In luxury brand management, experiences are essential…
However, most of what we know about designing customer experiences originates from work developed with and/or for mass brands.
Luxury brands are conceptually different and require a specific approach to brand management.
The holistic brand experience that high-end brands (premium and luxury brands) offer goes beyond the recommendations of traditional branding frameworks.
The luxury experience is different from “simply” offering the highest possible level of quality in each of the brand touch-points with the consumer and, should be designed and managed differently.
Although high-end brands would benefit the most from applying the principles of the framework, virtually any brand can apply (at least some of) the principles to offer a differentiated customer experience and strengthen its brand.
Experience Design and Luxury Experience
Experiences occur when customers interact with one or more elements of the brand context and, as a result, extract sensations, emotions, or cognitions that will connect them to the brand in a personal, memorable way.
Specific aspects of the brand context, such as atmosphere or human elements, influence customer experience. However, customer experience is holistic. A company should orchestrate an integrated series of “clues” that will, collectively, determine how customers experience the brand.
To design a luxury experience, it is important to first define what a luxury brand is.
Luxury brands are conceptually distinct from brands with extreme levels of premiumness. Owning “legitimacy in luxury” is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for a brand to be or become a luxury brand.
Legitimacy in luxury includes an exceptional production process (often based on craftsmanship, uniqueness, and exclusivity), a product of the highest quality (often design-based, instigating consumers’ emotions and self-expressive motivations), and a tradition or history associated with the brand.
Another condition for a brand to become a luxury brand is excellence in experience. Consider, for example, the brand Azzaro (apparel and perfume), which was at its peak in the 1970s–1980s. Today this brand has lost much of its luxury appeal despite owning legitimacy in luxury.
Luxury experience provides the symbolic value and emotional connection that luxury brands need to keep the “dream component” of luxury brands alive.
Luxury brands should advocate beliefs to their customers.
Unlike mass brands, luxury brands should not strive to please everyone, but should attract those customers whose beliefs are similar to theirs.
The luxury industry is idiosyncratic. Luxury is more than the material offering (even if the offering is a service). Luxury is a differentiated offering that delivers symbolic and experiential value besides functionality.
At times, ironically, offering symbolic and experiential value requires luxury brands to not offer “impeccable quality” . For example, while many could think of a Ferrari’s noise and wasted potential as product “flaws”, from a luxury experience perspective these are part of the brand’s philosophy:
In luxury, passion and dreaming are as important as functionality.
Beyond brand values, beliefs
Luxury brands should advocate beliefs to their customers. Beliefs can be seen as the brand’s philosophy, apparent both at product and brand levels, and which becomes a guiding principle for those brands. Beliefs go beyond brand values because beliefs are more specific (though subjective) and consequently more segmenting. Unlike mass brands, luxury brands should not strive to please everyone, but should attract those customers whose beliefs are similar to theirs.
For example, Louis Vuitton, beyond the brand value of “travelling”, believes in practicality. Louis Vuitton initially embarked on innovation by substituting round suitcases with rectangular, flat-bottom models that could be stacked. While some consumers may dislike Louis Vuitton, those who identify themselves with the brand’s beliefs are likely to connect with the brand at deeper levels.
Ferrari believes in performance and, as a consequence, it rarely advertises; however, it invests significant amounts in Formula 1 events. It focuses on actions related to its beliefs to reinforce those beliefs in consumers’ mind. Premium brands can apply this principle to create a customer experience that resembles a luxury experience.
La Martina applies this principle by defining itself not as a fashion brand, but as a polo brand (it sells apparel and accessories related to the polo lifestyle). La Martina reinforces this belief in several touch-points, such as the atmosphere of its stores, the design of its clothes, and by being constantly present at polo events.
Beyond a logo, a set of visual icons
When consumers think of a true luxury brand, they likely think of a whole set of visual icons that can include monograms, brand symbols, logos, colors, patterns, images, or even concepts. For example, leather goods from Bottega Veneta display no visible brand symbols, but many consumers recognize the weaved leather pattern for which the company is known. The stronger the brand, the broader the spectrum of icons can be.
When one thinks of Chanel, for instance, the colors black and white, the intertwined c’s, the number five, a string of pearls, a camellia, and a little black dress might come to mind. Luxury brands should actively choose their symbols and iconize them through constant and consistent repetition. A good example is the black dress, which appears revisited in Chanel collections every year.
Luxury brands can also repeat design elements across a product range: The face of the watch in Chanel’s Premiere Collection is the same shape as the stopper of the Chanel No. 5 perfume, which in turn takes its shape from the Place Vendome in Paris. Absolut Vodka is an example of a premium brand that has adopted the principle of luxury experience. In over two decades and more than 800 collaborations with artists, Absolut has iconized the shape of its bottle by consistently developing advertisements focusing on its interpretation.
Beyond a product, a unique ritual
True luxury brands cannot stop their offering at the product. Luxury brands should go beyond that and offer unique services or rituals. This can start with attentive salespeople and prompt customer service, but it should go beyond that to offer a differentiated, unique buying and consumption “ritual” that exceeds expectations.
