Lap of Luxury

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Luxury products have two cores. One is their outstanding functional and aesthetic quality. That is why the appeal of a luxury product is innate. It cuts across all cultural and socio-economic barriers and speaks to everyone who beholds it. The other core of luxury products defines their marketing. It is to do with the sense of entitlement that a luxury brand infuses and resonates with. This aspect of luxury lies in the consumer of luxury and not in the luxury product or service itself. In the West, the cult of luxury is the cult of the individual. The sense of entitlement to luxury is derived in western culture from real or perceived individual achievements and luxury, therefore, is a matter of private consumption. I found myself discussing the issue of luxury brands with a couple of Japanese friends from the advertising world in Tokyo last summer. They told me that though the market for luxury brands in Japan is as large and deep as it is in western societies, there is a key difference in purchase behaviour. The Japanese consumer feels the need for the sense of entitlement to be endorsed. Since over more than two generations now family ties in Japan have weakened, this endorsement comes from one’s circle of friends. Many a luxury brand has floundered in the Indian market because its makers have assumed that the sense of entitlement here is the same as in western or East Asian markets. In India, the sense of entitlement to luxury has unique roots. In the not-sodistant past luxury belonged to the royals and a function of royalty was to provide to the commoner, from time to time, the drama of luxury. Both of them consumed luxury in the same sense that both the actors and the audience consume a play. Indian society has acquired a veneer of modernity but if you strip away the layers, what has changed are only the definitions. The royalty today is the cult of celebrity and the durbar is replaced by the glare of the media. In Indian society, being a celebrity is primarily an elevation to a role that represents to the community at large the fruits of success and riches. Outstanding individual achievement is just one of the pathways to this elevation which often comes from being part of a celebrity dynasty and the ability to project oneself as a voracious consumer of the symbols of success. The idea of luxury being an item of social and shared consumption, which is often channelled through a celebrity, has key implications for marketers. The first one is with regard to celebrity endorsers. In the West, the endorsement seeks a transfer of values between the endorser and the brand. In India, it has to be the projection of the quality and the rarity of the product that the brand represents made real to its potential buyer through the medium of the endorser. In India, the social and shared consumption of luxury has another sanctioned context. It is the consumption of luxury on occasions of shared joy like weddings and festivals, and other such ‘traditional’ occasions. Luxury products sanctioned for consumption on these traditional occasions include the Banarasi brocade, the Kanjeevaram silk, the Jaipur jadau, the shahtush shawl or the gold-leaf mithai. What makes these occasions important for luxury brands is that there is social sanction to splurge on these occasions. While the Indian sense of thrift frowns upon the individual who splurges to the beat of some private drum it looks up indulgently on the family which goes near broke in satisfying the ‘needs’ of traditional occasions, especially weddings. For luxury brands to succeed in India, they must build brand equity in towns beyond the metros where there are several high net-worth individuals. Selfemployed and successful businesswomen and women professionals constitute a rapidly growing consumer base for luxury products. India is ready to be one of the largest markets for luxury brands right now provided that the luxury marketer tailors his marketing and promotional plans to the unique context of luxury consumption in India.


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