the decline of luxury

The decline of luxury brands from aspirational to “anti-aspirational”

If we’re reductive about it, we might say there are really only two strategic levers a business can pull from a consumer perspective:

When it comes to delivering value, these are basically the paths to do it.  Utilitarian companies offer a genuinely useful and unique “function” – for instance, the supermarket Lidl, and its low prices.  Meanwhile, brand-led companies make up for their lack of differentiated function with a brand image people want to be associated with or buy into – e.g. Nike, and their powerful cultural innovation we explored here.

This isn’t to say that founders should pick one or the other.  The greatest brands do both simultaneously; using utilitarian difference to support a branded proposition (Steve Jobs era Apple is a perfect example of a 50/50 split between these two directions, hence why it is so revered).  Typically however the balance will be skewed in one direction or another.  Whilst I would never suggest that Lidl has no brand power, I think it’s fairly safe to assume that if its brand was totally different, but its prices were the same, it wouldn’t suffer much damage.

Now, whilst utilitarian offerings are easy to understand – the company does a job that solves a particular issue – branded ones are a bit more subtle.  To the cynic, they are exercises in selling people essentially “nothing”.  Just a chimera, wrapped around a generic overpriced item or service.  However, as I think we all know here, there is “real value” in brand.  It does indeed have the capacity to give people something they are looking for – just as much as more tangible offerings like “low prices” or “fast delivery”.  And, if we were to pick a word that summarises that value, we would probably alight here:

Aspiration.

Yes, that old chestnut.  What brand on the planet doesn’t want to be seen as “aspirational”?  Paradoxically even the low-priced ones are at it (other than perhaps Ryan Air, whose anti-aspiration stance is what makes them so damn cool).

So universal is this desire in fact that it has become cliche.  I’ve always said that a good test of whether a goal is worth stating is if the opposite would be equally plausible – a test which “aspirational” clearly doesn’t pass.

However, as with many cliches, just because everyone agrees on it doesn’t mean that everyone understands it.  To create something with an “aspirational” quality is actually quite tricky.  It is tempting to view the characteristic as being analogous with “premium” – whereby each category might have its “aspirational option”, that being the more expensive and high-quality one.  However in reality the dynamics of aspiration are far more subtle than that – as evidenced by a recent phenomenon we might call “luxury erosion”.

Luxury erosion – a term I just made up, but it will do – is the process by which various premium and luxury brands have gradually drifted from aspirational to “anti-aspirational” over the course of the past decade or two.  For a basic example, think of the brand Armani.  Undoubtedly this is a luxury “aspirational” brand, and yet it some respects it has come to represent something of the opposite, at least in the hyper-developed West.  If you see a person walking down the street wearing a t-shirt with a big Armani logo emblazoned on the front, you will, I suggest, not be liable to look up to them so much as to look down on them.  Such a display has come to be seen as a bit gauche, a bit declassé.  In a different manner, the same fate has befallen the iconic luxury car trio: Mercedes, BMW, and Audi.  Again these brands were once seen as archetypal symbols of aspiration and success, and yet now that sense has faded.  For many they are now gently derided as “rep mobiles” – or in the case of Mercedes in particular, “taxis” (given how regularly that brand is now used for that purpose).  This isn’t to say that these brands aren’t still desired in various ways; just that they have lost a lot of the caché they enjoyed in the 90s.

Wherever you look, you can see various iconic luxury brands suffering the same fate – losing their allure and becoming if not anti-aspirational then at the very least ordinary.

How can we explain this drift?  And moreover, how can we decipher aspiration in a manner which allows us to harness its effects for our own brand?

To do this there is one very simple principle I think we should cleave to:

As material comfort increases, and societies become more “developed”, aspirational status markers become increasingly ethereal.

Here’s a scientific graph to make the point:

the decline of luxury

What does this mean?

Well when we say something is aspirational, we mean that it raises our social status.  It is something we perceive as being above our current status, and therefore by associating with it we might pull ourselves up to a higher level on the ladder.  Clearly, we are all constantly, unavoidably, and largely subconsciously jostling for status, and this jostle is what all brand-led businesses basically rely on.

What the above graph is about is that the things that have the power to confer status are highly variable depending on cultural context.  A high-status thing in an Amazonian village is not going to be the same as a high-status thing in New York City, that goes without saying.  This variability is not random, however. It’s highly predictable. And it’s predictable in the way that it always follows the path of becoming less obvious, more subtle, more ethereal as development progresses.

To illustrate this, think about the concept of “bling”.  Bling, I think it’s fair to say, is very unfashionable in the hyper-developed West.  However, in cultures that have a more recent history of hardship and deprivation, bling is highly fashionable.  The tastes of wealthy Russians, Chinese, and Africans is not the same as wealthy Northern Europeans and Americans.  It tends to be more ostentatious and glitzy – and this makes sense given the historical backdrop.  If you are emerging from 50 years of Communist rule, say, it will be impressive to display material excess since few of your peers have access to it.  If however, you live in a society where material excess is available to pretty much anyone, you have to look elsewhere to prove your position at the top of the social pile.

