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The Ultra Luxury Purveyors: Lessons from brands catering to the wealthiest one percent

by James D. Roumeliotis

Luxury Couple - Private Jet

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Several years ago, I had the privilege of working on-board the 147m/482 ft Saudi Royal family yacht the “Prince Abdul Aziz.” It was a first-hand experience with the wealthy 1% and was quite an eye-opener.  A typical day with its owners consisted of shopping at Gucci, LV, Hermes and Bulgari when we made port regardless of location in the Western Mediterranean region. The 25K euro daily average shopping splurge prompted the support staff to purchase large suitcases or trunks to be used as temporary storage. Not surprisingly, given the situation among visiting VIPs and royalty, this was the norm.

Given my professional métier in luxury brand management, I realized that this target audience belonged to a category distinct from any other which are labelled as the One Percenters.

The frequent conspicuous consumption was considered a normal occurrence for the Royalty and its VIP guests as were the elaborate prepared meals devoured that would make the mainstream cringe.

Who on earth are the one percenters?

Along with Sheikhs and Princes, HNWI (High Net Worth Individuals) are considered, by luxury marketers, as the elite segment of the market. According to the Capgemini Wealth Management World’s Wealth Report 2018, it defines HNWIs as those who possess at least US$1 million in financial assets. On the other hand, there are the ultra-HNWIs or UHNWI as those who hold at least US$30 million in financial assets, with both excluding collectibles, consumables, consumer durables and primary residences. The report states that following a robust growth of 8.3% in 2010, the global population of HNWIs grew marginally by 0.8% to 11.0 million in 2011. Most of the growth can be attributed to HNWIs in the US$1 million to US $5 million wealth band that represent 90% of the global HNWI population. The top three countries, U.S, Japan and Germany, retained 53.3% of the total share of HNWIs

Clearly, One Percenters have different expectations and experiences than the rest of us. Here are just a few of this target audience’s distinguishing traits:

–       They are better educated;

–       Have traveled more (and continue to do so);

–       Own one or more successful business and/or inherited their wealth;

–       Possess investments mainly in real estate, stocks and bonds;

–       Are avid connoisseurs of the fine arts/cultural events and vintage/wines;

–       Own top quality merchandise: elaborate homes, exotic cars, bespoke attire, as well as seek services which cater to their discernment;

–       Have explored plenty more in their lives due to their significant disposable income/wealth.

In a recent American Affluence Research Center report, its founder and researcher, Ron Kurtz recommends that: “Luxury brands and luxury marketers should be focused on the wealthiest one percent because they are the least likely to be cutting back (during tough economic times) and are the most knowledgeable about the price points and brands that are true high-end luxury.”

What do the HNWIs and UHNWIs seek in their lifestyle?

According to the white paper, Strategies for Effectively Marketing to High Net Worth Consumers”, written by Richard Becker (August 2008), High Net Worth Individuals enjoy Golf, tennis and physical fitness ‒ endeavors typically associated with exclusive ‘members only’ clubs.

HNWIs/UHNWIs cherish their time and know what they want. Even time is a luxury and limited resource for them, thus saving time greatly trumps saving money. This is part of the reason service is crucial for them. They can be generally described as:

– Seek a higher and exacting standard with a minimum set of expectations;
– Fussy in nature;
– Often require customized solutions to mirror their lifestyle – whether a product or service;
– Take pleasure on getting extra attention from the brands they pursue;

– Prefer the uncommon to the mundane;
– Expect to be offered unique choices and experiences;
– Synonymous with a taste for luxury with pedigree and craftsmanship which they’re able and willing to pay;
– Aspire an aura of exclusivity;
– Crave an experience heightened by exceptional service along with a personal relationship;
– Seek products which are different and more sophisticated – whether it’s apparel, electronics, food or insurance;
– Want to feel in command of their purchase decision without any pressure;

– Expect discretion and confidentiality – most notably from service providers such as private wealth institutions and concierge services amongst others.

Likewise, what they purchase is a visual extension of their individuality and lifestyle. A well-crafted product, for example, reflects an individual call to beauty.

