The past year has proved to be a reset for many people, in many ways. And as profound as Covid-19 has been on individuals, its consequences on the commercial world have been just as marked. For businesses, 2020 created a point in time where whole strategies, sector specifics, employee expectations and channels of sales and communications have been reappraised. The crisis has been a catalyst for revaluating commerce and identifying where genuine value lies.
For companies selling to the more affluent end of the market, this has had to be considered in the context of the already shifting sands of luxury. Attitudes were nudging toward luxury in terms of time and space – the luxury of space for oneself, exploring new places, having the time to indulge in preferred activities – but the coronavirus pandemic pushed selfcare and wellbeing up the list of priorities.
Indeed, even if glitz and ostentation were still desired, opportunities for high fashion, personal grooming or expensive jewellery were few and far between. Instead, lockdowns led to more careful consideration and perspective on what people really valued in their lives. The big ticket, big occasion moments that many luxury brands have typically tapped into may have been much diminished – or disappeared entirely – but the personal touches and relationship building that the sector has long cultivated, became more relevant than ever.
So while 2020 has certainly impacted on luxury brands – all but one of the top brands in the luxury sector in Interbrand’s Best Global Brands 2020 report have dropped in value – its resilience has been remarkable. Discretionary spending may have nosedived, but the sector has proved comparatively robust. After some challenging months early in the pandemic, the luxury sector rebounded relatively swiftly and strongly, especially in Asian markets.
Luxury businesses have established peerless customer relationship building and unique personal interactions that have helped them weather this storm. Building on this personal connection, luxury brands are exploring new ways to be present and relevant to their customers lives across the physical and – thanks to lockdown, increasingly – virtual world. Relationship building is evident across multiple platforms, from digital fashion shows to online playbooks, emotionally charged instore experiences to increased ceremony around the moment of purchase.
Hyper-personal drops have gained prominence in all aspects of fashion, and these too have gone virtual – like Prada’s limited availability ‘Time Capsule’ offerings, on sale online for only 24 hours. The exclusivity of a limited edition, briefly available to those in the know, is the most personal of brand services and adds an element of luxury to all ends of the market. But the frustration of missing out is significant.
Extending the personal experience and similarly shaking up the market, saw Burberry open its first social retail store in Shenzhen, in partnership with Tencent – maximising the brand moments that matter in a physical environment, through increased social media interaction. It’s an experiment in a hyper-connected, consumer experience, revolving around gaming, e-commerce and social media. With projections of Chinese demand for luxury goods up 30% this year, this sort of presence and engagement in China appears a particularly smart move.
Luxury is much more about meaning than new products. Miuccia Prada recently said her work was “concerned with destroying — or at least deconstructing — conventional ideas of beauty, of the generic appeal of the beautiful, glamorous, bourgeois women”. At their finest, luxury brands are a commitment to craft, skills and knowledge – a tribute to human achievement. In their celebration of a culture of excellence, they remind people of what it is to be human – the ultimate personal connection.
Building relationships and bonds with customers comes from articulating the brand’s emotional values. Luxury brands have to put their efforts into protecting and nurturing the real, deep meaning and value of their offer in order to generate lasting value.
In the past, luxury brands were often seen as aloof, maintaining a distance between brand and shopper, with rigid and unyielding communications. But as communication channels have become more immediate, with people wanting dialogues through customer services, online environments, social media or store-based sales assistants, the luxury sector has had to respond.
“There is no longer a one-way communications channel between brands and consumers. Today, people are at the heart of brands.”
Customers’ expectations are high across channels – digital relationships must be as authentic as any analogue ones. There is no longer a one-way communications channel between brands and consumers. Today, people are at the heart of brands. But, to take up consumers’ time and energy, brands have to create meaningful and sustainable experiences. It is not about brands better, not just doing more. It’s about creating meaning, not about launching new products.
Brands built in an analogue world have used their strong brand relationships to succeed in the online world. Wherever their customers are, they have had to replicate and adapt long-established emotional connections. That ultimate personal relationship conduit – the influencer – has had much to do with this activity. With curated interactions, quality videos and broader endorsement, influencers can help build brands directly with shoppers in personalised ways.
This can be seen to full effect in those brands expanding into social media channels such as TikTok. Fashion brands tested the TikTok waters back in 2018, but by this year luxury brands including Prada, Burberry and Dolce & Gabbana were all adding the platform to their social mix. Prada used it to launch a new collection, adding it alongside Instagram and Prada.com.
On its app, Gucci recently launched Sneaker Garage mixing storytelling, gaming and user generated content to offer virtual sneakers – the Gucci Virtual 25 designed by Alessandro Michele. People can buy and try on the sneakers in virtual environments through augmented reality, and then share through social media. This level of customisation and entertainment further embeds self-expression into this form of personal relationship building.
In this most austere and worrying year, it seems that luxury is as much desired as ever, perhaps with a different skew, but wanted, nonetheless. People cherish something that rises above everyday concerns and instils desirability into otherwise limited lives.
As we talk to brand leaders, investors and consumers, the question of how to define luxury often comes up. Clear reoccurring themes centre on ‘creativity’ and ‘humanity’. The human angle – the pull of the personal interaction and brand closeness across analogue and digital channels – will help maintain luxury brand value going forward.
Lidi Grimaldi is managing director at Interbrand Milan