This explains the erosion that has befallen Armani and Mercedes.  In the 1990s they were flawless status symbols and powerfully aspirational since they were undeniably brands few people could access.  As time has rolled on, however, and they’ve become more accessible, they’ve gradually lost that power – taking us to the point we’re at today where they are pretty easy for ordinary people to buy into if they so choose.  At such a point to flaunt these things ceases to be impressive, and actually becomes self-damaging, as it suggests that you are coming from a position that reveres such symbols; a position the culture around you has moved on from.

Clearly, this division doesn’t only occur across national boundaries, but within them too.  Different social classes have different ideas of what’s aspirational for precisely the same reasons.  Luxury brand names used to be common in hip-hop lyrics because the art arose from a deprived backdrop.  By the same token, we can see why Tony Soprano wears a gold chain, watch, and rings, but the chairman of the World Bank does not.

Wherever you look the pattern repeats: as wealth and status go up, a taste for glitz goes down.

Understanding this then, we might well wonder what aspirational looks like in a social milieu that looks down on such obvious “premium” markers.  We all understand the idea that Magnum, say, is a premium ice cream because it’s a bit more expensive, uses fancy gold typography and yammers on about indulgence all the time.  But if this is no longer seen as aspirational – and in fact is seen as a little gauche – then what is?

One clue we can find is in the relentless ascension of “Scandic-style”: the fashion for the clean, minimalist, and “tasteful” (note that it is only considered tasteful due to the social position of the tastemakers).  It’s a look that says “I’ve got nothing to prove”, and perhaps at a deeper level “I have the means to curate and standardise my aesthetic life”.  The blanding phenomenon is, in a way, a Scandification of consumer goods.  Removal of all traces of showiness or idiosyncrasy, to produce something which blends seamlessly with the carefully managed environments of the tastemaker classes.  Looking like you’re not trying to flaunt your power has become the standard power-play: an extension of the hoodie and sneakers uniform we’ve come to expect of tech billionaires, now writ large.

Connected to this is the trend for infantilisation of products – or what we in the UK might call “Innocentification”, in honour of the pioneer, Innocent drinks.  This generally isn’t found in fashion but is common in consumer goods and technology, whereby the most premium option is often that which looks the most “childlike”.  I’ve had various food and beverage clients who wished to be seen as premium, and thought that “luxury” would be the path by which they could best achieve this; however, I’ve always had to point out that perhaps the two most premium brands in the supermarket at the moment are Innocent and Ben & Jerry’s: the two most self-consciously unluxurious ones.

Part of the reason infantilised brands are seen as aspirational is their connection with virtuous behaviour, which leads me to a more profound status marker that has emerged recently: “luxury beliefs”.

A term coined by sociologist Rob Henderson, luxury beliefs are social and political opinions that are typically only held by those of very high status, and as such has come to be wielded in the same ostentatious way that gold jewellery would have been in the past.  What enables them to be “luxury” is:

  1. Being highly non-intuitive, meaning they can’t be “sensed” but rather must be learned through extensive education (e.g. “stealing is wrong” is not a luxury belief because it’s intuitive; whereas “stealing is actually right” would be a luxury belief if you could support it with some convoluted academic scaffolding)
  2. Being fast-moving, meaning they change all the time so you have to keep on top of them, thus displaying that you’ve got your finger on the pulse (a hard-working Joe Schmo won’t be able to keep pace with academic fashions, and thus will quickly out themselves as a rube when they display outmoded opinions and vocabulary)
  3. Being financially costly to hold; thereby showing that costs are something you are able to bear (those in relative poverty are forced to place their own material concerns higher in their priorities than those at the top, who are able to be more idealistic)

A typical example might be a commitment to the total dissolution of national borders: a view which effectively no ordinary people hold, but which is quite common in the highest echelons of society and certainly acts as a strong status indicator.

Away from such hyper-elite views like this, the luxury beliefs phenomenon can be seen in strategy through the continued ascendancy of ethical offerings.  Although the things most ethical brands stand for don’t fully meet the definition of luxury beliefs, they do nevertheless tap into one of the main aspirational currents in post-luxury societies such as the UK and USA.  While the 90s millionaire would have bragged about his sweater being made from cashmere, the 20s millionaire would do so about hemp.  The motivations are the same, the content changes.

(I appreciate it sounds quite cynical to put the explosion of ethical brands down to petty status games rather than some great moral awakening, but hey, people are people.  Just because the trend is powered by vanity that doesn’t make it necessarily unwelcome.)

There are other interesting and perhaps more abstract status indicators for the hyper-developed too.  Irony is a big one, artfully harnessed by brands such as Supreme, who subvert old luxury codes in a “knowing” way.  Still, I could never begin to list all of them here.  They are by their nature quite complex and subtle.  The only point we really need to land here is that what passes for aspirational in the most developed corners of the globe is no longer basic material wealth, but rather various forms of “meta-commentary” which are perceived as out of reach for regular people.  Things which fundamentally may not be literally expensive, but which show you are “in the club” – a far more valuable signifier.

Ultimately we must always come back to this simple principle:

That which is aspirational must always be a little out of reach.

To simply make something premium does not work, because premium has become democratised.  To stretch people out of their social strata today, you have to find new paths.

This job is much harder than in the days when you simply used swirly gold font and charged 20% more than your competitors.  It requires far more insight and cultural nous.  But for those who achieve it, the rewards are exponentially higher.