Communicating Luxury to the Affluent Masses
We all know luxury markets are taking off. In mass and developing markets like India, luxury brands are growing volumes and there is promise of more. As a result, in marketing and advertising meetings, there is an emerging debate. How to communicate luxury brand messages to the mass consumer? The question is a puzzling one.
Opposing schools of thought.
Do we ‘downgrade’ communication to address the mass consumer but risk losing some of the mystique and aura of luxury? OR do we retain the mystique of luxury communication but risk not having a true connect with its new and potential consumers? Luxury volumes have been spurred by a significant growth in the rich in recent years.
WHO ARE THE NEW RICH?
They come in varied shapes, sizes and style quotients. Garment exporters, multi national bankers, college kids earning plum salaries at call centres or BPOs, well heeled corporate wives, and successful entrepreneurs. What they have in common is that they have made it big. They want the world to know just how soon and how far they’ve climbed the social mobility ladder.
THE DISAPPEARANCE OF FINANCIAL DISTANCE
What is the definition of luxury? At heart, luxury is about exclusivity. It is also defined as lavishness, magnificence, comfort, sumptuousness, opulence, extravagance. Bear in mind the affluent masses. In the past, prestige came from real financial distance. Luxury was the preserve of the aristocratic elite, who were very small in number. The masses simply could not afford luxury. They were too financially distant from the paintings, jewellery, clothes, homes etc. that the aristocratic elite could afford. Today, given the rise in purchasing power, luxury consumption is no longer reserved for the few. This is a time in history when the affluent masses are no longer at a financial distance from luxury.
THE KEY TO THE PARADOX OF COMMUNICATING
LUXURY TO THE MASSES
Prestige and exclusivity has to be driven by distance. Only, this distance is no longer financial but intellectual and cultural. And communication is a powerful tool for creating this distance. So, luxury brand messages much connote a sense of intellectual and cultural distance. Intellectual and cultural distance is vital for creating prestige or exclusivity. Legend has it that when George Bernard Shaw won the Nobel Prize, he was invited to become a member of the ‘Club of 100’. This was a prestigious club of 100 people, all leaders in their fields, and only when one died could a new member join. Yet, Shaw refused to join this club. When asked why, he replied: “I don’t want to become a member of a club that wants me, I want to become a member of a club that doesn‘t want me”. An Urdu couplet makes the same point philosophically: “What we call the world is a magical toy; if you have it, it is like mud; if you lose it, it becomes like gold.” (Duniya jise kehte hain, jadu ka khilona hai; mil jaye to mitti hai, kho jaye to sona hai).
THREE WAYS HOW COMMUNICATION CAN CONNOTE DISTANCE
It has been said that luxury consumption is associated with a certain ‘ceremonial tension’ which guarantees that you are indeed dealing with luxury. If you think about it, it’s true. When you go to buy jewellery in a shop – if you are buying small items you get them on the ground floor, but if you are buying some large pieces, they take you discreetly upstairs to the third floor! In reality, so many aspects of luxury consumption are kept deliberately ‘hard to get’. This ‘distance’ must extend to its communication as well.
Indian buyers often mispronounce the names of foreign brands. A person who can afford to buy a Mont Blanc may ask for it as ‘Mount Blank’. Chanel perfume may be called ‘Channel’ (as in the English Channel) by its wearer. Yet, this unfamiliarity with Swiss, French, German, American or Japanese brand names underscore the cultural distance.
Sign-off lines that you have to ‘get’
Not everyone knows what an advertisement is referring to in its ‘when you know’ sign off line. It is at an intellectual distance from us when we don’t understand it or struggle to do so. This ‘ceremonial tension‘ assures you that you are indeed dealing with luxury, and makes the brand seem luxurious and desirable.
Artistic and graphic visualization
Fashion labels, whose communication alludes to ‘geisha designs’ (targeted at Indian women who probably don’t even know what the word means) or those that show abstract visualizations of a petal and a line that reads ‘the universe in a flower’, are among the most famous, well respected and best selling luxury brands in this market. The imagery of these brands is at a great cultural and intellectual distance from their target audience. And this has created an immense aura of prestige around them.
THE HIGH VIEW
“IF YOU CAN TALK WITH CROWDS
AND KEEP YOUR VIRTUE OR WALK
WITH KINGS NOR LOSE THE COMMON TOUCH”
As the Indian luxury market grows in volume, luxury brands will ‘talk with crowds’. As the financial distance disappears it will become imperative for luxury brands to ‘keep their virtue’ - that is, maintain a cultural and intellectual distance from their target consumers. Initially, luxury brands get consumed by the elite few, or ‘the nerd’. As volumes grow over time, luxury brands are consumed by the affluent masses of ‘the herd’.‘The nerd’ comprises the elite who really understand luxury when they buy it. But ‘the herd‘ buys luxury because ‘the nerd‘ is buying it. Thus, to sell to ‘the herd’ we must talk to ‘the nerd’. The intellectual and cultural elite will be the only one understanding luxury messaging. For the affluent masses, luxury messaging must remain at a cultural and intellectual distance. It must remain beyond their reach.