When I do luxury leadership seminars for luxury brands, I usually ask participants to answer the questions: What is your favorite luxury brand and what makes this brand particularly luxurious? The answers often differ by age and country, but in recent workshops in China and Japan, I found the following descriptions from young Chinese participants particularly intriguing. They indicate important new dimensions for luxury, and they provide important action areas for brands so they can avoid becoming obsolete in this fast-paced market.
Luxury is love
One female seminar participant started talking about her cherished Hermès bag. She told me that she usually does not spend a lot of money on products, but that this bag was different — it wasn’t just a bag. She described the purchase as “falling in love,” and that she couldn’t help but buy the bag.
This is one of the most powerful insights about luxury. When luxury is love, brands enter into a love relationship with their customers. Luxury can become very much like a romantic relationship, and it’s up to brands to nurture, strengthen, and maintain that relationship. If it becomes routine, the relationship can easily cool off, and the customer will move on to another brand. Even worse, if customers feel they were cheated, they won’t leave silently. Instead, their love will turn to hate. They will break things off, often publicly, and will tell all their friends about their broken love.
To avoid this, companies should conduct customer journey audits and rigorously identify what can go wrong and where. Only then can a brand take care of customer-related issues as they come up. By not taking care, they provoke a hard exit, and even being slow to respond gives the customer the impression that they’re not important, which compounds an issue. Excellent service can actually strengthen a customer bond, but failing to offer service can spell disaster in the end.
Luxury is the ability to influence, innovate, and inspire
One seminar participant mentioned Gucci, saying that the reason she finds the brand intriguing is its ability to “influence, innovate, and inspire.” She saw the brand as disruptive, surprising, and very energetic. She also felt that Gucci was like “home” for her, as the brand is for people who are young and rebellious.
Luxury should never be boring. Pietro Beccari, the CEO of Dior, once said that luxury is “pure emotion.” This is a great way of stating that luxury brands need to be able to stimulate change. When consumers see a brand doing this, they are drawn to its authenticity and energy. This explains, in part, why Gucci and Dior are among the most successful luxury brands among Millennials and Gen Zers, despite their long histories.
Always remember that luxury is there to provide unique experiences. Unique means that it cannot be repeated. Therefore, being seen as innovative and influential is of the utmost importance to a luxury brand. The perpetual management of surprise is an essential task for connecting with young consumers. Therefore, when brands play it safe, it quickly becomes the kiss of death.
Luxury lets you reconnect and recharge
Well-being is one of the most underestimated aspects of luxury. When people buy luxuries, they’re also buying an escape from the routine of day-to-day life. It allows them to disconnect from their problems and reconnect with their true selves. Because of this, luxury ‘experiences’ are of utmost importance. Luxury is an end-to-end experience, and the task of luxury brands is to make people feel good and encounter something they could never find anywhere else. In its ultimate form, luxury offers this with the highest possible degree of personalization and individualization.
Luxury brands need to have a brand-distinct experience strategy, and their branded experience needs to be delivered rigorously and consistently with each customer interaction. This is where most brands fail. Most traditional luxury brands provide comparable experiences. In other words, if you take out the logo, you won’t know which store you’re in. The same goes for luxury hotels. Most of them are the same. From check-in to check-out, the experience is predictable and interchangeable, and when this happens, the experience will not be memorable, special, or luxurious. Luxury brands need to provide a reason for consumers to come and visit. Providing nice architecture or a beautifully designed store isn’t enough. Those things are expected in luxury, but they aren’t the differentiators.
To differentiate, brands must be clear about who they are. This sounds banal, but it isn’t. The CEO of a U.S.-based luxury fashion brand told me some months ago that what makes them special is that they sell “dreams and experiences.” But, in reality, all luxury brands do that. A brand needs to be specific about which dream it sells and which experience. It needs to be defined in every marketing detail, it has to be actionable for every staff member, and surely it has to do something different than what any other brand is doing. And, most importantly, when there is an identity mismatch, customers are indicating that the brand experience isn’t projecting correctly and needs to be fixed.
The time for complacency is over
The Chinese luxury market has recently grown by 20% despite many insisting it no longer had any growth potential. Meanwhile, the expectations of the county’s youngest customers are higher than ever. They interact with brands both digitally and in stores. This requires a dramatically new way of thinking. The best practice five years ago means nothing today. Real-time, data-driven, consumer insight tools that support a rigorous strategy execution are crucial.
But one aspect that’s often neglected is people. All it takes is one negative touchpoint to damage a customer’s relationship with a brand. That’s why training people is critical. And yet, few brands excel here. It’s not enough to provide a brand manual or do occasional training. Proper luxury training must include fundamental insights about luxury and make clear what the role of each individual is in providing the branded luxury experience. Every musician in an orchestra needs to know their precise role and how and when to contribute. Only then, with repeated training, can an opera be enjoyed.
When all these conditions are met, a customer can truly fall in love with your luxury brand (just don’t give them a reason to break up with you).
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