The truth about future growth in the luxury market
A number of luxury brands are currently struggling and many are in the midst of turnaround efforts. Other luxury brands that aren’t necessarily struggling aren’t exactly growing either.
There have been many explanations as to what is contributing to this. The real world of wealth has been contracting. People’s spending is being effected by many other economic factors as well. Under adverse conditions many brands pull back on advertising or compromise their image and positioning in the luxury market for a temporary increase in margins and sales. While there is truth to all of this, it brings up a larger question about people and the brands they choose.
In the branding world there is a wide spectrum in understanding what really motivates and drives people to do what they do. Many brands continue to operate by the belief that people are driven by the functional benefits of their products and services. That plays a part, but what really moves people in the luxury goods category is whether the brand mirrors who they desire to be.
In other words, it isn’t the reflection of a brand that an individual wants to see in the mirror, but rather a more idealized reflection of who the individual desires to become. In branding this is referred to as “identity value” and in the luxury goods category, people carefully choose brands based upon subtle impressions that put feelings on barely perceptible desires.
What celebrity-consumer connection is and isn’t
Several brands are using celebrities in their rebound strategy. The idea is to draw attention and attach the coolness of a celebrity image to lend cachet to their brand with the obvious goal of driving sales. Throw your product on a famous celebrity and sit back and wait for the magic to happen, right?
When it comes to utilizing celebrity, many fashion or lifestyle brands often misunderstand how celebrity power really affects their brand equity. Based upon many real world cases, celebrity commercials usually score above average on recall and below average on changing the perception of brand or product value.
A recent example is the smartphone brand HTC signing a $12 million endorsement deal with Robert Downey Jr. to promote their smartphones. In spite of this high profile endorsement of one of Hollywood’s most visible and successful stars, and in spite of the fact that the HTC One smartphone was functionally superior in many dimensions to the iPhone, HTC experienced a decline in brand sales.
In this case we see that an increase in brand awareness (pure and simple by attaching a well known celebrity to the brand) did not lead to growing, but rather to decreasing demand.
There are likely several reasons for this. People can be very fickle about what celebrity fits with a brand image and whether or not the purpose, values, and unfolding story is relevant and resonant with their own. If a brand is merely borrowing brilliance from someone in order to appear as cool, then there’s not enough substance in that strategy to make it effective or sustainable. Brands instead need to strive for organically building greater relevance and resonance over a sustained period of time. This is the essence of brand positioning strategy.
Brands that stand for nothing and have nothing of substance to communicate apart from their product features will never reach their brand potential. It's true that the art of brand building is all about attaching unique, strong and favorable associations to your brand over time, but before a brand goes about aimlessly attaching things it needs to understand its core purpose, values, and beliefs in regards to how its helping lift the experience of life and living in the consumer’s eyes.
Arriving at an understanding of ones brand purpose is very different from writing a corporate mission statement. Most mission statements are written with investors in mind and not consumers. Mission statements in most cases are prosaic by comparison to a finely wrought brand purpose statement.
Brand purpose statements need to be inspirational and aspirational in nature. They are consumer facing and are arrived at only by looking deeply into the tensions in the world and how involvement with specific luxury goods resolves some dilemma the consumer has in their life. Brand purpose statements dig deep for values and brand truths and how they satisfy some deep and unmet emotional need.
When it comes to evaluating brand identities and messages, most consumers look for deeper meaning and take nothing at face value.
Products are artifacts around which consumers have experiences
While it is true that most of the mass-market products stand mostly for their physical features and benefits, luxury products are known to produce other abstract associations sometimes called “intangibles.” The product itself is simply a tool to solve an emotional need or reflect a desired inner state within the consumer that supports dreams, elevated moods, aspirational identity, hope, confidence, ideal moments, and ideal experiences that accentuate or mirror who a person is or what they hope to experience.
All of this boils down to thinking deeply about the “identity needs" of consumers. Brands need to be able to identify with some life affirming purpose and then present that identification in a significant or meaningful way.
The world’s most beloved brands know this and leverage people’s innate understanding of story to sell their products and services. One mythic story structure that deeply resonates with us is The Hero’s Journey. The Star Wars movies are one of the best-known examples of The Hero’s Journey. If a product or service category can be animated though the use of the heroes journey myth, then you might think of your brand as Yoda in relation to your customer who might be playing the role of Luke Skywalker.
A deadly mistake that many brands make in telling their brand story is by positioning their brand as the hero in the story when they should be positioning their customer as the hero. Brands that position themselves as the hero in the story compete with their customers for the role they seek. This misunderstanding in branding is responsible for the misallocation of scarce marketing resources. Countless billions have been misspent based upon the limiting belief that ones brand is the hero and not the consumer.
If a luxury brand over-identifies with their product or with off-the-mark internal biases such as presenting their brand as the hero, then it results in a narrowing of the appeal and the access point for the brand.
Your brand voice communicates more than it speaks
The role of voice in branding for most brands today is very poorly guided, developed and controlled. Most brands haven’t really found an authentic voice. In the existing paradigm of advertising, briefs are written to promote the next product launch. Strategic research into how to optimally position the brand for success, if it has even been done, is usually poorly executed. And even the best strategic research findings are by themselves not enough. Brand directors need to also know how to inspire their creative agencies to take imaginative leaps into story realms that support the brands core purpose and values.
On top of this challenge, many brands are using social media unwisely; where teams are continuously pushing notices and messages into social media without strategic brand campaign architecture to guide it. One of the weaknesses of viral marketing using social media is that it abdicates storytelling authorship to consumers.
It’s much easier to get voice right when it’s recorded for a single commercial, or written for a print ad and then replicated. It’s another challenge to nurture and guide the brand voice when it is utilized everyday across multiple media types and channels as one continuing unfolding story.
Few brands have understood this and neglect to create guidelines for brand voice or guide marketing teams to speak accordingly. Or, they make the mistake of using a voice before they’ve really discovered their brand purpose. They adopt a tone, style and language that speaks to a populist world the consumer is living in, but with an inauthentic relationship to that populist world. As in the HTC / Robert Downey case mentioned above, this comes across as inauthentic.
The result is suboptimal brand positioning which results in suboptimal business performance.
Brand voice is ultimately drawn from a brand’s values, character, purpose and promise. The leadership team uncovers a cause worth fighting for that also aligns with an identity that the consumer aspires to. The brand then aligns with that purpose and goes in search of the right expression (voice) to carry that flame out into the world.
In the arts (novel writing, stage performing, singing, inspirational speaking) finding ones voice is a very difficult and non-trivial thing to accomplish. Sometimes it takes a lifetime of trial and error to achieve.
Thankfully, recent developments and tools in strategic brand planning have shed new light on how the process of “finding ones authentic voice” can be greatly facilitated and shortened. Once achieved it represents a turning point in the life of a brand. It is capable of unlocking hidden energy and intangible value that makes a tremendous difference in public esteem, business performance, and an advantageous sustainable brand positioning.
This article was co-authored by Paige Rolfe and Jerome Conlon.