Luxury brands or luxury blands?

Something very disturbing happened last week. I was in a dentist’s waiting room flicking through a copy of Vogue. Without thinking I put it back on the table and started reading Golf Digest instead, but this type of behaviour is very unusual for me. So why did this happen?

The immediately obvious answer: Vogue is boring. Or, at least the first twenty pages are. As the clearly labelled tin suggests, Vogue simply presents the current prevailing styles and fashion. It is not a literary classic. But I am someone who loves fashion, and I am eminently stylish (winky face in tow). So Vogue, and for that matter any other vehicle for advertising luxury brands like it, should appeal to me. I therefore decided to undertake a little research project to explore this incident in more detail. Here’s what I found.

Question 1: why are luxury brand advertising campaigns (LBACs) currently so lifeless?

Same-same, but not different. LBACs have become indistinguishable and entirely interchangeable. Some of the most revered establishments – the Guccis, Pradas, and Diors – no longer have clearly identifiable brands. In fact, if you were to replace the logo on almost any one of the current LBACs with that of a competing brand, it would require a very discerning eye (perhaps the sort that gets paid to authenticate artwork) to notice that something was out of place.

The human clothes horse project. Models are simply being used by luxury brands to hang their products off. The mannequin model method (or as I like to call it, ‘mmm’) of advertising is monotonous.

The superiority complex. Luxury brands are, to my mind, overly fixated on a sterile suavity and sophistication they think their high-society clients embody. But – and it is an important ‘but’, much more so than those of our mannequin models – it must be remembered that consumers at the very top of the ‘spending’ spectrum (and all of us, for that matter) are human and subject to everything that comes with it. For richer or poorer, the consumer is an emotional beast.

The emotional void. And this is the point. LBACs are not establishing an emotional connection with the consumer. It seems to me that they are giving very little consideration to the power of meaningful messaging. There are some people that would find this argument astonishing. They would say to me that luxury brands trade only in the purely superficial and it is unrealistic for me to expect something deeper than that. But, those of us who know and love the industry understand that it can and should mean much more.

A useful illustration of this argument is Dior’s campaign with Jennifer Lawrence. Search ‘Jennifer Lawrence – Dior’ in Google Images and then search ‘Jennifer Lawrence – emotions’. The contrast is staggering. The latter shows her to be, as if we didn’t already know, an utterly compelling character stuffed to the hilt with emotional possibilities. But, she has been presented by Dior, as far as I can see, like all other models. She has been dulled to the extreme and drained of her clearly abundant feeling.

Question 2: how can LBACs reinvigorate themselves?

Break the… in fact, forget moulds entirely. When I say forget the mould, don’t forget your brand’s raison d’être or product. That would be disastrous. What I mean is that you should not take your lead from other sterile LBACs. This seems to be the convention at present. Of course you will be aware of others’ campaigns, but when you start the creative process, don’t let this be your benchmark. Dig deep – very deep if need be – for novel, different, inspiring ideas; wrapping the product in emotional values. If your own brand identity is clear and simple, the scope for creativity arising out of it should be limitless.

The hidden depths. Luxury brands are in the luxurious position, inevitably, of being able to work with celebrities who have done and achieved wonderful things in their careers. Jennifer Lawrence, to use the same example, is an Academy Award-winning actress and now counted amongst Time’s 100 most influential people. Aside from her beauty, these are obviously reasons why she was chosen by Dior, but does that richness of her character and her almost iconic status come out in the campaign? Sadly for me it does not. Luxury brands must do their utmost, without being too brazen, to make sure the depth of their campaigns are fully understood by the consumer.

Make me feel. “Emotion drives most, if not all, our decisions”¹. LBACs must therefore at least try to make an emotional connection with the consumer. This doesn’t require over-sentimentality. Far from it. To be effective it simply requires the campaign to convey something which is human and meaningful. And far from being something to fear, the genuine exploration of an emotional angle (albeit not a very British behaviour) is likely to open up even more creative opportunities.

One such luxury brand which has been successful in making an emotional connection is Patek Philippe. Their campaigns heavily feature the image of two generations within a family alongside the brand’s well-known tagline: “you never actually own a Patek Phillipe, you merely look after it for the next generation”. This is effective because:

  1. It is different to competing companies who invariably opt for the simple watch-wearing celebrity campaign
  2. It implies that owning this extraordinarily expensive watch is not about vanity; it is about heritage. You have become a custodian of a special tradition
  3. It resonates with people’s family values
  4. It still oozes the sophistication that is a prerequisite for all those who can afford a Patek Philippe

And so, to draw my thoughts to an end, it is obvious that luxury brands have to maintain extremely high levels of refinement and elegance in all that they say and do. That is the nature of their industry, but the basic principles of advertising apply universally. And the fundamental rule that at the heart of advertising lies the heart of the consumer is one that luxury brands must not forget.

That is not to say that the task of achieving (or balancing) both sophistication and a meaningful emotional connection is an easy one. Quite the opposite. It is an unenviable task. But it’s not an impossible one. And in the current saturated luxury marketplace it is a critical one. Not least because, if undertaken successfully, it will happily mark the end of the era for the luxury blands.

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[1] Scott Badbury, Nike and Starbucks. ‘What great brands do