Thursday, October 29, 2009

Where's Luxury?

Fear and savings are up. Consumer confidence teeters. We turn on the TV and hear media talk of the shame of the luxury goods buyer, now hiding newly purchased hi-end extravagances in discount store shopping bags.

If marketers looked closer and listened harder, they would realize that something else is afoot: Frugality is not antithetical with Luxury. Let me explain.

Marketing strategists ultimately define a luxury by its price tag. As a cognitive anthropologist, I’ve been out and about in this downturned economy talking with people about, What’s life like, nowadays? I am not simply seeking answers as to what people buy or don’t buy. When you give people the time and leeway – and respect – to talk about their lives, not as a consumer, but as a person, you hear the mundane eloquence and simple complexity of real life lived by real human beings.

In this context, two types of narrative encountered are:

1. More Meaning-Seeking: “I must be more selective in what I buy and what I buy into. I want things now that will show me my heart.”

2. More Authenticity: “I’ve wanted to buy a great fountain pen for as long as I can remember, but I never have until now. Despite the economy or maybe because of it, I thought I should buy one now. I did and I’m so happy. It feels so sensual, so luxurious in my hand. I think better writing with it. It helps me get down to my deepest thoughts and feelings. I find ‘me’ with this pen in my hand.”

That’s the real experience of luxury, no matter what a product costs. A luxury experience takes you beyond yourself. It makes you feel more of you. It provides a venue for you recognizing or elaborating something latent in you that has not yet been made manifest.

A luxury experience makes your familiar, novel. A paradox: It provides for a surprise and it “fits” you. That’s the best!

In today’s culture, time is speeded up, unpredictability has ascended, competition for scarce resources is the name of the game. Life is hard. We are aging more rapidly even though our life span is increasing.

America is between mythologies. We are not what we once were. We do not yet know what we will become. In this transitional phase, the American ethic of self-expansion is still strong, but in some way, “having” is being replaced by “being”. Accumulation is being over-ridden by authenticity and the quest for meaning. The quest for more of “me”. That is a necessary luxury.


by Bob Deutsch

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