The holiday season is a time when luxury is pushed to the foreground. But to thrive, luxury brands need to pick up the speed of innovation, while changing their expectations about the future of luxury.
Jeremy Sy writes: Whether or not your company competes in the luxury space, the idea of luxury shapes people’s expectations of your products. Tapping into the cues of luxury gives you the right to charge more, even for something as ordinary as a ballpoint pen or a box of matches.
But as those cues of luxury are appropriated by mainstream brands and products, they gradually lose their luxury cachet. And this process of mainstream appropriation—in which ideas move into the mass market—is happening at an ever quicker pace, thanks to developments in mass manufacturing and communications technology.
Because mainstream brands are capturing luxury ideas more quickly than ever, brands in the luxury space have to innovate faster. But innovation is particularly tricky for brands in the luxury space, as they’re already at the very forefront of culture and taste—there’s no one to learn from, or to be inspired by. To create a pipeline of innovations that will work, luxury companies need to imagine the future, and innovate for the world’s that’s coming, instead of the world that is.
By understanding the macro-level changes that are impacting luxury, The Futures Company has identified three tensions that will re-shape what constitutes luxury in the mid-term future. Each of these tensions has one extreme that’s rooted in a continuation of the present, and another that fundamentally disrupts the idea of luxury. To be successful in the future, luxury brands must be ready both for the familiar view of what’s coming, and for the view that turns the world of luxury on its head.
Raw material of luxury: Rarity vs. remarkability
Some raw materials are intrinsically linked with the idea of luxury: gold, silver, diamond, platinum. At the root of this association is the idea that luxury derives from rarity. Two developments are breaking this link. First, it is becoming increasingly straightforward to synthesize precious materials, as we see in the diamonds market. Second, natural materials and resources that were once plentiful are now increasingly in short supply in many parts of the world.
These two developments will run in parallel. We expect to see the emergence of new forms of luxury based on newly rare resources (such as oxygen bars in China), while other strands of luxury continue to follow rarity. What will be new, though, is a shift in the way this association is talked about. The narratives around luxury objects will shift away from stories of scarcity, towards stories that highlight the other features that make those objects remarkable.
Narratives of luxury: Permanence vs. change
The stories that are customarily told about luxury objects are rooted not just in their scarcity, but also in their longevity—their special ability to stay valuable across decades or centuries. Luxury watches, for example, are marketed on the idea that they’re family heirlooms in the making. At a time when social mobility has stalled in many parts of the world, it is easy to see why inheritance might have fresh cachet, but at the same time much of the discourse about success is also about change, transformation and the power of the pivot.
There will always be a role for stories about permanence and immortality in the mythology of luxury, but one of the new frontiers for luxury is to create new stories and symbols that resonate with the new culture of personal fulfillment through adaptability and currency.
The value of creativity: Idea vs. execution
While raw materials play a large role in determining luxuriousness, creativity plays a role too. The most beautiful of diamonds can result in something vulgar, while the most commonplace materials can give birth to something beautiful. There is a tension around how creativity contributes to luxury, created by the gap between the artist and the craftsman.
Fans of luxury have increasingly glorified craft over art, and execution over idea. (Think of Bottega Veneta’s bags, for example.) But as mass manufacturing gives way to personal manufacturing, consumers are re-evaluating their beliefs about the value of creativity. One manifestation is the American artist Dan Colen. Colen conceives his bubble gum canvasses, but hired hands construct them. He’s open about his working methods, but his art still fetches millions. The next opportunity for luxury, then, is to become the champion of luxury ideas. Brands will go beyond being seen as “makers” of things towards being seen as inspirers of creativity.