Dreaming up a world – how luxury brands create desire
You could argue that “if you can’t afford this, then it is a luxury.” But that’s not so much a statement about the object or its value as it is about the person who is buying it. Will it work to simply put a million-dollar price tag on a product to master the art of creating a luxury brand? Unlikely. What you need to master first is creating desire for something extraordinary.
As a strategy consultant, I worked with clients from different luxury sectors like automotive, fashion, and jewelry. What I found was that the creation of desire, the process of longing and passionate imagining, is crucial to building successful luxury brands. Yet creating it is far from easy. The main challenge in managing luxury brands is the constant trade-off between growing the brand while remaining exclusive and guaranteeing high quality. This managerial challenge is unique to luxury brands. If you grow too fast, you risk losing your desirability.
Creating the extraordinary
Luxury is about the extraordinary – this creates desire. In my research, I look at the processes of creating the extraordinary from different perspectives. Economically, it’s all about price and value; culturally it’s about the magical aura the brands radiate; socially, it’s about status and exclusivity; psychologically, it’s about how the brand makes you feel special; and managerially it’s about creating a culture of excellence. Understanding these mechanisms is crucial to creating desire and seducing consumers into your brand story.
Luxury brands have long known this. In their advertisements, they generate desire by relying on three principles: enrichment, distancing, and abstraction. The differences from mass-market and premium brands are striking. Through enrichment, such as storytelling, luxury brands take us on a journey towards the destination of desire. We rarely desire what we can have immediately. That’s why we seldom desire the ordinary world. Desire is created when something is just out of reach.
Customers desire what they have to work for, what is almost out of their reach but still reachable. This becomes obvious when you look at luxury brand advertising. The difference between premium and luxury brands is that luxury brands position themselves in an extraordinary world. A mass-market fashion brand might stage its ad campaign in the middle of Berlin or in a city that might look like the one you live in; its models walk through the city wearing clothes you can buy in any shop. So this is just an ordinary, casual purchase. Luxury brands, by contrast, aim to transform an ordinary purchase into an extraordinary one. They do this by building distance between client and product. In our research, we have determined four mechanisms they use to create this gap.
First, luxury brands play with social distancing. The advertisement depicts an aspirational group[CT1] , a target group that people would like to be part of. For premium brands, this means referring to status symbols like fast cars, helicopters, a lifestyle that ordinary people associate with the lifestyle of the brands’ target group. For luxury brands, this can even mean going into the grotesque, violating social conventions, or replacing real personas with fictive ones, such as characters from a fairytale. This is what we term social distancing.
Second, they use temporal and spatial distancing by positioning their products in a different time and place. They could, for instance, give their advertisement the look of a work of art or stage them in a remote and fictional place. They can refer to the product’s heritage but also serve to “de-place” it somewhat from the world we live in today.
Third, and perhaps most interestingly, luxury brands use hypothetical distancing. They create situations that are hardly or just not conceivable. One example is an advertisement by the brand Hermès. It features a woman who lives in Paris with a horse, a key symbol for Hermès that alludes to its heritage in saddlery. In one campaign, a woman is shown living together with a horse in Paris. The horse is depicted as the faithful companion – they walk down the streets of Paris or look out of their apartment window together. You immediately know that this is the creation of a big dream. They create a desire in the customer to be part of that dream by engaging with the product. Part of what makes a strong brand is that they have their own vision and a unique story that draws people in.
Building a dream
Lastly, there is the principle of abstraction, the many layers of interpretation there are in an ad. With most ads, what you see is what you get – the dress, the bag, the look, the lifestyle. The trick is to create an ad that leaves room to construct your own view and that references more substantial questions. One example is the image of a tree and a butterfly, which is a recurring motif for Hermès. A butterfly is a very fragile, ephemeral animal; the tree is a long-standing, substantial part of nature. A discourse between permanence and ephemerality evolves. To create desire, you need to make consumers dream and invite them to a fantastic journey that only imagination can spark. Enrichment and distancing, especially hypothetical distancing and abstraction, are the ingredients of this successful recipe.
Luxury brands give consumers the space to project their own fantasies onto the product. This is how they create a lasting story in the minds of their consumers. Hence, the product becomes something that lives longer than the commercial counterparts that are designed to be quickly replaced. That’s when customers are willing to pay a higher price. They will gladly invest in an extraordinary experience that potentially lasts their whole lives. Only if you get all dimensions right, will you be able to translate the desire and high price into a successful business model.
This artcice was orginally published by Forbes.