The Pandemic has affected the world in ways we had never imagined in the past. We wonder, will things ever return to how they were. As lives at home are getting mundane, the world is promising us to be more unpredictable than ever post COVID-19. This is also leading to a large shift in consumer mindset. When survival is now the most important factor in the minds of consumers, it is a challenge to ponder about what would be the fate of luxury products in the markets, in the days to come.
What is Luxury?
The word luxury is derived from the Latin word lux which means something that has light or brilliance. Luxury is very subjective and might mean different to different people, but in general, luxury could be associated with extravagance and exclusivity, in addition to superior quality and comfort. Luxury segments exist across all product and service segment with a unique set of consumers. For years, they have been about social status and about what a person wished to be associated with. According to a research, types of luxury customers vary as some customers equate luxury to success, some believe that it can set them apart, some look at luxury as the highest levels of aesthetics and design, etc. Certain customers believe that luxury products satisfy their need to only want the best and appeal to customers who place comfort over everything else.
If we need to understand luxury customers based on their purchase frequency, they can be categorized into the following types:
- Frequent buyers
- Customers who occasionally purchase luxury products
- Customers who buy luxury products as gifts
- Customers who buy rarely (aspirational)
- Consumers who never purchase luxury products
Hence, when it comes to luxury products or services, the value proposition is not just about specifications, but it is about how it creates a desire in the minds of different categories of people. Consumers inflate the advantages of luxury products in their minds. Also, the influence of reference groups is one of the most important aspects why consumers go for luxury brands- to fit in a particular category of people and hence feed their need to have a shiny lifestyle. Luxury customers buy these products mostly because they attach them to strong emotions and hence it makes them feel better about how they see themselves.
Marketing of luxury products
When it comes to luxury brands, maintaining the premium image, and controlling it is essential. The uniqueness that the brand stands is essentially sustained. Since decisions related to luxury purchases are more hedonic and less utilitarian, luxury products attach and maintain an aspirational image about the product which leads to consumers wanting to associate themselves with certain luxury brands.
These brands do not usually cater exactly to what consumers need but are more associated with what consumers feel. They feed the joy, excitement, power, thrill, and delight that consumers feel. Hence, most of the promotional strategies of luxury brands communicate consumer social images. In a Rolex advertisement, they conveyed a message that successful people who could change the world, would wear a Rolex. This is a classic instance of a brand communicating power, belief, and exclusivity. The marketing strategies of luxury products and services play more on feelings and emotions instead of logic and problem-solving.
The marketing of luxury products is also complicated since the exclusivity of the product needs to be preserved. The promotions cannot be like other products and they cannot be generalized and lost in a crowd. The product needs to appeal to the consumer while keeping its exclusivity intact. This is the reason that advertisements for luxury products are more targeted and are not just broadcasted to the mass. Story oriented targeted promotional strategies which included brand stories about culture, development, and maintenance of quality often triggered respect in the minds of people which is why many brands narrate beautiful stories about the brand and its usage. To catch the attention of a potential consumer, entice their minds, draw them to purchasing the product and hence build brand loyalty- all while maintaining their exclusivity and luxe. These loyal customer base would then advocate for the product and help improve sales via word of mouth marketing.
Amidst the COVID-19 situation however, there would be major changes to the marketing of luxury products. In this situation, where the need of the hour is not an improvement in lifestyle but is survival, brand loyalty in itself has become something one can no longer afford. People and businesses are striving to survive the difficult times as they try to understand the best possible ways of keeping sales going with social distancing in place. Distribution channels have been facing more challenges than ever. Amidst this, how would the luxury segment, the segment once believed to be recession-proof, change?
The demand for luxury products during a crisis
The luxury segment was once believed to be recession-proof since the luxury segment consumers had high disposable income even during a recession and also because the products are not about fulfilling needs but about fulfilling desires. This trend began changing when companies began targeting portions of the mass-market as well. These products now are aspirational brands for the mid-segment customers too. For instance, a young lady saving money from her first salary to purchase a high-ended watch for her father also could be a potential customer. Although exclusivity has always been the priority, now the target market is diversified. This has given rise to the concept of affordable luxury. For instance, Apple recently came up with its iPhone SE, positioned as a lower budget phone, targeting the mass market. Their advertisement focussed on the feeling of owning and unboxing a new iPhone, generating a feeling of eagerness towards purchasing the product in the minds of people who earlier could not own an iPhone. This is aimed at expanding the target market base of Apple iPhones. Luxury brands, hence are bought not only by the super-rich but also by others. Hence an effect on the mass-market impacts the cash flow of the luxury segment too. Speaking about targeting the mass market,
Though the global pandemic has affected people from all walks of life, the disparity in ways of staying safe has been different.