The preeminent luxury brands remain top of mind with the HNWI/UHNWI

When the premium plumbing brand, The Kohler Company, introduced the ultimate toilet fit for the well-heeled, it developed a contemporary industrial design that would make Apple glow with envy. Numi, as the model was baptized, includes technology and engineering that is unconventional with most toilets as we know them. Its features include, amongst others, ambient lighting, a bidet, foot warmers, a seat warmer, music, lighting, and hands-free flushing – which are all controlled through a remote which, with a press of a button, also lifts and lowers the lid. All this can be had for a mere $6500.

Luxury purveyors who aspire to cater to the top tier of spenders should have a mission, vision and a sound implementation strategy to reach this elite demographic target ‒ short of simultaneously pursuing the aspirational consumers who are prone to cutting back when the economy takes a dive. This latter group of consumers dilutes the cachet of the brand and can turn out less profitable in the long run. Moreover, the HNWI/UHNWI frown upon offerings which are accessible to the mainstream as they desire status and exclusivity.

Products and services should be unique, well designed and packaged, finely crafted ‒ and executed with refinement for the elite. Those are ways to entice the interest of, and ultimately retain, the ultra-wealthy. Products and services should never appear as ordinary yet absolutely personal.

In the luxury sector, traditionally there hasn’t been any shortage of customization for the very well heeled. Exclusive and bespoke travel companies provide tailor made adventures and excursions, whereas, the ultra-luxury and exotic automobile sectors such as Rolls Royce and Ferrari respectively offer a wide array of customization options. Each vehicle coming out of the studio will be completely unique and guided by a personal designer at the manufacturers. This is how ‘the total customer experience’ materializes.

Some of the most prominent companies that cater to the 1% include:

LVMH Moët Hennessy ‒ Louis Vuitton S.A (French conglomerate that owns a legion of luxury brands including Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs, Fendi, TAG Heuer, and Dior cosmetics among many others and in various categories), Chanel, Hermes, PPR/Kering (owns controlling shares of Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, among others), Richemont (owns the prestigious Alfred Dunhill, Cartier and Montblanc brands along with many others), Rolls Royce Motors, Bentley Motors, Bugatti Motors, Rolex, Patek Philippe, Goldman Sachs, Gulfstream, Sotheby’s, Bulgari, Tiffany & Co., and Harry Winston to name a few.

Luxury service brands follow a similar pattern. Consider American Express − most notably for its “by invitation only” Black/Centurion card. For hotels, worthwhile mentions are the Hotel Plaza Athenée, the Four Seasons (including its private jet tours), the Ritz Carlton, and boutique hotels Hotel du Cap and Hotel de Crillon to name a few prominent ones. They splurge and provide the perfect luxury experience with outstanding service, exclusivity, and pedigree.

How the luxury purveyors reach, cater and retain the 1%

Studies over the years have shown that the HNWIs/UHNWIs travel frequently and usually do so on a private jet. It’s also a fact that emerging markets from commodity rich countries such as Brazil, Russia, India and China, have a tremendous amount of new ultra wealthy citizens that can’t be ignored.

Reaching them is not easy. However, following are several approaches the prestigious luxury brands are utilizing.

–       Target them in their gathering places in major cities where most UHNWIs reside – London is such a prominent location;

–       Sponsor and/or advertise where the HNWI/UHNWI meet and play such as prestigious golf clubs, polo events etc. Rolex supports prestigious sporting and cultural events all over the world including tennis, the arts, golf tournaments and yachting.

–       Advertise in private jet terminals worldwide called Fixed Base Operators (FBOs) ‒ facilities that handle non-scheduled flights. One such opportunity is in Davos (Switzerland), towards the end of January, where the World Economic Forum is held. There are also magazines, such as “Privat Air” which are published specifically for private jet travelers. In 2012, there were over six million private jet flights. It is, undoubtedly, a targeted audience where one reaches the ultra-wealthy family together – which may be discussing a product or service you may be offering. Swiss watchmaker Audemars Piguet had several helipads with their logo located on Manhattan’s 34th Street.  The helipads included paintings of their watches which functioned as landing markers.

