I was recently asked to work on brand positioning for a fashion label. As often happens, a highly skilled product manufacturer has decided to capitalise on three generations worth of experience and establish a consumer-facing brand of their own within the highly popular segment of “affordable luxury”. The discussion that ensued prompted me to write this note, partly – to summarise my thoughts on why the term “affordable luxury” is an oxymoron crafted by people with a profound lack of understanding as to what “luxury” really means.
I will try to stick to bullet-points, as this format is not suited to a novel. Products (and services) come in four categories: basic, mass, premium and luxury. One can go into finer divisions by adding “plus” or “minus” at the end of those, but I wouldn’t want to get lost in price-point arguments.
- As the name suggests, satisfy the most basic needs at best value and often (not always) the lowest price point.
- Not just functional, but utilitarian – as practical as possible.
- Stressing value, as nothing else matters much – “It is as good as the more expensive stuff, but cheaper”.
Examples: Tesco basic beans, unbranded denim
- “High street” brands that occupy the key retail spaces of large cities.
- Applied to fashion, do more than just cover our bodies – they reflect our preferences as most markets offer plenty of substitutes in any category.
- As this segment covers the largest chunk of any market, it stretches from products an average consumer can afford to purchase impulsively (e.g. Uniqlo denim) to ones that require consideration and, possibly, some saving (e.g. Levi’s denim).
- As these brands have to be preferred in what usually is a highly competitive market, they need to offer better product, service or level of cool.
- In addition to that, these brands need to offer something unique, e.g. a philosophy that resonates with the target audience (e.g. Zara’s “catwalk fashion for everyone”).
Examples: H&M, Levi’s
- Birthplace of most original designs that later turn into fashion trends for the masses.
- Offer superior quality or elevate the consumer’s social status.
- An average consumer needs to save for a while to be able to afford anything from this category; some products can be out of reach for life.
- These brands offer more than just products, but a distinctive lifestyle.
- Successful premium brands have a unique character – a strongly held opinion or a powerful story to tell.
Examples: Diesel, Dolce & Gabbana
- Luxury products offer unique quality that makes the product last for generations.
- Luxury products aren’t fashionable, because they are not bought for a season.
- Luxury products exist in limited supply and therefore are never discounted.
- Luxury products are not just unaffordable to an average consumer, but in many cases – unattainable.
- Luxury products are heritage pieces, reflecting more than affluence, but tradition.
- One doesn’t really promote luxury, but skilfully lets the world know it exists and waits for likeminded individuals to come to you.
- As true luxury is timeless, its vision looks either back or forth – talking either of brand’s heritage (e.g. Hermes) or its unique vision for the future (e.g. Tesla).
Examples: Loro Piana, Hermes Crocodile Birkin in black
What does everything above boil down to?
- Luxury is timeless and therefore not fashionable.
- Luxury is never for the masses and not just because it is unaffordable.
- Not everything that is very expensive is also a luxury product – price will only get you as far as premium (an expensive watch may cost over $100,000, but still be characterised as “premium plus” or “supremium”).
- Luxury is a state of mind fundamentally contrary to that of value-for-money.
In short, if one speaks of value and appeals to practicality – one travels to a dimension where luxury doesn’t and couldn’t possibly exist.