What A Simulation Reveals About The Critical Role Of Luxury Storytelling

Storytelling for luxury brands is of paramount importance, so I always dedicate a significant portion of my Luxury Strategy MBA program at California’s Pepperdine’s Graziadio Business School on this topic. As highlighted frequently in this Future of Luxury column, the brand story is much more than a marketing plot. It is, fundamentally, the foundation of a brand. 

If done right, it unlocks the brand power, creates non-linear value, boosts desirability, and significantly augments a customer’s willingness to pay. Hence, for premium and luxury brands, there is nothing more important than defining or sharpening the brand story. In many cases, it is the difference between long-term profitable growth and steady decline.

The brand story is also what differentiates a category experience that is value-creating from one that is generic.

In today’s world where brands must reach their audiences through algorithm-walled social media platforms, the story cannot just be about heritage, craftsmanship, and quality. Firstly, these are simply expected of premium and luxury brands; they are not a relevant differentiator. The story must be told through the eyes of clients. And therein lies its power.

To underline this, I asked my students recently to do a simulated experiment. We looked at the brand story of Nike. In contrast to most competitors in the sports apparel category, Nike does not tell a story of superiority (quality, craftsmanship, or being better than competitors) but a client-centric story that everybody is an athlete (I often call this the rational brand story element) and to “Just Do It” (which I often refer to as the emotional core, the inspiration, or the call-to-action). A rational story and emotional core need to be connected to tell a powerful story from a client’s perspective. 

In essence, the brand story clarifies the role of the brand in the consumer’s life. It defines its reason to be (the ethos) rather than describes what the brand does (the product expression of the brand). Hence, when premium and luxury brands talk about materials, design, and quality, they’re describing the expression of a brand but not its core values. 

By connecting the brand and clients emotionally, the brand story unlocks value. The best brands in the world are able to create value many multiples over their basic product value (i.e. cost of creation, materials, production) through their story. This underlines that the story is — especially for premium and luxury brands — by far the biggest value driver and therefore needs to be the core focus. 

In the simulation, the students had to come up with a hypothetical check-in experience if Nike were to launch a hotel based on its brand story. They got merely 10 minutes to brainstorm ideas. The result was mind-blowing. Almost every element of the experience was reimagined within that short window. Ideas ranged from a completely reimagined lobby that exudes athleticism to a check-in experience where the typical front desk is eliminated and a feeling of movement is created. Every aspect the students came up with was an expression of athletics. If implemented, the result would be a profound disruption of the hospitality category, creating a brand-specific experience rather than one that is interchangeable between brands. 

If the same simulation were to be done using the stories of many of the existing hospitality brands today, it would generate almost no differentiated experiences. This indicates that many, if not most, brands in the sector don’t have a brand story with the parameters described above. They are often telling a category story with a focus on tangible elements, not on the ethos. 

In cases where brands in hospitality try to tell a client-centric story (e.g. “we want our clients to feel at home”), they often lack any emotional or inspirational markers that provide differentiation. These stories are nothing more than variations of the definition of hospitality. The same experiment can be done with practically every other category as most brands (I estimate more than 90 percent) are not sufficiently defined through the eyes of their clients.

The result? A sea of sameness of brand experiences. 

In a recent audit of luxury fashion store experiences in Italy, a lack of differentiation was the norm, not the exception. Even worse, practically all audited brands had similar merchandising strategies, similar portfolios, and even similar designs, with very few exceptions. 

Frankly, after the retail audit, I was bored by what many of the brands offered in terms of products and experience. If someone were to eliminate the names, it would be almost impossible to tell the brands apart just by the in-store dramatization (or the lack of thereof). This shows that the deficiencies in brand stories have real-world implications and directly translate into undifferentiated product portfolios and suppressed creativity. 

Luxury brands that achieve the highest desirability are comparable to an opera. There is a script that describes with precision what the brand is about, every person who represents the brand is intentionally identified and selected, everyone knows precisely what to do, and the execution is flawless. Only if this happens will clients feel the “magic” of a brand and be loyal. If there is no script that holds everything together, then there is practically no value created and the result for brand growth and financials becomes underwhelming at best. 

The more brands depend on creating cultural capital and breaking through the digital noise, the more brand storytelling matters. And it only works, at least in luxury, if clients can feel the brand. It’s either an opera or it’s nothing. Time to rethink luxury.

This is an opinion piece where all views expressed belong to the author.

Named one of the “Global Top Five Luxury Key Opinion Leaders to Watch,” Daniel Langer is the CEO of the luxury, lifestyle and consumer brand strategy firm Équité, and the executive professor of luxury strategy and pricing at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. He consults many of the leading luxury brands in the world, is the author of several best-selling luxury management books, a global keynote speaker, and holds luxury masterclasses on the future of luxury, disruption, and the luxury metaverse in Europe, the USA, and Asia.

Follow him: LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/drlanger, Instagram: @equitebrands /@thedaniellanger

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