–       Meet and woo its discerning target customers at high profile industry shows and events. Burgess Yachts, for example, participates at the annual Super Yacht Show in Monaco which draws the well-heeled shopping for a multi-million dollar yacht.

–       Hone in cities where the ultra-wealthy normally visit for the finest luxury shopping experiences – mainly Milan, Paris and London with their shops on prestigious avenues;

–       Are promoters of good taste and the arts which is what the super-rich equally enjoy;

–       Make an effort to approach/communicate with influential members of entourages such as drivers, personal assistants, pilots and bodyguards;

–       Advertise and contribute content in prestigious lifestyle magazines which cater to the ultra-affluent including Amex’s ‘Departures’ magazine, ‘Worth’, ‘Elite Traveler’, ‘Monocle’ and ‘Burgess’ amongst others.

–       It goes without saying that successful brands have an online presence/visibility including a clean looking and engaging website, along with a carefully targeted social media existence to build long term online awareness, loyalty and value for the brand.

Along with what the prestigious brands are doing to attract the top spenders, consider creating an exclusive/”members only” online club/site. Moreover, if you’re offering products, boasting about artistic development by engaging with them and encouraging a visit to your atelier to witness your product being crafted. Videos should also be considered for viewing online.

Research where the wealthy neighborhoods are worldwide by using demographic data.  This information reveals everything from median income and age, educational levels and consumption statistics.  Demographic data also helps improve target marketing and advertising.

Sell a distinct lifestyle which is what discerning clients look for. Be in the forefront of creativity and have all your staff, regardless of department/responsibility, as your brand ambassadors.

Occasionally, organize exclusive “by invitation” events as a patron appreciation gesture. Being invited to an exclusive event makes one feel notable. For example, Italian sports automaker Maserati invited a select number of brand loyalists to a new experience in Europe that gave them the opportunity to sail on-board the 70 ft./21,3 m Maserati sailboat. In addition, they drove models in its current range including the new Maserati Gran Turismo Sport model.

Create/publish an upscale lifestyle magazine, every other month or quarter, which should include noteworthy information on the brand and the arts, as well as the causes it supports – in an environmentally friendly print format, along with a digital version. The Bentley motors magazine is a good case in point. The layout, choice of articles/stories and advertisers reflect the tastes of its existing and potential customers.

Helipad Ads - Luxury watches

Removing some of the guilt of ostentatiousness

Corporate Social Responsibility or CSR, along with sustainability issues, is a trend increasingly practiced in the luxury domain to send a message to their audience that they it cares. This is communicated through sponsorships, advertising, public relations, their websites and other media sources. The message conveyed is to enjoy guilt-free ostentatious purchases where part of the purchase price is donated to a worthwhile cause. Louis Vuitton uses celebrities in its advertising campaigns whose fee goes to charity.

Any business which is willing to get involved in social causes to impress its target market should make a genuine effort genuine, as sophisticated consumers can tell when it doesn’t come across as a genuine effort

Putting it all into perspective

In the United States, the top 1% possess 40% of the wealth; it owns half of all the stocks, bonds and mutual funds.

Fickle and discriminating, these customers’ purchasing attitudes are based on personal beliefs and taste for finer things in life along with discretion. They are quite selective, know what they want and aspire to be catered to effortlessly. They seek the total customer experience along with pampering, personalized service which can include fashion consultations and exotic journeys. Best of all, they are willing to pay top money for the products and services they want.

An offline strategy requires an equal online presence. This is accomplished by placing stunning imagery, video, engaging content and constant refinements along with savvy Internet marketing to connect the brand with luxury social channels. It’s connecting with its like-minded audience.

Think brand positioning and focus on, as well as cater solely to, your core market rather than be all things to all people. Stay out of the bottom end and aspirational markets and instead, aim at the top end markets.

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The Genuine Luxury Domain and Its Country of Origin: Why the Latter Matters

Viewpoint by James D. Roumeliotis

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Made in Italy - NO in China Tag

With the proliferation of Italian and French luxury brands bearing the ‘Made in China”, ‘Made in Turkey’ or made elsewhere remote from their land of origin, it makes one ponder whether the brands are diluting their image for the sake of lower prices and higher profits. This begs us to revisit the question of what constitutes an “authentic” luxury product and whether manufacturing in a country unknown and unfamiliar for evoking luxury is a good long term strategy for the brand with heritage.

