It’s an image we know all too well. A famous actress, a cinematic backdrop, a strategically placed product to sell. But today’s luxury consumers demand more from the brands they purchase from. Gone are the days of expecting sales to just grow from the aspirational dream of luxury. Luxury must now speak to the consumer in new ways – on the channels they’re communicating on, through the values they prize, the inspiring products they create, and the ambassadors they use to represent their brand.
While in the past, luxury brands took a top-down approach – relying on a hyper-exclusive model that celebrated scarcity and high price points coupled with heritage and craftsmanship, this one-way dialogue where the brand dictates the scene is no longer relevant, said Stephanie Barker Fry, a fashion communications specialist and lecturer on Fashion Public Relations and Communication at London College of Fashion (LCF), University of the Arts London (UAL).
“In 2021, cultural capital is the new luxury, with consumers seeking out brands that lead the way in not only reflecting current societal values (such as staying at home in lockdown or employee diversity) but also in creativity,” she said.
Indeed, the new age of luxury advertising is not just about having a famous ambassador promote your product, but it’s also about overturning perceptions about what it means to be a luxury brand today. Take Tiffany’s, whose latest campaigns ‘Tiffany Yellow’, ‘Not Your Mother’s Tiffany’s’ and ‘About Love’ have done just that. With each campaign, Tiffany has moved the conversation forward about where it stands on its positioning about heritage, social standing, and consumer values. If it’s one thing a luxury brand needs to be a part of, it’s the conversation, because if they’re not showing an evolution of their heritage, their storytelling, and their ideas, they’re not demonstrating to consumers how they are moving forward with the zeitgeist.
By running campaigns about changing its iconic Tiffany Blue colour to yellow, stating that Tiffany’s is now for a younger generation and choosing Beyonce and Jay-Z as representatives as well throwing in a rare Jean-Michel Basquiat painting and 128-carat diamond for show, the brand has been making a number of bold statements about how it sees itself and what it stands for. It’s playful, it’s diverse, it’s cultured, it’s in the know. It’s shaking things up and challenging the old guard, which just so happens to also be what it used to represent.
Unsurprisingly, the reactions to some of the campaigns have been mixed. Some welcomed the change, some did not. But whatever the reaction, the result was what Tiffany expected. And this shift towards overturning preconceptions is now what many luxury brands are seeking to address in their messaging.
“Today’s brands are investing time in understanding their audience and the society around us,” said Barker Fry, noting the success of brands like Bottega Veneta and Grace Wales Bonner, which have crafted meaningful content as a new way to communicate with their audiences. “Social media has made this two-way dialogue a valuable brand asset. There are no set rules to communicating with audiences in 2021 and it is precisely this approach that generates the most compelling campaigns we have witnessed for years.”
“With the rise of younger audiences accounting for more of the luxury market share year on year, the responsibility for brands to reflect the current social and political zeitgeist, whilst also maintaining their aspirational positioning, has arguably never been greater,” she added. “Integrating awareness and social responsibility into brand messaging is now an inherent part of brand communications.”
It’s a view shared by Fflur Roberts, Head of Global Luxury Goods at Euromonitor. “If brands want to survive, then they've got no choice. They have to change things up because your average luxury buyer 20 years ago, is not your average luxury buyer today. It's up to the old-school traditional luxury brands to make these changes to address these issues and get a great team of people together that really know what they're talking about.”
A large part of demonstrating how luxury brands understand the values that are more meaningful to younger consumers is choosing the right kind of ambassador that not only looks the part but also speaks on the topics they want to align themselves with.
“Brands also need to be very considered and measured about the people they choose and the messages they put out,” Roberts said. “They can't just do something for the sake of it and to tick the boxes, which is actually really insulting to the consumer. It’s a big process and it obviously requires time and thought and careful planning – they also need to be really careful about the sensitivity behind campaigns and not just doing them for the sake of it.”
It’s something David Sadigh, Founder and CEO of DLG (Digital Luxury Group), a digital marketing agency specialised in working with luxury brands, can also attest to. “Audiences are shifting and brands have to take a stand and try to find representatives that represent these cultural shifts, meaning they want ambassadors that are a bit more polarising, and who have more substance than the usual personas. The era of vanilla ambassadors, those who seem to please everyone but don't actually seem to seduce anybody, is over.”
“We can see that there are a lot more people of colour, people from different backgrounds like Rihanna, Beyonce and Jay-Z, so there is a movement of bringing more diversity to advertising and also trying to associate brands with something that is different to the norm. It’s a question of clout and a question to who can really help in shifting the brand perception. We have just entered a new era, the one of inclusive luxury, and this is just the beginning.”
