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The Experience Economy and the Meaning of Luxury -or- Why Luxury Requires a Different Type of Content Strategy
“Beauty is very much about creating worlds and an environment,” - Melissa Kelly, partner and chief operating officer of M+A Group.
Luxury goods and services have properties that are different from non-luxury goods. This is intuitively clear, though the reasons why may vary according to the people you ask. But the characteristics that define luxury and make it unique require brands to have a completely different way of articulating their story or, if you like, presenting their value proposition to customers.
In an ideal world, this should necessitate defining an authentic digital identity, cultivating a customer-centric online shopping experience, and producing original content to provoke the tastes of consumers who are now overwhelmed by choice. In short, luxury brands need to get their content strategy right. Or perhaps more accurately, while all brands need to get their content strategy right, luxury brands need a very special type of approach that is aligned with their core and unique value: selling customers a magical and emotive experience. Given the uncertain times in which we have lived for the past few years, getting the right content strategy in place can help the industry offer something positive and affirming.
Luxury & the Experience Economy
At its heart, the decision to shop for, buy, and then use a luxury good or service is about the experience. For economists the demand and supply of luxury goods is completely backwards. Normally demand for a good or service falls as prices rise (at a given level of supply), yet “Veblen goods” like luxury (named after economist Thorstein Veblen, who penned a book about the topic in 1899) don’t work that way. Why? Part of the reason is the prestige of owning and displaying. No question. But an equally important reason–which is more relevant now than it was in 1899–is that luxury is well positioned to provide a memorable customer experience. In fact, a big part of luxury is the experience of shopping for it.
And experiences are what many consumers are craving. A survey conducted by Forbes found:
86% of buyers would pay a premium for a good experience.
Customer experience has overtaken product and price as the key brand differentiator.
A study by Abhay Gupta found that the experience economy is supposed to grow to reach $8 trillion by 2030. That amount is greater than the size of German, British, and French economies combined.
This evolution in consumer preferences from a pure focus on price and quality, as Veblen would have been more familiar with in his day, towards the commodification of an experience was formalized in a 1999 book by James H. Gilmore and B. Joseph Pine II entitled “The Experience Economy.” So this trend is not new and it has unfolded gradually. Yet, it is especially relevant in the digital marketplace for luxury goods.
Luxury goods have always been about feeling a certain way as a result of an economic transaction. Why do Veblan goods exist - it defies the logic of economic gravity? A big part is how they make you feel. A feeling of anticipation and acquisition. In that sense, luxury has always been the anchor of the experience economy before people starting using that expression. In fact, while the production of luxury is about creativity, provenance, design, and quality, the demand or the desire for it originates in the experiential.
How does shopping, buying, and wearing luxury make you feel? Does it feel special to engage with a luxury brand versus a non-luxury brand? Does it feel unique? Does it feel personal? Does it justify your time and treasure? In this sense you might say that luxury is not about goods or services. It is Experience as a Service (EAAS). As this essay by AppNova points out, the demand for commoditized experiences is rising:
“...[because] our opportunities for real life connection and sensory experiences are decreasing since we’re constantly on demand, checking our phones every five minutes for pop-ups, swipes and timeline scrolls. We’re thirsty for ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ connections, including brand experiences.”
Content Strategy, Luxury & the Experience Economy
We at It’s A Working Title are content strategists and the unique nature of luxury and frankly all of the experience economy keeps us awake at night. After over a decade of meeting luxury and lifestyle brands across the spectrum (from fashion to jewelry to resort hotels to fashion tech developers) and around the world, we have come to believe that because this business is different it requires a different kind of content strategy.
So first what is a content strategy? We did pen piece called ‘Why Fashion Needs A Content Strategy and that is a place to start. In short, we define a content strategy by what it does:
The planning, creation, delivery, and governance of content. Content not only includes the words on the page but also the images and multimedia that are used. Ensuring that you have useful and usable content that is well structured, and easily found is vital to improving the user experience of a website. The goal of content strategy is to create meaningful, cohesive, engaging, and sustainable content. (Usability.gov)
Another way to look at this is Kristina Halvorson’s macro view of content strategy, which she defines as the practice of:
Guiding the creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable content.
Getting the right content to the right people, at the right place, and at the right time.
Making integrated sets of user-centered, goal-driven choices about content throughout its lifecycle, from inception, creation, delivery, and assessment for effectiveness and possible re-conception.
So what does this have to do with luxury and the experience economy? First of all, content strategy is about creating a brand’s story consistently across distribution channels. This story needs to be an authentic and mindfully chosen narrative and it needs to be the same story that a consumer encounters on social media, print adverts, brick-and-mortar store, and now even gaming platforms or the metaverse (though the latter has some different characteristics that we will discuss in a bit).
It is admittedly very difficult for brands of any type of product to maintain this authenticity and consistency. In just looking fashion, brands have to produce collections six times a year and figure out how to adjust their messaging as their artistic vision evolves while navigating a constantly-evolving digital marketplace and the buffeting effects of a constantly shifting array of political, economic, and social changes.