Luxury vs. Premium vs. Fashion: Clarifying the Disparity

Definitions of “luxury” vary enormously and depend on with whom you discuss the topic and in what context. The term “Luxury” has never been something easy to define. It is relative, mysterious and elusive. In essence, it revolves around subjective criteria in the mind, which creates a mood and what is generally referred to today as lifestyle.

The proliferation and marketing misuse of the word “luxury” on many products across sectors is quite evident. Brands either do it out of ignorance or to enhance the desire for the consumer to purchase their products.

Gary Harwood at HKLM, one of the founders and directors of a leading strategic branding and communication design consultancy, affirmed:

A luxury brand is very expensive, exclusive and very rare – not meant for everyone. When it ceases to be these things, then it’s lost its exclusive cachet. Commoditizing luxury brands and making them more accessible to the middle market puts them at risk of becoming ordinary, common and less desirable. And the more available a brand is, the less luxurious it becomes.”

Authentic luxury brands compete on the basis of their ability to invoke exclusivity, prestige and hedonism to their appropriate market segments not the masses. There is a classic litmus test:

  • Is the product manufactured in artificially limited quantities? (i.e. the rarity factor)
  • Does the firm have a story to tell? (i.e. history & pedigree)
  • Is the firm portraying a unique lifestyle?
  • Is craftsmanship the hallmark, which delivers products that only High Net Worth individuals can purchase without question?
  • Does the brand offer authenticity?
  • Does it implement an absolutely no discounting policy?
  • Is the product (and at least most of its materials/parts) manufactured only in its country of origin?

Luxury is not premium – and premium is not luxury. They are two dissimilar categories catering to different market segments.

France - Italy Cufflinks

Luxury Product Roots and Perception: Key Factors of Authentic Luxury

A luxury product is rooted in a culture and comes along with a small fragment of its native soil, of its heritage. This proposes that in order for a “luxury” product to remain true to its origins, as one of its main criteria, its production shall remain in the country of origin ‒ whether that is France, Italy or elsewhere (most notably in Europe). Tempting to relocate production elsewhere can cause the brand to lose its lustre and character.

Professor Jean-Noël Kapferer, an author and lecturer at the Kellogg Business School (Northwestern University, USA), as well as at HEC Paris, Europe’s premier academic research center on Luxury, clarified his views on this subject matter by stating that:

Looking at luxury companies’ own attitudes, there is a clear segmentation, based on their brand positioning and business model. A first group (such as Louis Vuitton, Hermès, Chanel) emphasize quality and heritage as the main sources of their incomparability. They are patriots. For them, a country of origin is a homeland, much like the soil in a vineyard – a miracle made of earth, nature, sun, rain, and sophisticated human labor, loaded with culture. For them, ‘made in…’ tells a whole story, tying production to a long heritage.

He further affirmed that:

“To remain a true luxury brand, following the luxury business model, entails sticking to local production. This is not an easy task for many luxury brands. Those that comply must create the conditions that are necessary to sustain this production. This is why they often buy their local sub-contractors in case the latter go bankrupt, to be sure to keep alive a historical know-how that might otherwise disappear.”

France and Italy are considered the leading countries for luxury and trend setters for clothing and accessories. Luxury watches (better known as “timepieces”) are manufactured in Switzerland ‒ the undisputed leader in this category. London, is considered to be the luxury spirit capital of the world with Burberry as the most prominent luxury brand. Whereas, Germany Italy, as well as the UK are for luxury automobiles. However, what they do produce elsewhere in the world are not ‘luxury’ but rather their lower priced “premium” derivatives (think BMW, Mercedes and Audi). Other illustrious automotive names, such as Ferrari and Rolls Royce, continue to manufacture solely in their native country.

