Inside the Mix

Regular shoppers are more likely to buy into a luxury brand's exclusivity, not its affordability

Regular shoppers are more likely to buy into a luxury brand's exclusivity, not its affordability

This week's feature on luxury-product marketing has been a long time in the offing.

The idea first came from a meeting with M. Booth & Associates last year, when its client, the Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa in Atlantic City, NJ, was discussed. While its rates aren't exactly at bargain-basement prices, casino-based resorts such as Atlantic City and, of course, Las Vegas, are known for providing a more luxurious experience per tourist dollar than other resorts.

As is often the case, once that idea germinated, it grew further in every subsequent conversation with other consumer PR experts. If ever I was in doubt that the packaging of luxury was a huge deal in marketing, I only had to be aware of the envy I feel when something is out of reach, and the frisson of self-satisfaction I feel when something simply gorgeous is actually in my price range. Marketers of luxury goods have tapped into just that by creating products that are more within reach for regular people, so even those with under $100 to spare can be a part of the likes of Burberry, Prada, or Montblanc.

The key to marketing their more affordable items is that they do not mention their affordability. Montblanc says it introduced its $95 leather notebook not to let regular people buy into the brand, but to expand its product portfolio.

Another portfolio expansion did the opposite, and gave rise to one of the most exclusive products out there, one that is barely marketed (and then, only stealthily) by its producer. American Express' fabled black Centurion card doesn't even have its own profile on the company's website - it's only available by invitation, so what's the point?

The card is, however, mentioned on the site, including in a press release from last September describing its new member magazine, The Magazine, which has "no name or logo." As the release states, "The Centurion Card is all about mystique, distinction, and exclusivity," and the content makes The Robb Report look like the Sears catalogue. But while mentions of the card do appear throughout the site, most are in small print and the card itself is never apparent. Even drop-down menus of card benefits don't mention it, probably because Centurion card-holders get everything they want anyway.

But one thing that does tend to take the polish of such aspirational brands is the opinion one has of those who own them. It's an unavoidable fact that by the time an aspirational product is available to more people, the cachet has often faded. After the 1999 product launch that was so stealthy that many believed it was actually an urban myth, I saw my first Centurion card later that year in London's celebrity-laden restaurant, The Ivy. Only it wasn't a star at a neighboring table proffering it; it was the managing director of a perfectly respectable direct marketing agency with whom I was having lunch. A pleasant, but slightly pedestrian fellow, he illustrated the perks of running an agency and putting all expenses on an Amex card. The brand's luster dimmed in my eyes then, and I saw just how integral to a brand is the person who consumes it - whether conspicuously or not.

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