Premium brands respond to recession with value message

Not so long ago, magazine editors would be moved to write a story about a product simply to showcase its staggering price tag.

Not so long ago, magazine editors would be moved to write a story about a product simply to showcase its staggering price tag.

"In 2008, people would just invent the $1,000 jean or the $1,000 serum... and editors loved it," recalls Pierce Mattie, CEO of his eponymous firm. "Now we're lucky if a client can sell a pair of jeans over $100. Even Vogue does not want jeans more than $100."

The recession has forced name brands to compete more aggressively against private labels. But it has also forced luxury brands, many of which enjoyed mass-market appeal during a sunnier economy, to reconsider how to incorporate value into their communications approach.

"We don't use the 'L' word anymore and everyone has the 'Marie Antoinette syndrome,'" Mattie says. With the lush days gone, he says luxury brands are pitching their products in conjunction with a get-it-for-less, mass-market imitation to entice editors. Some brands are just working harder to justify high prices by emphasizing items such as limited editions, special fabrics, and handmade products.

Defending luxury
Jaime Maser, communications director at premium cosmetics company La Prairie, says the brand is "synonymous with luxury" and has no plans to stray from this positioning.

"In times of trouble or turmoil, it's not something we'd veer from," she says. But the downturn has forced the communications team to rethink the way it talks to the public. For example, its hallmark platinum-infused collection runs to $1,000 for a 50ml bottle.

"What we're doing isn't gimmicky," Maser explains. "You hear about a $1,000 cream and it sounds gimmicky until you learn about the years of research and the ingredients that went into it, like platinum."

She notes that editors are increasing their requests for scientists and R&D specialists rather than relying on an array of impressive ingredients and benefits.

"We've taken the term 'luxurious essentials' rather than 'luxury,'" she says. "That's been a bit of an evolution. Unfortunately, products are planned well in advance, so you can't help it if you launch a $650 face cream at a bad time."

Redefining value
Buxton Midyette, VP of marketing and promotions at premium cotton company Supima, introduced the brand's Spring 2010 collection. The collaboration with Brooks Brothers puts added emphasis on the performance of the fabric.

"It allows us to tell a different part of the Supima story," he says. "For 10 years, we've positioned it as a luxury fiber. But in 1911, it was developed as an industrial fiber, so we're talking more about the durability and strength of the fiber. It's luxury, but not fragile like a cashmere. The current economic situation has provided us the opportunity to talk about this aspect. We can easily promote it as performance rather than luxury."

Opportunities have emerged, in part, because of movements that sprouted during the recession. Supima cotton accounts for about 3% of all cotton grown and 95% of it is grown under California's environmental laws.

"We have a sustainable story," Midyette says. "This cotton goes into [long-lasting] products; it's meant to go into a man's or woman's wardrobe and stay there. [We] need to focus on disposable clothing's environmental impact."

Still, he notes, people look to luxury to make them feel good. The fabric is typically 25% to 30% more dense than regular cotton, so the brand continues to emphasize Supima's softness, along with durability and value.

Mattie says this dip might help the luxury market reclaim some of its lost luster, and, in turn, help the industry rebuild the mystique it lost during the indulgent days of the last decade.

"The luxury market is going to reclaim itself and not be available to the masses anymore," Mattie says. "There will be a delineation between moderate and luxury buyers again. It will bring that cachet back to luxury - which was lost from 2005 to 2008."

Pitching luxury:

Known providers
Established luxury or premium brands are more likely to be covered than luxury upstarts in this climate

Inspiring consumers
Mainstream magazines such as Glamour, Shape, and Self use luxury brands as aspiration for their readers, often coupling luxury items with mass-market imitations

Social media
Beauty and luxury bloggers still write about giveaways and special promotions

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