In a sector full of linguistic inflation and manufactured mystique, copywriters struggle to find the right words.
Language, and by extension copywriting, has a problem when it comes to luxury.
First, there’s the word ‘luxury’ itself, now used to market everything from biscuits to toilet roll. In most supermarkets, it is possible to fill an entire trolley, presumably gold-plated, with luxury goods: Muller De Luxe Corners, Schwartz Luxury Bread Sauce Mix, Baxters Luxury Mushroom Soup, Young’s Luxury Ocean Pie, Prestige Luxury Three-Ply Toilet Tissue, Freedom Elite Luxury Kitchen Towel.
This devaluing of the word ‘luxury’ has led to the rise of alternative descriptors. There is a useful distinction between ‘premium’ and ‘luxury’ – the former is about paying more for extra features, while the latter has a value that goes beyond its functional benefits. But other distinctions are harder to work out. What is prestige and what is premium? When does prime become superprime? And what the hell is masstige? (Answer: one of those neologisms combining ‘mass appeal’ and ‘prestige’, and a sure sign that a marketing guru somewhere needed a hook for their next presentation).
Then there’s the fact that luxury is a relative concept. Easy as it is to poke fun, there’s an argument that three-ply quilted toilet tissue is indeed a luxury in a country where many struggle to pay the weekly shopping bill, and in a world where millions lack access to basic sanitation. Following this line of thought more comically, you end up at the Monty Python Four Yorkshiremen sketch. Cardboard box? Luxury! I lived in a septic tank.
But for all the shifting definitions and relativism, we still know a luxury brand when we see one. The question is how you write about it without sounding either breathless or boring. In luxury copywriting, every view is to-die-for, every texture is sumptuous, every experience is bespoke, every subclause begins with ‘thus’. Bonus luxury points if you can include the word ‘utmost’.
Superprime property marketing is the most culpable example. There was a social media backlash recently against a film for London property development One Blackfriars, which depicted a self-satisfied couple arriving in London in a private helicopter, visiting various ‘exclusive boutiques’ and ‘world-class museums’, before arriving at the ‘elegant, perfectly formed’ building where the gentleman proceeds to impress his partner with a specially commissioned scale model of the building. No doubt aiming for aspirational, the film ends up somewhere between Fifty Shades of Grey and the Ferrero Rocher ambassador’s reception.
The problem is, these superprime property briefs are everywhere. The luxury sector has grown despite (or because of) an era of proclaimed austerity – and for all the expensive production values and glamorous shoots, it’s difficult creative territory to explore. Humour is risky, often challenging exactly the social boundaries that luxury brands need to enforce. You can aim for classic British understatement, but that doesn’t necessarily work for an audience of overseas investors who, according to the prevailing wisdom, expect more glitz and glamour. Or you can try the arty route, evoking rather than selling, but that way a lot of bad poetry lies.
The best answer may be to use as few words as possible. In their book Luxury Strategy, authors Jean-Noel Kapferer and Vincent Bastien make the argument that luxury brands are essentially non-verbal, communicating through imagery and subtle social signalling, rather than rational argument and rhetoric. “The luxury brand is a universe, not a promise. The luxury brand is experiential first and foremost… it is primarily visual and sensory.”
The authors note how luxury brands come from a different cultural tradition. While many of the techniques of modern marketing originate in America and the era of hard sell – and are therefore essentially verbal in origin – luxury brands are a European creation, reliant much more on spectacle and mystique.
Nevertheless, there are examples of luxury brands using words brilliantly. “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.” There’s a simple line that turned a watch into an heirloom.
One of the most enduring commercial slogans of all time came from De Beers in 1947. “A diamond is forever” was penned by Frances Geraghty, a copywriter who has been described as the original Peggy Olson. But even that is only the second best line De Beers ever produced. Rory Sutherland, of Ogilvy Group UK, has noted the evil brilliance of the 1930s slogan: “How else could a month’s salary last a lifetime?”. Designed to sell engagement rings, it’s a deft act of ‘price anchoring’ that frames a serious financial outlay as a new social norm. The strain only began to show in the 1980s when De Beers updated it to “How else can two months’ salary last a lifetime?”
Diamonds are among many luxury goods that benefit from the Veblen effect: a reversal of the usual law of demand, where goods become desired precisely for being over-priced. The term comes from Thorstein Veblen, an American economist and sociologist who published The Theory of the Leisure Class in 1899 – the same book that gave rise to the phrase ‘conspicuous consumption’. Perhaps it’s the Veblen effect that makes copywriters uncomfortable with most luxury projects. In a discipline that is usually about the subtle application of rhetoric to persuade people to spend money, it’s hard to address an audience that is so irrationally primed to spend more than necessary.
It would be interesting to know what Veblen would make of Apple’s foray into the luxury watch market, including the $17,000 Apple Watch Edition (p26). It has been billed as a radical departure, but it may not be that great a leap for a brand that has adopted many of the techniques of luxury marketing in a mass market context: charismatic founder, highly controlled distribution and pricing, a sense of status attached to a powerful logo. The result is a $700 billion brand that cleverly manages to be both democratic and elitist. Prestige marketing for a mass audience. There should be a word for that.