A powerful example of moving beyond products and offering a unique ritual is the perfume brand Le Labo. Using the premise that the quality of perfume deteriorates over time, it revolutionized the consumer buying experience by offering a personalized and special experience: each Le Labo perfume is hand-blended and individually prepared in front of the customer at the moment of purchase. The glass decanter is then dated and the customer’s name is printed on the label. After taking the package home, the customer needs to let the perfume marinate in the fridge for one week before wearing it. It becomes a personal, exclusive, and unique choice of fragrance.
Beyond a point of sale, a temple
Luxury brands must pay special attention to the way they sell and innovate at the point of purchase. Where before luxury brands used brick-and-mortar stores mainly to sell products, they now aim at designing multifunctional, controlled spaces to create brand experiences and communicate brand beliefs through events, exhibitions, and collaborations. These stores function almost like religious temples for discerning consumers.
For example, Prada embarked on a unique project in combination with AMO, a research studio based in Rotterdam, and the renowned architect Rem Koolhaas. The result was a wide-ranging project that included special “Epicenters”: stores designed to provide a working laboratory for experimental shopping experiences. The project also included a plan for an extended web presence, the development of specialized, site-specific shopping tools, the application of emerging technology, and innovative programming ideas such as exhibitions, film screenings, concerts, and other public events.
BMW World in Munich is another example of a temple-like showroom where consumers can experience the brand. The initiative entertains, engages, educates, and interacts with consumers in an environment that materializes the BMW brand.
Brands like Apple and Nike have similarly transformed their stores into temples in their respective “Apple Store” and “Nike Town”. The temple is the opportunity that the brand has to physically connect with the customer.
The “Red Bull Station” in São Paulo was designed to “give wings” to young artists by providing them with music studios, artist residencies, and exhibition spaces. Importantly, creating a temple does not necessarily require high investment.
Kiehl’s uses its small stores to offer customers a consistent and attentive experience that is unique in the cosmetics industry. Used in this way, the store-turned-temple is a brand’s best opportunity to connect with consumers.
Luxury brands don’t push consumers to buy products. Rather, they communicate the legends associated with the brand. Myths should be conveyed indirectly and should be consistent in every point of delivery, including products, stores, or marketing actions.
Beyond segmentation, access to a parish
Mass brands define groups or segments of consumers and push products towards them. For luxury brands the roles are reversed: consumers are pulled towards the brand with the promise of belonging to the exclusive community. Many consumers want access to this special group, but, similar to what happens with many religions, only a select number who share the brand’s beliefs may truly belong.
In addition to using pricing or distribution to naturally segment customers, luxury brands create other artificial barriers or initiation rituals to select which consumers gain admittance. They may even deny access to customers with the means to purchase.
For example, Hermés customers have to form a long-term, intimate relationship with the store before they are given the opportunity to buy one of the brand’s “it” bags. Rather than putting off customers, this behavior creates a sense of belonging to a special group. Customers who are admitted then stay for a long time and are rewarded for their loyalty. For example, Aston Martin extends invitations to events and maintains one-on-one relationships even with customers who bought their cars fifteen years ago.
Beyond communicating value, myth-telling
Mass brands aim to communicate their value or advantages over other brands, but luxury brands don’t push consumers to buy products. Rather, they communicate the legends associated with the brand. Myths should be conveyed indirectly and should be consistent in every point of delivery, including products, stores, or marketing actions. Myth-telling is a subtle narration of the story and heritage of the brand. Luxury brands often do this by inducing a certain degree of mystery, or by making a connection with art to tell the myths in an elevated way.
For example, Rolls Royce invites a few selected customers to visit its manufacturing facilities to see and experience its storied production process in person. Yet, there are no direct messages, no pushing a customer to buy something.
Beyond a category, a way of life
The final element of the framework suggests that luxury brands should move beyond the mental limits of a product category and offer a “way of life”.
At some point, strong luxury brands will sever their association with the product category in which they are rooted and push the brand to the ultimate level of intangibility. In other words, they sell a pure aesthetic principle and offer consumers a certain way of life.
One way to offer a way of life is through horizontal brand extensions. For example, Giorgio Armani created a homogeneous and consistent world across a wide range of categories (e.g., clothing, accessories, cosmetics, home furnishings) for customers embracing the brand’s signature minimalist style. Ultimately, by extending its “Stay with Armani” philosophy to the Armani Hotel, where the brand’s style is woven into each of the guest rooms and suites, Armani makes it possible for customers to live both with and within the brand. Another way to offer a way of life is to collaborate with other brands. An interesting illustration is a collaboration between the Porsche Design Group and Poggenpohl, a luxury kitchen brand, to create a high-design kitchen for men.
Offering a way of life is the ultimate behavior of a true luxury brand, because it requires the brand to possess other strong attributes that can be communicated subtly.
For example, Armani’s strategy would not make sense if Armani’s icons and beliefs were not strongly present in the mind of consumers. Offering a way of life must be based in authenticity and must be consistent with what the brand represents.