The Luxury Cultural Tension

We live in the most luxurious time of our lives. You can wake up and lather, rinse, repeat to Caviar Alterna shampoo, wash your hands with Aesop, grab a cup of Starbuck’s Reserve small batch coffees, and drive to work in one of the gazillion luxury cars currently in the market. Or better yet, have your driver drop you off, your Uber driver that is. The best part about our luxury time is that there is so much luxury, everyone can have it. Now isn’t that an oxymoron, isn’t luxury supposed to be exclusive? But as Ana Andjelic notes in quoting Jean-Noël Kapferer in Luxury's Emerging Identity Crisis, “the consumer expectations are changing, everyone feels they have this right to luxury.” 


    How did this happen? In the midst of the recession every company seemed to abuse of the term luxury to add brand value and ensure they remained afloat. Think back to 2008 when everyone was losing their homes and jobs, all anyone wanted was a little stability. Luxury brands offered that. As the 2010 Wall Street Journal article Gucci Unpacks 'La Dolce Vita' noted, the economic downturn “made consumers hanker for authenticity and heritage, so they can be sure that what they buy has lasting value.”

    Fast forward to today and we’ve arrived at what I call the the luxury cultural tension. You go out shopping, and it feels a little like when you get sick after over serving yourself for diner. There is so much luxury that nothing is special, and there is a lack of authenticity. As the advertising agency Ogilvy and Mather puts forward, a cultural tension is “an articulation of something that is wrong with the world that needs changing, and that is addressable by the brand in question,” allowing for a brand’s best self to shine. The brands that come out on top from this tension, are the ones that can shift the paradigm and redefine the meaning of luxury.

    I can’t think of a better definition for luxury than the one offered by Andjelic: “true luxury today is about experiences that fill us with pleasure with our own life, spiritually, mentally and physically enrich us, and which are best enjoyed in private (or with a few selected others).” This is supported by multiple recent studies that show that spending money on experiences provides us with longer lasting happiness than spending it on material goods. 

    Among these studies include the work of psychologist Matthew Killingsworth, psychology professor Thomas Gilovich, and Cornell doctoral candidate Amit Kumar, which James Hamblin reviews in his article Buy Experiences, Not Things. According to the trio, one of the reasons why experiences provide us with longer lasting happiness is that the utility of experiential purchases starts before you buy it. You can start imagining the endless possibilities for how an experience could unravel, with a material good however, you kind of know what you're going to get.

    Gilovich also argues that experiences make us happier because you are less likely to compare the value of your experiences to those of others. Finally they offer that experiences are less susceptible to hedonic adaptation, “where we stop appreciating things to which we're constantly exposed.” Over time we become bored with material goods and we begin to notice their defects as they age. Experiences however tend to be shorter lived, keeping from any imperfections to arise, or in the instances were imperfection does occur, “memories and stories of them get sweet with time.” 

    If experiences make us happier than material goods, it is imperative that more luxury goods companies transform the point of sale into an experience. Among the companies that have already shown success in this endeavor include BMW, Cartier, and Nudie Jeans Co. 

    BMW for example offers the European Delivery program. This allows you to pick up your new car at their Munich headquarters, tour their facilities and museum, and drive your car in its motherland through a diverse array of travel packages. Cartier once offered an experience through the purchase of their Love Bracelets which were first launched in the 1970s. Originally the company did not allow for customers to purchase the piece for themselves, and at the point of sale the piece would be screwed on to a person’s wrist by one’s true love, to sanctify inseparable love


    Nudie Jeans expands the experience of their denim, and challenges the hedonic adaptation dilemma raised in Hamblin's article, through the “breaking in”. The “breaking in” can take at least 6 months, and is the process of transforming your denim through wear and tear into a pair that belong to no one but you. 

    The luxury cultural tension is underway and in full throttle, making everything seem a little bland. But by transforming the point of sale into an experience or the use of an object into a journey itself, true luxury brands can disrupt this phenomenon and ensure brand loyalty. The enthralling feeling evoked when I get into a pair of my Nudies, or the rush of nostalgia I get when I think of my trip to Brazil can’t be duplicated. That is luxury.