The rich have been quarantining themselves while enjoying their luxuries. However, this doesn’t ensure a safe consumer base and sales for luxury brands. Though most of the rich could still afford luxury products, the question stays, will they? The sentiment towards extravagant spending has altered in the world. People are more focussed on rebuilding their businesses and protecting their brands. Unlike the previous economic downfalls, the current economic situation has affected people in a non-economic way as well. The concern to stay safe has been a priority. Amidst this, it is rather challenging for luxury brands to minimize their losses.
The luxury industry did take a hit during the global recession of 2008 but the effects were better than other sectors. Purchases of certain luxury products rose as consumers began viewing them as investments back then. This led to a rise in sales back then.
The current crisis has been altering the psychology of people and hence none of the previous data and predictions seems to be applicable. When it comes to luxury automobiles, brands are trying to shift to digital innovations and adapt to the situation. However, there would be a drop in demand for luxury vehicles since people would be focussed on conserving cash and downsizing expenditure. There could be a rise in sales of economy vehicles due to the stigma attached to travelling in public vehicles. However, this trend would not imply to the luxury segment. The general thought in the minds of consumers is that in adversities such as these, the price of a product would drop to increase sales. This has been the case with the products appealing to the mass market. In India, people who are target customers but are not the super-rich, ask about offers when it comes to high-ended vehicles. When it comes to the super-rich, they would buy the vehicle if they would like a particular vehicle. However, the percentage of super-rich buyers are marginal and hence would not add on to sales of the company.
The situation of lockdown and usage of masks has altered the usage pattern of personal care products. The concern about staying safe and healthy has increased sales of sanitizers and has made the humble soap, a superstar. However, when it comes to the luxury segment, the reduction in walk-ins in brick and mortar stores could impact sales in the segment. However, the trend of self-care and self-love might help the segment get right on track with its sales. Amidst a lockdown, thoughts about self-care branches out given that health have been a top priority. Hence, consumers might want to use premium products with the best quality to take care of their bodies. This could lead to an improvement in sales of certain products in the segment. However, there could be a shift in the sales of cosmetics like lipsticks which would not be of prime importance. Since self-care products are directly linked to improving moods in people, these products could be winners.
With people locked behind the walls of their house for most of the day, hashtags like OOTD (outfit of the day) have reduced. The apparel industry worldwide and across segments have been slowing down. This could be because of the reduction in the purpose to buy an expensive outfit. The focus of shopping has now shifted from clothing to self-care in most consumers. Luxury fashion has been selling more than a product- they’ve been selling a lifestyle. Now, with major changes in lifestyle, luxury fashion might not be a priority to people. However, in situations like these, consumers tend to be more discerning about a product. They tend to find a strong purpose while buying a product. Hence, luxury brands with loyal customer-base might continue to have sales. However, brands must provide a strong purpose to consumers to buy their product, be it quality or a social message.
How would marketing of Luxury products be different post-COVID19
With the changes in economic and social situations in the world, there is a shift in the thought process of consumers across segments. Consumers have begun viewing and purchasing products differently. The motivation behind purchasing has altered. When it comes to luxury brands, the effects could be stronger since the reasons behind the purchase of a certain product has been linked to emotions and not merely rationale.
Since luxury brands sales focussed majorly on brick and mortar operations, intending to provide high-quality service along with the product, service standards will likely alter. Simple changes like facial expressions being hardly visible due to the mask and reduction in handshakes could alter the way brands would want employees to deal with customers. Customers being hesitant to visit brick and mortar stores would negatively affect sales for an extended period.
That paves way for changes in selling processes. Some luxury brands have already begun providing innovative digital methods of selling products. Mercedes Benz, for example, began a customer initiative called Merc from home which enables consumers a comfortable and hassle-free process to purchase a vehicle from the comfort of their homes. Many brands are now shifting to virtual shopping and digitization. However, the question remains, how would luxury brands make up for the existing level of high service set by them, while implementing virtual shopping? These brands did not just consist of the product alone, but the shopping experience offered as well. Post-COVID consumers are only going to be more discerning about the products they purchase. Keeping these in mind, brands might not be able to justify the high prices and might fail to offer luxury services like before.
