11: Communicating Luxury

Luxury depends on communication in a number of ways. Of particular importance is the luxury functions as a transmitter of taste in a given culture or society: it is the maker of fashion, and as such must educate the public as to what they should desire. Also, if luxury is to be a means of social stratification, it must be communicated to the public that the brand is a mark of distinction - much as the rank and file must recognizes the badges of superior officers.

You don't communicate to sell

Luxury's approach to communication is different to that of mass market products in that it is undertaken to establish and maintain the brand's value, not to stimulate sales. In this way, consider it a continuum:

Building the image of a brand is often done by means of artistic communication that is highly coded and allusive - which is to say it is creative and indirect. The price will not be mentioned, and the product may not even be shown, as the point is to stimulate awe and desire.

Some loose bits:

You communicate because you sell

While most brands communicate to promote sales to new customers, luxury must also consider the degree to which its messages comfort and reassure existing clients. They must be assured that the product they own is of quality and that others will recognize the status of the brand such that the exiting customers will be envied, and their recommendation of the brand to others will be accepted without resistance.

Communication is also important to maintain the "dream" of luxury. Recall the earlier point that a luxury item descends from an otherworldly place to become part of mundane reality, and in doing so it becomes familiar and loses its mystery and wonder. In that way, advertising to those how have already purchased the item helps to remind them of the aspirations they had prior to purchasing it. The dream will not sustain itself without this reinforcement.

You don't talk about money

Lower ranks of products communicate constantly about price to stimulate demand by creating the sense that the product is cheap and that the customer is getting a good deal in terms of the functional benefits he receives by giving over his money.

Luxury products don't talk about money: to suggest that a product is affordable is an insult to the customer, implying that they do no seem like the class of person who can afford the product, or that they are incapable of making the assessment of value for themselves.

Moreover, to talk about the price of your product is to admit to the public that you have nothing better to say about it. For a luxury item, the price is the least important thing - both to the client and to the brand.

Money is also vulgar. While luxury customers do have the desire to be admired for owning expensive things, they wish this to be recognized in a general rather than specific way. To make the price known is as crass as leaving the price tag on a jacket, all the more so when it is left attached to a gift.

To be specific:

It's remarked that most luxury firms are privately owned, and are not required to disclose their financial information to the public. There have been severe problems for some firms that have incorporated and were compelled to disclose these details, though it's noted that luxury groups that offer multiple brands are able to hide the figures for brands in their consolidated financial statements.

Communicate, don't advertise

A luxury brand wishes to be known, but should not be desperate for attention, and so is discriminating and discreet in its communication.

Luxury brands spend a significant amount of budget communicating with existing customers: to keep a link with them and support their decision to buy. Keeping the brand on their mind encourages them to promote the product indirectly (when using it, they are seen by others) as well as directly (implying what they might say when asked about it, or when it is appropriate for them to suggest it to others).

A second major expenditure is on "whisper" advertising, direct communications to individual customers, targeted VIP events, and the like. VIP events are particularly significant, as they support the notion of luxury consumers as being a sort of private club.

While public relations are not paid advertising, luxury firms spend significant amounts on sponsorship and patronage of events and causes that appeal to their clients. Sponsorship must focus on events that are closely related to the brand's core, and is a highly prestigious event. Also, luxury brands tend to sponsor only one event, and are the only sponsor of that event.

Comparatively little is invested in traditional advertising, though the per-advertisement cost is high because they typically run full-page advertisements, sometimes multi-page spreads, and often purchase the back cover. It's also noted that such advertisement are only for the upper part of their product range, not entry or peripheral lines.

With the exception of perfumes (which are often not luxury items) television advertising is shunned. It is a passive medium, with few opportunities to reach the luxury audience, and is generally considered to be a lowbrow medium that reaches the masses rather than the selected few.

No personalities in the advertising

In general, people should not appear in luxury items in an intrusive manner - or included as part of the scenery when necessary to suggest the concept. Otherwise, they may distract from the item.

It is therefore particularly important not to use recognized personalities in luxury advertising, because:

There is a distinct difference between a celebrity who is paid to appear ion advertisements and a brand ambassador. An ambassador is a legitimate member of the luxury club, a genuine owner and user, and who provides an honest testimonial that is not read from a script. In the same sense, having celebrities seen using the product in their daily lives is also a form of ambassadorship. Their actual use expresses genuine admiration for the brand.

