Previews Inside Out
Topic: Life & Style
April 27, 2015
When you hear the words “affluent millennial,” do you picture a 30-something tech mogul buying a trophy home in the hills of LA? Or a hashtag-happy celebrity starting a lifestyle brand? Clichés aside, millennials—more than 74 million adults ages 18 to 34 in the U.S.—are changing the luxury landscape as we know it. For our “Luxury: The Next Generation” issue, we decided to go straight to the experts—the Luxury Institute’s Milton Pedraza, Luxury Daily editor Mickey Alam Khan and Forbes’ millennial reporter Larissa Faw—to find out what this increasingly influential group really wants when it comes to luxury.
Previews Inside Out: What does the next generation of luxury consumers want from brands today?
Milton Pedraza: Across the generations, millennials, Gen Xers and boomers all want the best in design, quality and craftsmanship, along with great service.
Mickey Alam Khan: The next generation of luxury consumers want to build stronger emotional connections with brands. They not only want to experience the products in-store, but also via digital media such as online and mobile. They also want to feel good about their luxury acquisitions from an ecological standpoint. In other words, the next generation of luxury consumers want to see authenticity, digital savvy and environmental nobility from their favorite luxury brands.
Larissa Faw: The key words are “make them feel special.” They want to be the only ones able to experience that product or opportunity. The worst thing in the world is to be mass and beige. Everywhere and generic. Coach got itself into trouble because it opened up an outlet shop in every city. It became overly accessible to everyone. The worst thing for luxury buyers is when some downscale shopper has the same item. That is the kiss of death for affluent shoppers. That brand is no longer luxury.
Milton Pedraza: Hey, and also respect brand heritage! But only as long as the brand stays relevant to them.
Previews Inside Out: There was a recent survey published in Luxury Daily that found the majority of affluent consumers have a different definition of luxury than they did five years ago. What do you think the definition of luxury is today?
Mickey Alam Khan: One of the biggest changes in the last few years has been the shift in the luxury-consumption mindset from “I have” to “I experience.” So it’s gone from simply material acquisition to a collection of exquisite memories to be cherished for a long time from unique experiences. That said, as defined by Luxury Daily, luxury must have these time-proven qualities: exceptional craftsmanship and customer service, brand authenticity, limited distribution and high perceived value. That hasn’t changed.
Larissa Faw: Once upon a time, luxury meant price. You almost just knew something was a luxury product because it was insanely expensive. Now, luxury means exclusivity and authenticity. One-of-a-kind items that come from a true place. A product can be $5, but if it is the only one and rare, that is luxury.
Milton Pedraza: Today’s luxury consumers also demand demonstrated expertise, trustworthiness and generosity from the brand ambassadors. These days, they also prefer a brand with a social conscience that treats associates, clients, suppliers and the less fortunate in society like human beings. Along with the best product, that is what creates an extraordinary experience for most.
Previews Inside Out: Do you think millennials are partly responsible for this shift? How so?
Mickey Alam Khan: Yes, the millennial generation is quite responsible for the shift in luxury’s definition. This generation is digitally savvy and is responsible for the evolving approach in marketing and retailing. Presence on social media enables brands to stay connected with their younger customers and prospects, dialoguing with them in the lingua franca of the day.
Milton Pedraza: Yes, the millennials, with their more humanistic values, are influencing the business world to deliver extraordinary product innovations, but also extraordinary human empowerment with kindness.
Larissa Faw It is great that millennials have moved beyond the materialistic nature of what has been considered luxury. Many traits that typically define luxury—like fawning treatment or rich, indulgent services—are no longer acceptable or cool. Can you imagine being served by someone wearing a uniform and white gloves? I shudder at the thought.
Previews Inside Out: Beyond that, how are millennials transforming the luxury industry?
Milton Pedraza: They tend to take the design, quality, and craftsmanship and service for granted. They want customized, personalized solutions “now, now.” As Four Seasons says, “Show me you know me.”
Mickey Alam Khan: Four words would reflect the transformation in the luxury business: high touch, high tech. Millennials want that kind of experience with their brand, and so do Gen Xers and, to some extent, digitally savvy baby boomers. Luxury brands are being shepherded along a digital path where online and mobile are the start of the research process that may or may not culminate in a store sale.
Larissa Faw: They are making everyone rethink what it means to be a luxury brand. Just because you charge $5,000 for a bag does not mean you are luxury. Just because you operate a nice hotel does not mean you appeal to affluent millennials. What was once considered top-flight treatment—like that white glove treatment—does not necessarily align with younger generations. This presents opportunity, but it is also challenging, because what once worked, no longer does. You don’t earn five stars by doing what you did for decades. That said, I also think millennials take for granted a lot of what is known as luxury. Like top-sourced leather goods. They expect all brands, even discount ones, to offer that. They expect great service, like immediately tending to their demands. Those services used to separate luxury brands from regular ones.
Mickey Alam Khan: Also, for many young people, it’s not simply about flashy identification with a lifestyle or a product, but a reflection of their values. Hence, the importance of storytelling and codes for luxury brand and luxury retailers to get their message across.
Previews Inside Out: Let’s talk more about this push toward authenticity in luxury, which is an important value for many millennials. In what areas of the marketplace have you seen authenticity play out most dramatically?
