Can money buy taste?
Exploring the impact of changing attitudes of old & new luxury on marketing drinks brands.
The belief that money, or rather what you chose to buy with that money, could demonstrate taste and sophistication was the original driving force behind luxury brands. But as the twenty-first century enters its stride, the attitudes and motivations of luxury buyers have radically changed. Here we take a look at the impact on premium drinks brands and a potential new approach to success in today’s luxury marketplace.
Old luxury – a status symbol
The emergence of the first luxury brands was driven by the desire of people with ‘new money’ – money made in business or trade – to behave like the ‘old money’ elite: the exclusive, aristocratic circles they now aspired to mix in. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, these nouveau riche splashed their new-earned cash on the same established names that had defined luxury and taste for decades, even longer. Brands that symbolised tradition, heritage and crucially, a lifestyle that was unaffordable to all but a few: French couture from Hermès and Dior, a finely crafted Rolex watch, sleek Italian supercars by Ferrari or Maserati.
For luxury brands there was one time-honoured route to success: heritage, quality, rarity, timelessness – the things ‘old money’ valued and therefore ‘new money’ sought to emulate. Drinks were no exception: no up-and-coming host could possibly hold a party without offering expensive champagne from historic names like Moët, Krug and Bollinger. Spirits, too, were strictly codified: Scotch malt whisky was a luxury item; so too fine cognac. Other countries’ offerings – rum, vodka, tequila – didn’t get a look in. Like the society it served as a gateway into, luxury was exclusive, rigidly defined and slow to change.
The changing face of luxury
Since those early days, luxury has both democratised and diversified. As incomes have risen, more and more people can aspire to own luxury items, aided and abetted by the luxury brands’ expansion into ‘affordable’ ranges such as cosmetics, perfumes and accessories. ‘Weekend millionaires’ might work long hours in a mid-ranking job during the week but aspire to live the high life at the weekend, wearing designer clothes and drinking fashionable drinks. Aspirational luxury consumers are growing faster than the very high end, with twice the expected global spend of top luxury consumers by 2021*.
More critically, the motivations of luxury shoppers have changed. Status is no longer automatically conferred by the display of material wealth or a tick-list of well-known names; there is much greater emphasis on social currency, on transient trends, on an individual’s own unique sense of style and culture. The conspicuous consumption of the Baby Boomers is giving way to the individualism of the Millennials. Even in emerging markets like China, it’s no longer simply about bling or showing off the ‘right’ labels – a process that took 20-30 years in the US or UK is happening within the space of a few years.
A profusion of new luxury categories and brands have sprung up to meet this demand. Edgy new designers and online boutiques compete with couture fashion houses. Technology is moving beyond function into fashion statement, led by the likes of Apple and Beats by Dr Dre. A bottle of Patron Silver tequila now costs more than a 14-year-old Glenfiddich. Yet the challenge for both new luxury brands and old incumbents is the same: how do they appeal to this demanding and diverse audience?
New ways in to luxury status – ‘new old luxury’
Today’s consumers still seek to make a statement through luxury but it’s about the expression of their own personal tastes and interests, rather than imitating others’.
Luxury has become less about products, which are easily copied, and more about creating an experience; delivering a more emotional, narrative value. In a sense, ‘old luxury’ brands always understood this: their marketing played up the lifestyle their customers had or aspired to have, from the visceral thrill of the grouse hunt to the fine whisky in the clubhouse. But now there is room for many different expressions of that luxury aesthetic, to meet a wide variety of tastes and interests.
‘New old luxury’ brands must combine that sensory attraction with a sophisticated 21st century twist. ‘Blend it like Beckham’: Haig Club is a poster boy for tapping into the new aristocracy – the attraction of the celebrity lifestyle. Can the Beckham brand have the clout to globally promote and sell a lowly grain whisky, elevating it to an aspirational new level in its category-defying blue glass bottle? In a couple of years we will see if case volumes are significant and sustained enough to recoup the undoubted phenomenal rights cost of Messrs. Beckham & Fuller. An aspirational projected lifestyle is just one way into new luxury. Hendricks ploughs its own furrow and makes a virtue of originality while paying tribute to the long-lived hipster trend with its quirky Victoriana. Craft bourbons like Bulleit and Blanton’s seek to tap into the maverick one-off charm of America’s frontier days. While the lifestyle each brand represents is different, the combination of a purposeful and distinct personality, strong design aesthetic and experiential narrative plays to the twenty-first century consumer’s desire for individual self-expression.
Age of the curator
To return to the original question: can money buy taste? Maybe it’s no longer relevant; after all, for money to be able to buy taste, this assumes ‘taste’ is a single, quantifiable thing. In today’s world, taste, like luxury, is increasingly becoming an individual choice.
What if status is now defined by how well one curates and articulates that taste expression? Having a diverse portfolio of ‘tasteful’ brands to reflect the richness and diversity of changing moods, a widening circle of friends and colleagues, and the speed of cultural change, de-risks the choices of the new luxury consumer. Globally we think luxury shopping millennials have become and will become even more like curators than consumers. They have the networked savvy and technological tools to rapidly decode a brand’s DNA and if it serves a purpose for some part of their colourful life, it’s in. In that sense, should drinks brands think increasingly like app developers as well as distillers? In doing so, demonstrating the ability to distil a singularity in the cultural relevance of a brand alongside beautifully crafted liquid. It’s a great way to test the articulation of a purposeful luxury brand for tomorrow.