For luxury, it is preferable to have multiple ambassadors rather than focusing on one, who then takes on the de facto position of celebrity spokesperson. When multiple celebrities are seen using a brand, the brand gains an association with fame and accomplishment in general, not merely the fame and accomplishment of one person.

Inclusion and Exclusion

The social function of luxury is to express distance those who have it and those who do not. While many brands make themselves accessible to all comers, luxury remains aloof.

The authors suggest the formal society ball as an analogy: it invites the upper class. However, to invite a selected class is to refuse to invite others. A guest who brings an undesirable to the ball is no longer welcome.

In the same sense, luxury is a club. There is a small an tightly-knit community of luxury brands who open boutiques in the same neighborhood, advertise in the same magazines, and travel in the same circles of friends.

The brand that broadens its consumer base to include undesirables is betraying its friends, and its membership in the luxury club is revoked.

Permanently encourage word of mouth

The everyday and mundane have no power to impress, and are not worth talking about. Word of mouth is ignited by things that are marvelous and unusual.

Consider the extravagance of the wealthy, in particular the 2006 wedding of Lakshmi Mitta's daughter, for which he sent 1,000 invitations for a five-day party at a Chateau in France. Even before the gala event, the invitations created a great deal of buzz: 20 sheets of silk in a silver case, personally delivered to each invitee wherever they were.

Major events for luxury brands should be handled in the same grand style: if it isn't worth talking about, it isn't worth doing.

The internet and communication in luxury

While the authors have discouraged selling online, the Internet remains a valuable channel for communication to maintain the adoration of the masses and maintain close contact with their clients.

Luxury brands must answer the questions of why their product costs so much, or is not available in greater quantities and more convenient locations. They must teach their clients to be discerning, and show the masses something to envy.

But at the same time, a luxury brand must not stoop to serve the masses, and should pointedly avoid anything that reduces the distance between luxury and non-luxury.

Promoting and Defending

Luxury brands avoided the web in its early days because the quality of the medium was too poor, particularly in regard to visual design and download speed. The audience was also poor as well, in a literal sense, in that luxury-class customers were not using it. Both have changed, and there are now sufficient capabilities and sufficient audience to promote a luxury brand.

Defending the brand is also imperative, the Internet has become a social medium where people communicate, in which rumor flourishes in the absence of fact and bad news travels faster than good. Having an authorized voice diminishes the credibility of unauthorized ones, provided it remains credible.

On the topic of credibility: the authors point to the mistake of Vichy, a French skin care company that created a blog in which a fictional customer named "Claire" posted testimonials about her experience with the brand - when the hoax was revealed, their credibility was shattered. (EN: Checking up on this, the company apologized and desisted, but is now a premium mass-market brand rather than a luxury brand.)

Creating communities and co-creating with them

Online communities are an effective method of communication about the brand online. Those composed of fans and adorers reinforce the notion that the brand is widely admired. Those composed of customers are mutually reassuring to the customer that others share their passion.

However, the luxury brand must remain a leader rather than a servant of its adorers - by no means should it engage in "crowdsourcing" or allowing the chatter to set the strategy for the brand. The interest of a luxury brand is sustaining fanaticism for the brand such as it is, not in determining what the brand should become.

It is also important to distinguish between customers and non-customers online: there are many outsiders, people who do not, cannot, and will not purchase the brand, yet still express their opinions about it. If you fail to discern, you may be misled by the wrong sort.

The Internet and time

A difficult issue with the online media is that it is instantaneous and temporary, whereas luxury takes its time and desires longevity.

In some ways, the Internet can give time to luxury. Web site visitors will watch a video that is several minutes long, as opposed to the thirty-second television commercial, and who will peruse a great deal more information that can feasibly be crammed into a magazine spread.

Moreover, information on the Internet gives time to the luxury customer to peruse at their leisure, and to communicate via slower methods (email, discussion threads, etc.), and take their time in appreciating the brand.

Luxury brands must create brand content

There is a distinction to be made between advertising messages and brand content. Advertising messages are shallow, focusing on a single point for a brief span of time (in terms of the length of the message and its longevity). Brand content is the opposite, in that it communicates a great deal of information over a longer period of time (in the same dimensions).

