New York Times marketing correspondent Rob Walker outlines an idea in his 2008 book, Buying In, that feels all the more resonant today. A central idea is what he calls the dialogue between individuals and the things they buy. One of the most important influences on our brand decisions, he insists, is not what these items say to other people about us, but what they say to us about ourselves, Think of the middle-aged, middle-manager with his MacBook, assuring himself that he is far more creative than the average Excel-sheet drone.
It’s tempting to dismiss this as twaddle. Surely there’s no such thing as a one-to-one dialogue between any one buyer and any one branded product. Brands have meaning and value insofar as they play on the shared aesthetics, understandings and aspirations out there in culture. This is particularly the case, in the western perception, when it comes to luxury brands.
But could all this preoccupation with the external—what people are telegraphing to others through their brand choices—be mistaken? If the dialogue is only external and not internal, how does one explain choices in all sorts of categories that aren’t on display? Like $100 Diptyque bathroom candles?
Many (again mostly western) commentators have been quick to ridicule aspiring, emerging middle-classes in fast-growing economies for their love of branded bling. They dismiss the logos and the Louis as tasteless display. But if we try and see these purchases (be they real or fake versions) as motivated by internal considerations, they take on a rather different character. Seen in this way, they look rather less like shallow assertions of new wealth, and more like markers of personal progress. They become a means for individuals to find and understand their place in this world.
Newly mass-affluent populations are largely uncharted territory. Their forebears never had the opportunities to achieve the material comforts they now possess. Many of these rapidly growing markets were closed and had little culture of consumerism.
What we’ve noticed, at Flamingo, about the region’s aspiring individuals is that they are planning ahead. Saving for homes and marking out milestones, they’re experts at delayed gratification, earning and waiting patiently to enjoy their own wealth. What they’re not doing is indulging in ostentation for its own sake. What these brands can reflect back to them (as opposed to telegraphing out to others) is that I’m doing okay. They can make you feel modern. They provide signposts and markers on this untrodden path. Less 'one up on you', more 'one step further on my journey for me'. This is not to say that display isn’t involved, but there is also an internal dialogue. We must understand that in many ways, luxury is a necessity.
So in today’s downturned world what does this mean for the luxury brands?
On the face of it, China’s belt tightening is a double-blow for luxury—a severe pruning in the key market with knock-on effects globally from Sydney to São Paulo. It doesn’t look promising. But thinking of luxury as necessity, we predict something more interesting and a little more complex will happen.
The slowdown works as a refiner’s fire, burning out the dead or dying wood and leaving the strongest branches. The brands that succeed will engage with the personal dialogue. Faced with these headwinds, the dialogue between the person and the thing will become all the more important; people will seek more meaning from fewer things. Brands that give an experience that goes beyond the product—to the purchase and retail experience, digital engagement and the ongoing experience—are the ones that will thrive. Don’t think product innovation but ecosystem invention, with a purposeful and beautiful product at its heart, that takes an interest in the person it speaks to and the context for that ongoing conversation.
If this all sounds familiar, it’s because this is, in many respects, a new reminder about old advice. We saw this after 2008 in The Great Recession in the West, where Rolls and Agent Provocateur grew while Bentley and Victoria’s Secret shrank, where the rough luxe trend, a refocusing on provenance and the mainstreaming of craft were some of the tallest trees left standing. We may be about to see the same again globally.
Adam Nelson is director at Flamingo Singapore