“It's about how can I rejuvenate my brand, how can I make it more sleek, sexy, and more successful or more attractive towards new audiences,” he added. “And to do that, you need to have an association with brand ambassadors are more polarising and that obviously very big communities of people behind them.”
One example that Barker Fry highlights as significant is Burberry whose campaigns around “Britishness” became all the more significant because of its creative director Ricardo Tisci’s Italian heritage and the consequence of Brexit.
“Burberry in 2021 has become a barometer of cultural credibility, featuring philanthropists (Marcus Rashford) rap and grime artists (Shy Girl) and iconic supermodels (Naomi Campbell) as not only the face of their campaigns but the leading voice to connect with a global fan base,” she said. “Most recently, their collaboration with Ewen Spencer, a photographer that has been documenting UK garage and grime scenes since the early 2000s, has resulted in another fitting tribute to British youth culture, resulting in a series of campaign stills and a short film that encapsulates the freedom and intensity of raving in the British countryside.”
But it’s not just big brands that are mastering the art of advertising, independent brands such as Eckhaus Latta have created some provoking campaigns in the past few seasons, exploring the conversation around gender, identity, and expression, Barker Fry noted.
“Brands using advertising as a platform to facilitate wider societal conversations are creating content that builds rapport through education,” she said. “It is this shift I find most interesting about fashion in the next few years and role will advertising play, particularly when we need to seriously readdress our consumption habits.”
A huge factor into why luxury brands are shifting towards different ways of advertising and communicating with their consumers is obviously the global COVID-19 pandemic, particularly following movements such as Black Lives Matter, which Barker Fry said forced brands to pivot their tone of voice and activations to imitate public sentiment.
“The initial response from luxury brands throughout this period varied, by exposing the collective strength of those steered, by empathic leadership to collectively rise and respond to a global crisis, whilst also revealing the incompetence and toxic systemic culture driving many others across the sector,” she said. “More crucially, however, the pandemic has provided an opportunity for the luxury sector to readdress its creative content strategies, by diversifying cultural alignment with new global tastemakers and crafting more intimate and personal narratives between brand and consumers.”
“Furthermore, this period enabled luxury brands to experiment with digital mediums and technology in ways not previously explored,” she added. “Jacquemus and Gucci are notable examples of brands that initially relinquished the perception of control by facilitating models to curate their own editorial content throughout lockdown, offering a more personal and honest perspective into the brand, whilst challenging the narrative and meaning of luxury.”
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For certain, the changing narrative and meaning of luxury is what is keeping brands on their toes when it comes to understanding their audiences and knowing which path is best for their latest campaign. And what works for one brand may not work for another, notes Sadigh.
A key element that will reshape how brands decide on what speaks to their target audiences will be the data they have access to. “We live in a world where we have so much more information on audiences, and on a much more granular basis,” he said. “So, being able to understand how to gain further market share, being able to understand how to enrich your brand story and brand values is crucial. Technology like artificial intelligence and machine learning will help a lot, in the sense that you will be able to very quickly identify who is best to partner or how and when to best engage with your prospective clients.”
“We will also see emerging technologies and predictive models that will allow brands to identify strategic partnerships and collaborations based on criteria such as whether something has high chances of working with their audience. This is the beginning of something that will become pretty huge: human intuition and creativity will remain but backed with more and more data and technologies,” he added.
For Barker Fry, the evolution of luxury communities remains a focus for her. “It will be interesting to see how the narrative behind high production fashion campaigns unfold in the future,” she said. “Brands such as Collina Strada have pioneered a new fashion week framework, by staging their S/S 22 show in a city farm location in support of local communities. Waste, overproduction, and local communities are considered at every single stage of the show planning and execution. How will this translate to advertising campaigns (what will become of elaborate set designs, the communities residing in aspirational shoot locations, and the profiles of the creative crew in the future?) and will we see a shift to hyper-local community collaborations by luxury brands in the future?”
For Roberts, she believes that luxury advertising will also become more nuanced, with different campaigns running on different channels depending on which audience brands want to speak to. “Luxury consumers still want to live the dream,” she said. The demand for that dream is still there and brands will still want their consumers to have that dream. But it also sits alongside the fact that people are also moving away from how it has traditionally been communicated.”
“I would imagine that brands will have lots of different campaigns depending on the different platforms that they use,” she added. “There might be a campaign which is used on television, which will be more generic and your standard “luxury dream”, whereas maybe on Instagram, there'll be other ones and also depending on the market you're in as well. What works in Asia is not necessarily going to work in the United States or the UK. I think things will change and are changing, but ultimately that the dream has to be there. It’s working out what dream to sell for which audience.”