Private vs. Public Luxury Purveyors

For the good of their distinguished image and cache, top-tier luxury brands should remain small privately held, with no pressure to sell and family run beyond the reach of speculators. These companies are managed, and their equity held, by those families. Consequently, management of brands, people and profits are done with the long term in mind, not necessarily the next quarter, which most investors would not have the patience to deal with if the luxury brand was publicly traded. In essence, the privately held have the luxury of taking risks as they desire and staying the course when they don’t. They have the freedom to invest for 5-10 years without receiving a financial return. In comparison, the publicly traded ones, which are accountable to their shareholders, are constantly under pressure to trim production costs and increase revenues and profits which lead them to cater to a larger audience ‒ the mass affluent. So much for all the elements of ‘genuine’ luxury purveyors which are doing away with scarcity and exclusivity.

The most prominent smaller and privately held ‘authentic’ luxury brands which fulfill every criteria ‘luxury’ truly exudes are as follows:

Soft Luxury Goods (high-end apparel, leather goods and exclusive fragrances) include: Hermès (70% owned/controlled by the Dumas family ‒ the descendants of its founder), Chanel (100% ownership by the Wertheimer family) and the niche perfume house, Creed Fragrance Company founded in 1760 (100% ownership by the Creed family ‒ descendants of its founder).

Hard Luxury Goods (products such as watches, jewellery and pens) include: Rolex, Chopard, Patek Philippe amongst others.

According to the Millward Brown luxury brand survey, which includes the large luxury groups, Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Gucci, Chanel, LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton), Rolex, Cartier, Fendi and Tiffany & Co. respectively, are the most successful family owned luxury brands. Moreover, research done by SDA Bocconi, renowned for providing world class luxury education, revealed that unique characteristics of most family-owned or managed business fit almost perfectly with the competitive logic of hard and soft luxury approaches. Needless to say, their management culture, retaining the mystique (crucial in the ultra-luxury domain), and long-term decision approach are all instrumental for cultivating and preserving their brand heritage.

Hermes 2014 Ad Campaign

Hermes 2013 Ad Campaign

In the Final Analysis

There should be no confusion between luxury and premium or even a fashion category. When someone buys a luxury object, he/she purchases craftsmanship, cache, pedigree, made in limited quantities, a special place in the world of lifestyle and exclusivity (made for the few). The premium business model is based on the manufacturing of best-in-class products, with an image of style. Fashion is a general term for a popular style or practice, especially in clothing, foot wear, and accessories. Fashion references to anything that is the current trend in look and dress up of a person. Usually not timeless. A “luxury” and a ‘premium” product can be both – as in a tailored made fine wool suit for example.

Therein lies the major differences between a luxury product and a premium product. It’s legitimate for a premium product to seek out the most suitable and most economical manufacturing location, so long as quality and service levels can be maintained.

Brands such as Nike, Adidas, Ralph Lauren, Hugo Boss, Tommy Hilfiger, amongst others, are doing an exceptional job of selling solely an image to the masses. Indeed, far from being a genuine ‘luxury’ brand, most of their products are manufactured in low labor countries such as China.

The ‘made in’ label plays a significant role for luxury aficionados who hold higher expectations including a value added quotient to ‘luxury’ brands who produce their products in their respective country of origin – mainly France, Italy and the U.K. For categories other than apparel and accessories, production should be elsewhere in Western Europe.

In the article “Building a Luxury Brand Image in a Digital World” by David Dubois, INSEAD Assistant Professor of Marketing and Debbie Teo, INSEAD MBA, they quote the following:

Hermès has no desire to become ‘masstige’ (a mass producer of prestige goods) the company’s CEO Patrick Thomas stated in 2009. In essence, he asserted that his brand was not in a position to dilute its image and compromise on quality in the interest of short-term results. This is truly one of very few authentic “luxury” brands befitting the model and criteria in the sense of the word.

Privately held luxury brands are prone to view business with long-term vision and remain rigid with quality over quantity. Comparatively, their publicly traded counterparts go out of their way to please their shareholders which may dilute their “luxury” status for the sake of volume and short–term gains.

Good business decisions are not the domain of tactical “bean counters” — exploiting the luxury brands for all their worth. They may also come from strategic planning and overall financial leadership.

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