A recent report by TAMBA notes that luxury brands, which shunned social media in the past, are embracing it much more today. Consequently, the report questions the status of exclusivity, a term that has been used interchangeably with luxury. The report claims that identifying luxury with exclusivity is an “old European myth” that does not appeal to today’s young, more democratic audience.
Showing the importance of social media among luxury shoppers, Kay Hammond of TAMBA points out several takeaways. First he claims that the notion of exclusivity is changing and that young people are purchasing luxury brands as a way of expressing personality as opposed to acquiring rarity. Secondly, he says that social media is about personal connection; despite its being seemingly removed from the customer, it is actually used to reach customers in more personal and direct ways. Lastly he proposes that luxury consumers are increasingly prominent social and mobile media users.
I think that some of Hammond’s claims are questionable. Throughout his article, Hammond refers to luxury products and services as “exclusive”, relates luxury to “exclusivity” in general, and then claims that “exclusivity” is an unappealing “old European myth”. However, throughout my years of research I never found “exclusivity” used to describe any facet of luxury. I personally do not fully understand what the term “exclusivity” is meant to convey. Though customers might use the term to inaccurately describe the value they find in luxury items, serious luxury researchers never refer to “exclusivity” when talking about luxury. Hammond presents a quasi-professional claim with no serious basis about “exclusivity” being related to luxury, and then claims that times have changed and this relation no longer stands. However, without first establishing what “exclusivity” is, it is meaningless to say that people shun it in luxury today.
A term more accurately used in luxury is rarity (which was perhaps what Hammond intended by “exclusivity”). However, without understanding what rarity it, it is impossible to judge its value among luxury consumers. Rarity comes in two forms, depending on the individual. Some see rarity in a product itself. To this person a diamond would be rare, since there is only a small amount of diamonds in the world. Others perceive rarity in the difficulty of obtaining a product. Such a person would not perceive diamonds as rare if he worked in diamonds because they would be easy to obtain, but would perceive as rare an antique Persian rug that took him years to acquire.
If you see that luxury consumers are less interested in certain items that are generally perceived as rare, that does not mean they are not interested in rarity. It just means that those items do not satisfy their definition of rarity. Rarity is not a European myth, although it is very old. Searching for rarity is based on a psychological need that is embedded in human nature and it is certainly still a part of luxury consumption.
Once we understand rarity, we can critique Kay’s claim that customers are concerned with “personality…over the notion of rarity.” Personality and rarity were never competing values. People use what they perceive as rare to express their personality. One person might use an unusual, handmade dress that she searched many stores to find to express her personality, while another might invest in an expensive pair of shoes to express his personality. Both perceive the items they acquired as rare. And both use those items to express their personalities. People did not choose the value of personality over the value of rarity – the two values work hand-in-hand.
Regarding Kay’s other claims about social media –though Kay may be correct that marketing luxury through social media is effective, we have to keep in mind that selling luxury is a different matter. Proper marketing and sales require a dialogue between seller and consumer. It is easy to engage in this dialogue face-to-face but difficult when our connection with our customers is purely technological. For most luxury products, selling requires establishing a relationship with the customer through direct contact – and for this contact, social media is not quite direct or personal enough. Perhaps established brands, such as Tiffany’s and Burberry, can cash in today on the successful dialogues they created over the years. However, it is worth checking whether these dialogues become richer and spread wider. Without continued direct contact with their customers, it is hard to imagine that they would.
Luxury consumers did not change, they simply changed the way they express their interest in luxury (which is something that will always be changing!) Rarity is and will always be an aspect of luxury. If we see luxury consumers losing interest in what we think is rare, we have to question what rarity means for them. Also, though social media is widely used by consumers and may be a useful tool for marketing luxury, it cannot provide the necessary personal dialogue between seller and consumer that selling luxury needs. Only being faithful to the principles of proper luxury marketing can assure us that we will thrive in today’s luxury market.