’re certainly thirsty and it’s fun to dance and drink the night away. But there is nothing quite so forlorn as last season’s party vibe. This dining-out approach to brand engagement is a strategy in search of an objective rather than growth for its own sake. On a more immediate level a bit lower that the one percent, you walk out of Stella at Macy’s, L’Avenue at Saks or Wolf at Nordstrom NY after dinner into a virtually empty store, which is pretty creepy. The glow of indulgent pampering of a good meal becomes slightly counterintuitive when the dining experience far outweighs the retail experience.