Thought Pieces

Luxury in Flux.

By 25th July 2018 No Comments

Mark Walker



We’re used to standards of living rising. It’s widely regarded as an inevitable consequence of increasing technological development – one that is arguably intensified by the spread of global trade. Yet disposable incomes still vary wildly throughout the developed world. And despite the general trend towards people getting richer, there will probably always remain some sectors of modern society that are more affluent than others.

For brands that target these affluent consumers, the constant shifts in their tastes and attitudes – especially regarding what is considered a premium product or not – must be closely monitored. As luxury cars, haute couture and private jets will always be the preserve of the extremely wealthy, many of the luxuries enjoyed by today’s mass affluent consumers are destined to become everyday products, and conversely, some of today’s most mundane consumer goods might one day be considered objects of desire.

In examining these shifts, it’s worth considering what makes a luxury product different from everyday produce and, in particular, why two perennial characteristics of luxury goods – scarcity and authenticity – have such an important part to play.

First, however, I’d like to take you on a trip back in time.

Welcome to the 1980s
Growing up in the UK in the 1980s, I recall with great clarity the moments that defined the era. Maradona’s Hand of God in the 1986 soccer World Cup. Ghostbusters. The Garbage Pail Kids and mobile phones so big they would be rejected as hand luggage on any commercial flight today. I also remember mealtimes – or more specifically, the way the food we ate changed. While my brother and I enjoyed the orange and beige diet of many western youngsters of the day, our middle-income mother and father were beginning to explore an entirely new culinary universe.

Coq au vin, Stroganoff, Duck à l’Orange. Today it all sounds rather hackneyed, but back then, such dishes had long been associated with the wealthy. In Britain, it had been believed until then that fine wine and foreign food were only truly understood by those with the money to travel abroad – and before the 1980s, only a small proportion of British consumers could easily afford air travel. But with rising living standards came foreign holidays – and an increasing awareness of food products from overseas. The stage was set for the introduction to the UK of a food item unlike any other.

Enter the avocado pear
The ‘avocado pear’, so called because it was foreign but pear-shaped, was a new savoury kind of fruit. It was so exotic it came encased in the skin of an alligator, yet its contents felt like edible velvet. To Britain’s aspiring middle classes, this was luxury made flesh.

Across the country, special occasions would be marked by the deployment of this astonishing new pear as a starter (something you only normally got in upscale restaurants). It would be sliced in half, de-stoned with a spoon, filled with prawns and topped with Marie Rose sauce (often made by cunningly mixing ketchup with mayonnaise until an emulsion of the desired pinkness was achieved ).

Thirty years on, however, the avocado has evolved. Gone is the word ‘pear’. That suffix brought familiarity when we needed it but, once that familiarity was established, the lustre of luxury was lost.

Smashed avocado on toast is now the breakfast du jour of the liberal metropolitan elite . Millennial interns survive on it. My vegan friends might starve without it.

Luxury doesn’t last forever.
Rising living standards have played an important part – as has the arrival in the British mainstream of Mexican food – a cuisine long confined to the Americas. Economies of scale and globalisation of supply chains have also helped spread the word, as retailers and importers have realised they can satisfy our boundless desire for avocado more and more cheaply. Scarcity matters enormously in luxury marketing, after all – it’s simple supply and demand. However there’s more to this story than incomes and product availability.

Because it’s not just the avocado. It’s not always a shift in the same direction, with sometime luxuries undergoing an inevitable Newtonian fall in status until they are finally commoditised. Sometimes the journey takes an everyday product in the opposite direction.

Yesterday’s news
For many years, the newspaper was a cornerstone of life in the developed world. There was a time when a working day without reading at least one was inconceivable, with evening editions also available, for the truly news-addicted. Then came the information superhighway, which replaced or improved on printed news in every way.

Or did it? Because for some reason, the printed newspaper still has a story to tell. While it’s no longer a necessity for everyone, it has recently resurged as a daily luxury for some. There is a sense of sophistication that physically reading a broadsheet paper conveys; something that feels good about sitting outside a café with a cappuccino and a copy of the Times. Like wearing a tie, the paper has gone from something you do because there’s no alternative, to something you do to tell the world something about yourself.

Which brings me onto another example: vinyl.

On the record
In the Sixties and Seventies, a home was incomplete without the wall of sound that can be generated by dropping a stylus onto a spinning, twelve-inch black disc. The likes of ‘Frampton Comes Alive ’ and ‘Boston’ were luxuries that powered the parties of the Baby Boomer generation. However, in time they were outperformed by the digital quality of Compact Disk. In turn, the CD would be replaced by the MP3 and the wonders of streaming. Napster opened the door to unlimited music. Apple kicked it off its hinges and then Spotify stormed in. Why would anyone pay £20 for an LP when you can access thirty million tracks a month for less than a tenner?

Throughout this tumultuous period, vinyl sales dropped a little further every year. In 2006, less than a million vinyl records were sold in the entire United States . Yet the ageing format refused to roll over and die. Driven by the passion of its aficionados, sales have begun to increase again, with 14.3 million vinyl records sold in 2017. And it’s not just those of us who remember buying ‘Thriller’ first time round. It’s an audience too young to remember leafing through album sleeves in local record stores that catered to every mass-market music buyer, rather those with special interests.

But today, that’s exactly who the vinyl buyer is: a discerning, expert audience that sees this aged format as a premium product; an example of analogue authenticity to be cherished in a world of disposable digital noise.

Change is the new normal.
So what of the future? In a world where artificial intelligence attends to my every desire, will brands and products hold their status any better? Or will this flux continue with luxury products drifting into the mainstream while the opposite occurs in other categories?
Inevitably, it seems, these shifts will continue. We will always desire the things that make luxurious things so luxurious: not just scarcity and authenticity but also craftsmanship and personal service. In a fast moving world dominated by digital technology, we’ll seek them out more enthusiastically and it’s possible that, as fashions move faster, brands and products will see their status change more suddenly than they have in the past. And don’t forget: not every failing product can expect to be reincarnated as a luxury. For every vinyl, there is a VHS. For every Polaroid, a Sinclair C5.

There is one more twist in this ongoing tale. The humble avocado, the fallen angel of the food world, is now shifting in status once again. With El Niño wreaking havoc in the lands where it grows, demand is outstripping supply by 20%. This might only add a few pence to the price today, but it offers a glimpse as to what might happen when China’s billions acquire the taste for guacamole. While we may not see a reprise of the avocado and prawn cocktail, the avocado itself may yet regain its status as a luxury ‘pear’.

Luxury, it seems, is forever in flux. Even in our globalised world, the pace and direction of these fluctuations can vary by geographical market and while products can change in status, brands targeting affluent consumers need not – as long as they do not rely solely on scarcity and authenticity. For brands to remain relevant to these buyers, characterisics must be bolstered with USPs and marketing messages based on their superior craftsmanship and the opportunities they offer their buyers for personalisation. But those are just two of the differences between a luxury brand and a luxury product. And that’s another story altogether.