What’s Behind the Luxury Mindset?

I’ve been writing this week about changes in the luxury market, and so I was interested in this piece on a Wired blog, which tries to scientifically examine people’s attachments to luxury goods.

To summarize the post in short: Scientists did an experiment where they told children they had a “duplicating machine.” They gave children the option of having a “duplicate” of their favorite blanket or stuffed animal. Not surprisingly, most of the kids were pretty creeped out by this, and preferred the original. This according, to the Wired blogger, demonstrates: “There are many blankets in the world. But there is only one blankie. The best brands are blankies.”

Now, I agree with most commenters to this article that there isn’t much of an analogy here. There are many differences between a child’s sentimental attachment to a blanket and an adult’s desire for a watch. Consumers also don’t buy fakes because they are varying quality (which we’ll talk about in a sec), and, lest we forget, illegal. But I think the commenters to this article do get into an interesting discussion about the “luxury” mentality.

As many note, there are logical reasons people buy premium brands:

Rolex rose to the top-value spot in its market due to its ability to make a watch that lasts and keeps perfect time. Perhaps better materials, workmanship, a guarantee. So when people buy the watch – even though they cannot look into the future and see how this exact, new piece will perform – they have a belief based on the company’s past performance that it will be essentially timeless, permanent. …  When we buy a product that will last, we intend to bond with it (as one bonds with a blankie) and have it accompany and help us through many moments in life.

Another notes:

I wore a Rolex for 39 years. So far, on a cost per year basis, it is the cheapest watch I have ever owned. It cost $168.00 new. Bulovas at the time were around $50, and lasted 2 or 3 years on my wrist.

But obviously, if people just wanted something well-made, they wouldn’t sell watches studded with diamonds.  In addition, most people today carry two or three time-telling devices (phones, etc.) with them; a watch isn’t really necessary anymore. So there is clearly something more going on, as one particularly smart commenter notes:

The things we own reflect our identity because they reflect our choices simply from being owned and chosen by us, the more expensive, the more exclusive, the ‘better’ the things are, the better the person who owns them becomes — at least that’s what people would like to believe …

In other words, these brands fill an emotional need. Which may be why luxury items fell so dramatically during this recession. Once the media started discussing “luxury shame,” all of a sudden certain over-the-top purchases became not a sign of exclusivity, but of garishness and insensitivity.  

While the latest American Express survey of affulent buyers found that “luxury shame” has receded a bit, what consumers do want today, consultants say, are “reasons” to buy things. (And these are often “rationalizations” to buy things, one  noted, because when you get right down to it, buying big-ticket items will never be completely logical.)

Two of the experts I spoke to independently praised Patek Philippe’s ad campaign,  which shows a father and son with the tagline: “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.” This not only appeals to the rational brain (“this will last”) but also hits emotional notes associated with family. (The campaign uses real fathers and sons.)

Which brings me to my final point. Consumers today are more questioning; they want to know why things cost so much. A while ago someone on Facebook posted a video of a piece of jewelry being made.  It attracted comments about how consumers don’t really know all the craftsmanship involved in fine jewel-making.

That is true, but as industry, we shouldn’t be happy about that. Fine jewelry is expensive not just because it uses pricey materials, but because assembling a really nice piece can take a lot of skill and hard work.  But most consumers don’t know this. And yet, this is a selling point that, like the Patek Phillipe ad, speaks to both the rational mind (“this is durable”) and the emotional one (“this is special.”) And it’s probably something we should look at more closely.

JCK News Director