This makes getting the constant strategy right especially important for companies that want to sell not just goods or services, but experiences. When it comes to shopping and buying luxury, consumers want to connect with an authentic identity. And they want to do it around-the-clock across platforms. In short, brands now must be content producers. To meet this demand, luxury and other experience brands need to pay particular attention to the way that their customers (both potential and returning) journey through their various content channels.
Journey mapping is a tool that allows content and digital commerce developers to produce good customer and user experiences (CX and UX). As the name implies, it involves creating scenarios of the experiences that consumers have as they go through the process of engaging with a brand as per the below, stylized schematic.
The journey of interest here is learning about a luxury product from social media, perhaps an influencer, account or an advertisement in print (yes, it still exists). And then traveling to explore that product on perhaps the brand’s website. From there, the customer may come across a fork in the road if they want to proceed to buy: (i) perhaps purchase online if that is offered by the brand; (ii) venture into a store (which many brands are now investing heavily in in order to make them more attractive); or (iii) now buy vintage through a site like The RealReal or even rent it in what Ana Andjelic called fractional ownership powered by web3. Let’s see a case study of what a well constructed journey map looks like: Gucci.
A Journey Map of Gucci
When it comes to rolling out an innovative, digital content strategy, Gucci ranks at the top of the list across a number of dimensions. Though many brands have overcome some initial worries about brand dilution and created a robust online retail presence, Gucci has perhaps been the most successful in creating an integrated cross-platform sales experience. This experience produces a unified messaging and retail strategy that straddles brick-and-mortar shops, virtual personalized video-based shopping (Gucci Live), and even spreads into virtual versions of its collections and products for esports such as Tennis Clash, Roblox, fashioned-themed game Drest, and the sale Gucci products for avatars. And the brand’s deep expansion into digital has come without cannibalizing in-store sales according to recent financial reports from Kering..
Let’s have a quick look at a stylized version of what a journey map could look like for a potential Gucci customer that we threw together. This particular journey begins with our consumer pursuing Gucci’s Instagram account and coming across an influencer, Jungjae Lee, wearing a v-neck sweater which, according to the post, is part of the Gucci Love Parade collection envisioned by Alessandro Michele. Click on the photo and it provides a link to Jungjae’s IG account. OK, not so useful so far. And it means that we cannot buy it directly from IG. Fine, let’s go to the website. Now here we go. The carousel of splash images greeting us at the top of the page features Jungjae Lee wearing our sweater. Click the ‘shop now’ button right below, and we are greeted with a full page of goods linked to the Love Parade collection. We even have a nice blurb that fleshes out the collection’s vision more clearly:
The House’s Global Brand Ambassador stars in a series of images and a video in which he shifts between two different worlds, going in and out of character and showcasing the versatility of menswear styles from the Gucci Love Parade collection.
After scrolling through a wide selection of goods contained in the collection, we end the page with a visually attractive video to give our consumer a true experience. The experience portrayed there shows the fun, warmth, and joy one would have in wearing these clothes. We see Jungjae Lee working and living in the collection and even see him holding a huge flower and looking at himself in a pink mirror for good measure. If we need more, the consumer can click the three dots at the bottom of the page to reach a real person, thus unlocking the Gucci Live experience. Our consumer can actually call Gucci through the website to discuss and maybe see the v-neck live on camera. Maybe the consumer can also ask about that pink mirror.
We’ve included the metaverse in our customer’s journey, though its role in a brand’s omnichannel strategy is a bit different. As a technology under active development, brands are experimenting. Gucci has been more active than most brands in this space. Yet, so far, an important distinction needs to be drawn between the metaverse and other distribution channels on our journey that complicates content strategy creation. The metaverse is less oriented around brands pitching products to consumers or providing one-way commerce traffic. As a just released note by PSFK points out:
“In these virtual realms, creative content, authentic engagement, and community building experiences are critical, especially for Gen Z and Gen Alpha consumers already steeped in the worlds of gaming and digital.”
The two-way interaction implied by the sense of community will challenge brands as they seek to meet a growing consumer base. And it will require content strategists at these brands to step up their game even further.
How does a luxury brand find the best content strategy solution?
Though content strategy is important for all brands and in all industries that need to marshal internal resources to reach clients across various channels, as we have discussed, it is doubly important for luxury brands. So what are the best ways forward for these brands to craft effective omnichannel content management strategies?
At our firm, It’s A Working Title LLC, we believe that content strategy works best when it is bespoke and not one-size-fits-all. This rule is not universal as there are many great ways to find and implement a content strategy. In particular, enterprise-level content management teams can benefit from a number of pre-packaged offerings. However, a tailored content strategy allows for the creation of an approach that is tailored and easily adaptable to both the brand and the rapidly changing social, technological, and commercial environment.
This is especially important for brands whose biggest offering is providing an experience. So much is at stake for luxury brands who need to not only connect supply and demand, but do so in a particular way. This way needs to communicate the brand story, provenance, quality, and a particular feeling that is unique to that brand and which is, in part, at the heart of what it means to be luxury in the first place. For such brands, the stakes are very high to get the content strategy right and be able to adapt, revise, and redeploy as demands and tastes and innovations like web3 evolve.