Recently, a CEO of a luxury brand asked me if I would agree that for millennials, especially in China and Asia, luxury is all about experiences, suggesting that brand, quality, and craftsmanship were not nearly as important. That in today’s digital — everything all of the time — world, it’s all about connection. While I agreed about the need for immersive consumer experiences, I vehemently disagreed about the importance of the brand. In fact, I couldn’t help but think that managing the equity of a brand has never been as important as it is now. This means creating a proposition that resonates with consumers and inspires them. In short, if a luxury brand wants to entice today’s consumers, whether it’s in China or beyond, it needs to underscore its authenticity and relevancy.
Powerful words, to be sure, but what does it mean to be authentic and relevant? For the moment, let’s start with the opposite. During many of my brand strategy sessions, I often hear the expression “they feel staged” when people describe brands that they would never buy. Needless to say, when brand feels staged, it is neither authentic nor relevant. The synonyms unnatural, deceived, cheated, and faked come to mind. In other words, a staged brand is bullshitt*ng their consumers.
This may sound harsh, but in my experience, this is what consumers perceive if a brand is not authentic. It feels like something is off, even if people can’t tell what it is. And when they feel it, the brand loses relevancy and consumers walk away. Managers of brands typically have the best intentions, but if their proposition is off, if they use the wrong tools, then the brand will feel staged, lacking substance and meaning. And for luxury brands, this perception has three consequences: consumers will not pay premium prices; they will turn away; and they will tell their friends. Social media is a locus of people sharing their experiences, and if they’re negative, they will spread even faster.
So what’s the root cause of this problem? And why do brands, even some of the most established and successful ones, continue to make these mistakes? First of all, managing luxury brands is difficult. When executed well, however, they can deliver an exponential amount of intangible value, which explains why consumers pay such high prices. But when mistakes are made, the intangible value collapses, which can often be irreversible.
In my experience, it’s a lack of authenticity and relevancy that starts at the core of the brand; it’s the lack of a comprehensive brand definition that combines a rational reason to be and an emotional anchor for the customer. While brands often think that their definition is clear, in reality, it is often blurry or vague. Many are too similar to what other brands in the same field are claiming or doing. This similarity may feel safe for some managers (“because others do the same, there must be a reason, and we should be fine”), but feels staged for consumers (“the brand does what everyone else is doing”).
And for a luxury brand, nothing is worse than creating an experience that is no more than a category experience, even if the delivery is flawless. If the experience is not “branded,” or differentiated in some unique way, it creates no brand equity, no memory, and very little reason to come back. True, most luxury brands have brand manuals. But having a brand manual does not mean that the brand is defined in a way that creates the extreme value that a true luxury brand needs. I often these find brand definitions are too unspecific, relying too much on category norms, and more focused on repeated efficiency rather than on creating relevant and authentic experiences. And if a consumer pays for an experience that turns out not to be authentic, they will feel cheated, bullshi*tted when they have to pay a premium for it. Don’t expect them to come back ever again.
One of the paradigm shifts in today’s reality is that consumers are super-empowered — tethered to a digital leash 24/7. In China and beyond, they are much better informed than any generation before. And the younger they are, the more they expect. Don’t bullsh*t them! Start with evaluating your brand with a thorough brand audit. Listen to what consumers talk about your brand, but don’t limit your insights to what people comment on WeChat or Instagram. Look into the power of A.I. and how to connect consumer consent with all other data to identify patterns and understand what your consumers are looking for in real time.
Then define your brand precisely. Create a compelling story that makes your brand authentic and relevant in the eyes of your consumers. And then make sure that the execution is excellent across all touchpoints. Here quality and craftsmanship come into play. Hence, your entire staff needs to be properly trained, and they need to understand what luxury is, and how to deliver an inspiring experience in a way that is 100 percent on the brand. Most importantly, always create extreme value for your consumers, at all times, at every touch point. And no bullshitt*ng!
Daniel Langer is CEO of the luxury, lifestyle and consumer brand strategy firm Équité. He consults some of the leading luxury brands in the world, is the author of several luxury management books, a regular keynote speaker, and holds management seminars in Europe, the USA, and Asia. Follow @drlanger