Molekule and Herman Miller: Two Different Lessons About Digital Luxury

    Recently, Jing Daily columnist Daniel Langer made two different online luxury purchases. How did they go? Very differently, it seems.
    Recently, Jing Daily columnist Daniel Langer made two different online luxury purchases. How did they go? Very differently, it seems. Photo: Herman Miller
      Published   in Hard Luxury

    Herman Miller is undisputedly one of the most successful, admired, and sophisticated furniture companies globally. Some of the most iconic designers of all time, from Le Corbusier to Charles Eames, have made objects as part of their collection. As a furniture aficionado, I proudly own many of their pieces in my home and office, including my favorite chair: the Barcelona Chair that Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich designed for the German Pavilion of 1929 at the International Exposition in Barcelona.

    Herman Miller's Barcelona Chair retails for 6738. Photo: Herman Miller
    Herman Miller's Barcelona Chair retails for 6738. Photo: Herman Miller

    A few weeks ago, I decided to buy a new office chair online. Naturally, I went to Herman Miller and tried to order one on their website. I opted for a beautiful Eames office chair with white leather upholstery and several upgrades. However, one important function was not available on their online site: casters for the hardwood floors of my office. The website stated that I had to email customer service if I wanted that option.

    That was the first friction in the online shopping process to impact my “luxury” perception of the brand. Why, if it’s an option that probably many people want, was it not available in its configurator? Why do I have to write an email and potentially wait a couple of hours or days for an answer?

    A second critical option that was also not available online was the extended height function. Since it was not available, I assumed that the “standard” option would work for my standard height office desk. Frustrated that important options were not available in a “frictionless” digital shopping environment, I just ordered the standard height and regular casters and hoped for the best. That turned out to be a mistake.

    Long story short: The chair arrived and was not comfortable to use as an office desk chair at the standard height. Fortunately, Herman Miller’s customer service agreed to exchange it for me with an extended height chair. However, over the next few weeks, all my email interactions with the brand happened extremely slow, sometimes with delays of several days between my questions and their answers. Brand emails came with no phone number, no follow-up contact, and no way to interact faster or more directly. And since there were no personal interactions, I found it impossible to connect with customer service on a human level. As a result of these significant frictions during my digital experience and the brand's impersonal, slow, and reactive responses, I could only describe this customer experience as catastrophic (and this is being kind).

    Despite my several attempts to communicate with the brand (even after multiple weeks), I'm still unsure when they will exchange the chair. Nothing about the experience feels personal or expresses that they value me as a customer. In short, nothing feels adequate for a luxury brand. The biggest disappointment was that I explicitly decided to buy directly from the brand because I assumed I would get much better customer service than if I went through authorized retailers. Yet, the opposite was the case. This experience shows how crucial the customer journey is for luxury brands — especially the digital journey.

    Of course, Herman Miller is far from the only luxury brand with an inconsistent digital customer experience for its brand and product quality. Here we have a critical lesson for luxury brands across all categories: From a customer perspective, it is not enough to have iconic designs and high-quality products to be perceived as "luxury." Every customer touchpoint counts. And if even one touchpoint does not support the brand's luxury positioning, the entire brand perception can easily collapse.

    In contrast to this experience, I recently ordered several Molekule Air Purifiers for my office and home. To my delight, this turned out to be one of the best digital luxury experiences I have ever had. The Molekule website is extremely clear and straightforward. It is one of few luxury brand websites that tell the brand story with complete clarity. The order process was easy to understand, seamless, and fast. After ordering, I received a series of emails teasing the benefits of ownership, preparing me for what is next, and giving me precise and real-time updates on my shipping and delivery status.

    Molekule Air Purifiers reportedly destroy SARS-CoV-2 by over 99 percent in under 1 hour. Photo: Molekule
    Molekule Air Purifiers reportedly destroy SARS-CoV-2 by over 99 percent in under 1 hour. Photo: Molekule

    Compared to the Herman Miller experience, I could feel how well Molekule had organized its digital experience, including all aspects of the delivery, in every detail, ensuring that its brand story is perceived and strengthened even during delivery wait times. And while waiting for my delivery, the brand invited me to create a customer account. I can manage my devices from this account, but it lets the brand start a personal conversation with me, as well. When I had an account setup issue and wrote an email asking for assistance, I got a response and solution within 20 minutes — a far cry from waiting on Herman Miller for days sometimes. The post-purchase and pre-delivery experiences, in particular, strengthened my perception of extraordinary customer service and luxuriousness to a level I have never experienced with any other online luxury purchase in any product category. This digital journey, including the waiting time, caused positive effects of desirability and anticipation, signaling that the customer is cared for and valued.

    Both experiences show how critical strategy, management, and the execution of digital experiences are for luxury brands. After all, we shape our brand preferences through the total of all touchpoints. If only one touchpoint falls short and customers feel neglected, not taken seriously, or served poorly, the entire perception of luxuriousness collapses. Brand equity is either strengthened through the customer journey or the opposite. And in the context of luxury, weakening brand equity can be, in many cases, fatal.

    It is a perfect reminder of what luxury is all about. It isn't just about the product; it is also about the total perceived value. And in luxury, since brands command significant price premiums, customer value must be extreme. It’s that simple. No extreme value equals no luxury. When there is too much focus on product and too little focus on the customer journey, even brands with extraordinary craftsmanship and product performance risk alienating customers and negatively altering brand trust and perception.

    With these examples, it is clear that the digital journey and “final mile” of delivery are critical. All the brand equity a company has built — often over years or decades — can quickly vanish if customers feel left to their own devices while waiting for answers about product delivery. In many cases, it can lead to what I call “brand breakups.” Our research indicates that these breakups are the costliest events for brands as they are extremely hard to fix and turn loyal consumers into enemies of the brands they once loved. And these slighted customers often initiate a snowball effect of negative influence.

    On the other hand, if a brand can surprise and delight during the digital process — and later in the real-world brand interaction — they almost automatically create enthusiastic followers who rave about their experiences. That's when we feel real luxury.

    This is an op-ed article and reflects the views of the author and does not necessarily represent the views of Jing Daily.

    Daniel Langer is CEO of the luxury, lifestyle and consumer brand strategy firm Équité, and the executive professor of luxury strategy and extreme value creation at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. He consults some of the leading luxury brands in the world, is the author of several luxury management books, a global keynote speaker, and holds luxury masterclasses in Europe, the USA, and Asia. Follow @drlanger

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