Brand content is not a product demonstration, but a saga that tells the history and identity of the brand.

Advertising can be used online to draw attention to content - a single remark in a social media thread can link to a significant amount of content on the brand's website. In that sense, the advertising calls attention, but the content builds the desire of the consumer.

Why does luxury need brand content?

Another compelling reason to create brand content is that luxury is plagued by fakes - not only counterfeits and lookalikes, but also premium brands that wish to present themselves as luxury and blur the consumers' perception. In order to be perceived as worth the extreme cost and effort to obtain, luxury must teach customer to recognize a fake, and to appreciate the value of true luxury.

Recall that luxury is not comparative, but superlative - and as such it is counterproductive to compare the genuine article to impostors and poseurs. Instead, the image of a luxury brand must be sovereign, inherent to the brand itself rather than in comparison to others.

On that topic, consider that mass market brands have a position: they propose to be preferable to others based on a single quality. Volvo cars are known for their safety and Pepsi is the choice of a youthful generation. Luxury does not have a position in comparison to other brands, only an image that places it outside the realm of others: it is not to be compared because it is beyond comparison.

To establish this images, luxury brands have a lot to communicate, far more than a slogan.

Keeping the luxury edge on the net

The problem with consultants is that they press luxury to imitate other sectors - to do what has been successful for mass market brands - which dulls the edge of luxury.

Having said that, the authors babble a bit:

The notion of "codes" includes more than language - much of the communication about a brand is nonverbal. It begins with the visual stimulation, but then spreads to the other senses as well.

The nine signatures of the brand

While even mass market brands seek to create an image, luxury brands use different tactics: a specific set of codes and their coherence over time. The author defines nine "systematic and necessary elements" of the signature of a luxury brand:

  1. The figure of the brand's creator is presented with reverence.
  2. The typographical signature is distinct and discreet, such as Chanel's double-C or Vuitton's "LV"
  3. The logo includes a visual symbol to accompany the typographical signature, such as Aston Martin's wings.
  4. There is a repeated visual motif that is presented consistently across all lines of a brand.
  5. There is a specific color associated to the brand
  6. There is a preferred material for the products
  7. There is an obsession with detail, even to the seams
  8. The excellence of the artisans is touted
  9. There is a consistent style across all lines

These codes are used extensively: in the store, on the products, on the packaging, on any messaging. They become the signature by which the brand is recognized.

Using stories and rumors

Mass marketing messages reduce brands to a single promise, but luxury brands remain broad: they are promoting an image and a universe that is not subject to comparative logic or popular opinion.

For this reason, luxury brand communications should be thought of as a legend, comprised of the stories the brand tells about itself and the rumors others tell about it. The stories themselves are grand tales, based on authentic details, yet somewhat secretive or mysterious, and communicating some implicit message about its character.

Maintaining a legend is not like typical marketing communications, in that they do not change radically. The story remains the same, though different episodes or parts of the tale may be told over time, and the story may slightly evolve but its essential nature remains unchanged.

When the story is repeated by others, there will be exaggerations and confabulation, but all based on an essential truth. So long as rumor is supportive of the essential qualities of the story, augmentation and fabrication is of no consequence - but this applied only to what others are saying, not what is said by the brand itself.

As with a person, your brand's legend is built on the exaggeration and hyperbole of those who speak about it, but it is unbecoming to embellish or augment its own account.

Adapting the communication register to the type of luxury

There is much to be said about a brand, but many decisions to be made: which elements of value it should promote, how it should speak to clientele, which registers of communication should be used, and other matters are all to be considered based on their potential to resonate with the target market.

The four types of luxury clientele have entirely different attitudes toward luxury, all of which must be addressed:

A luxury brand may begin serving one of these segments, but will come to have all four types among its clientele as the brand grows, though the blend will be idiosyncratic to the brand.

To serve these four interests without sending conflicting messages requires brands to consider which interest are served by various channels. Advertising, events, foundations, charities, public relations, and other channels may each be focused on compatible facets.

(EN: It's also worth noting that these four interests are not at all contradictory, though the second and third may be difficult to reconcile, but ultimately a given message will need to focus on one of the items primarily.)