Hence, it would be challenging for brands to meet to keep up with the level of services previously offered. For example, the image shown is of Vera Wang Bridal House in New York City, a luxury Bridal Boutique where consumers spend about 1,493 USD (Rs. 1,14,305) on an average. The store has a premium feel and along with the luxury quality product, it justifies the money they spend on the product. Similarly, most of the luxury brick and mortar stores are more about experiences. Post-COVID, brands must make sure the virtual experience offered is high quality. This could mean that brands need to adopt an innovative omnichannel strategy inculcating a mix of quality customer service, packaging, communication, digital platform, product selection, etc.
Changes in Brand Identity
Often luxury brands are associated with success, glamour, being elite, elegance, social position, high quality, etc. The entire concept of lifestyle marketing was to sell a lifestyle to a customer and not just a product. It has been working flawlessly from Marlboro advertisements to most of the luxury items today. However, adversities change people’s thoughts. The unfortunate incidents in the world like the number of COVID related deaths, racism, sexism, climate change, poverty, etc., have begun affecting people now more than ever. People are becoming conscious about the environment, respecting human beings, and contributing their part to society. People have started becoming vocal about being the issues on the planet and carrying strong opinions. Millennial and GenZ population is more concerned about nature and the planet. Hence, to sustain in the market and stay relevant, it is important to understand their thought. As said by Tom Fishburne, sometimes the best marketing doesn’t feel like marketing. Luxury brands must alter their brand identity in itself.
Along with richness and elegance, brands need to add an element of care for the world, to their brand identity. Luxury brands focus on appealing to the emotions of the consumer and appealing to the human in the consumer could be the best way to survive the crisis. In a Gucci advertisement, they promoted a positive body image and gave out a message that the stereotypes about beauty need to be broken. Often, luxury consumers tend to buy products that stand for a cause similar to what they stand for, appealing to the conscious of people.
Similarly, brands have begun breaking stereotypes and started giving out powerful messages. Mercedes Benz came out with a campaign called She’s Mercedes. The thought behind the campaign was to connect, inspire, and empower women to unleash the best in them. It focussed on storytelling and networking to focus on learning from each other. Hence, attempts like these are the need of the hour where along with existing promotions, brands make sure that they incorporate social responsibility as well.
Focus on Millenials and Gen Z
The world is also seeing the rise of sustainable luxury where brands don’t just focus on eco-friendly products but rather focus on carrying sustainable values. Millennials and Gen Z are more socially conscious and have different motivations. They empathize with the suffering in the world, are not too keen on visibly glamorous products, are inspired by simplicity, and prefer looking up to people like Mark Zuckerberg. Hence, to sustain post-COVID, it is essential luxury brands alter their Brand identity and inculcate a love for people, nature, and the environment in it.
Since Millenials and Gen Z are driving 85 percent of the global luxury sales growth now, distasteful advertisement aimed at titillating the consumers, might not prove to be as effective as it used to be. Various luxury brands use sex appeal in their advertising to improve brand recall since more promotions appeal to the id portion of the psychology which consists of sexual and aggressive instincts. This worked well since luxury buyers were known to rely heavily on emotions and instincts and hence appealing to the id worked well for these brands. Brands communicating strength sold well. However, millennials now vouch for justice, equality, and peace. Hence, they are conscious about the companies they work for and the products that they purchase. People often extent their thought and beliefs to their purchases. Earlier it was about aggression and now, the move is towards positivity. However, this shift towards being conscious should not feel like a strategy and should be a part of the values itself.
For example, Tiffany & Co. communicate their thoughts about the pillars of sustainability- people, planet, and product. They also say that they strive to conduct business in an environmentally and socially responsible manner. Sustainable luxury values like these appeal to conscious consumers. People believe in raising their voice against social issues and hence, it is essential that brands adapt.
The only thing constant with the world is change and hence, adaptability is the need of the hour. The world is struggling with the COVID-19 crisis since the situation is not like any other crisis that we have faced. Hence, predicting how brands would fare in the future and what would be the changes to consumer behaviour is the biggest challenge. Unfortunately, organizations might need to unlearn quite a lot of their learnings and learn new concepts altogether to emerge victorious from the crisis. Many concepts of marketing, advertising, and sales would change and improvised. To survive and keep the brand image strong, luxury brands need to adapt and rise to the occasion. After all, there are opportunities in adversities, only if we work hard and work smart.