Milton Pedraza: They require authenticity across the board. But let’s face it—many product offerings are copycats and commodities, even in some luxury circles. So the authenticity is more about the founders, the brand purpose, the brand ambassadors and “how” they do what they do.
Mickey Alam Khan: I’d say authenticity continues to play a key role in leather goods and accessories. Look at Hermès. While other luxury brands such as Gucci are suffering from logo fatigue and endless line extensions, Hermès continues to post above-industry growth. What does Hermès do differently that attracts all generations to its brand? Attention to quality, to its codes, to its heritage, to its line of products. Its messaging is consistent. The equestrian and travel themes are embedded in most ads. And, most of all, the product standards have been maintained over the decades. Hermès is France at its best, and that’s what millennials and other consumers are buying. Pedigree continues to matter to millennials.
Larissa Faw: Fashion and watch brands are really overplaying their histories and design backstories in order to capture that authentic hook. Upscale alcohol brands are also trying too hard. I don’t need to see another old-timer posing with his dog on a farm to tell me a brand is authentic—and that this makes it okay to charge $300, since it has been aged in a barrel for 100 years. This authenticity does matter to millennials, but I see it becoming too commonplace.
Previews Inside Out: Can you identify any luxury brands you think are already starting to make this adjustment in their marketing? You know—moving away from exclusivity to authenticity.
Mickey Alam Khan: Well, let me just point out that exclusivity and authenticity can’t be mutually exclusive. You have to have both to survive long term as a luxury brand.
Milton Pedraza: Bottega Veneta is a prime example of expertise, trust and generosity with all constituents. And they have the numbers to prove it. Burberry is there, too. We see Van Cleef & Arpels moving in that direction. Sephora, too.
Previews Inside Out: Why are some of the top luxury brands a bit stalled today?
Milton Pedraza: Their products are too common, too logoed, and they have disengaged brand ambassadors. So the customers become disengaged, too. The brands have become passive transactors rather than humanistic relationship builders.
Mickey Alam Khan: Gucci comes to mind for me. It’s had some turbulence over senior talent most recently with the departure of the CEO and creative director. While the successors are in place, what Gucci needs to do is rethink its positioning. It’s become rather common, which is the kiss of death for a luxury brand. If too many people have access to the product, it loses its allure. I foresee something similar with Louis Vuitton. Way too many people sport its handbags, thus diluting its exclusivity. It’ll end up catering mostly to aspirational consumers and risk alienating those with serious money. It pays to be slightly discrete in luxury. I know Louis Vuitton is working to scale back on plastering its logo everywhere. The wink-and-nod in luxury should be the styling that those in the know are aware of.
Larissa Faw: Millennials are like cats. If you try too hard, they don’t want anything to do with you. I know Honda isn’t a luxury brand, but its recent commercials featuring top toys from the 80s—like Strawberry Shortcake and Skeletor from He-Man—speaking to the camera to try to sell me a car were pathetic in how hard they were trying to appeal to millennials. My mom had no idea who that skeleton-looking toy was, since these toys were totally millennial-centric, but both my sister and I knew immediately. No one likes a desperate brand that is obvious with its advertising. Pretentiousness is another reason brands are toxic to millennials. Jewelry brands that continue to embrace that silly fairy-tale engagement proposal turn off a lot of millennials. That isn’t how our world looks, and we don’t want any part of it.
Previews Inside Out: When you look at the luxury market as a whole—travel, auto companies, fashion, jewelry—where are you seeing the most innovation when it comes to imparting authentic experiences?
Larissa Faw: I recently saw an ad for a jewelry brand that lets people create their own rings. That is exactly what it takes to reach millennials. Who wants a ring that his or her nemesis in high school might have? Everyone wants to brag he or she has the only one of something. Any company that is able to develop customized and personalized experiences will win them over.
Milton Pedraza: Electronics are the obvious answer. But since technology is invading every space, we see autos, apparel, accessories and really all luxury categories using technology online, in-store and after the sales to enhance the client experience and build a long-term relationship. The most interesting innovations, however, will come from empowering and enhancing the brand ambassadors to build human relationships with their clients. No algorithm can replace a powerful and kind human relationship.
Mickey Alam Khan: There is digital innovation across luxury sectors. Some of it is consumer-led, and some of it brand-driven. Travel and hospitality is a leader in the space. The sites, apps and social media are nonpareil—as are the unique culinary experiences, meet-and-greets with famous chefs and tours in the vicinity of hotel properties that respect the land and traditions. Fashion is also a leader in authenticity. See the abundance of live streams of runway shows that deliver the live experience to the desktop, lap or palm.
Previews Inside Out: In terms of real estate, where do you think the industry needs to move in order to cater to more affluent millennials?
Larissa Faw: Good question. The industry needs to make them feel special, by offering services that understand their life stage. For instance, maybe arrange for Uber accounts so they can have private car services. I recommend taking a page from luxury hotel brands and how they cater to them with dry cleaning, maid services, food delivery. If you come at millennials with the mindset to make them feel special, you can’t go wrong.
Mickey Alam Khan: I’d say real estate needs more digital moxie. Not just PC sites or mobile-friendly versions, but better social media and app executions. Younger luxury consumers are researching on tablets and smartphones, and real estate’s presence on those devices can be improved.
Milton Pedraza: Empower the agent through technology, data and coaching to enhance the client. Real estate is not a game of bricks and mortar; it is a game of hearts and minds.