Louis Vuitton’s monogrammed canvas. Burberry’s iconic tartan. Mercedes’ three-point star. All instantly recognizable icons perceived by consumers around the world as symbols of status and achievement. The acquisition of these luxury items have long been used to signal a consumer’s economic and societal position.
For decades, these icons encouraged brand loyalty and consumption by their sheer exclusivity. After all, not just anyone could afford to purchase them. The acquisition of a coveted status symbol – be it a handbag, automobile or accessory – automatically differentiated and elevated the consumer above the masses. This kept the luxury market growing for nearly a century.
But over the past several years, some things occurred that ushered in an unexpected sea change for luxury brands. It all began simply enough with the desire for luxury brands to capture a larger market share. These brands began spreading luxury to the middle classes, through lower priced “gateway” products (items like sunglasses, scarves, wallets and entry-level handbags) that still boldly advertised the brand’s logo.
Virtually overnight, every stay-at-home mom in the American suburbs or teenager in Tokyo had a Louis Vuitton “Speedy” bag on her arm. The proliferation of Dior sunglasses perched on the heads of 20-something girls in shopping malls around the world could not be missed. By the start of the 21st century, luxury was no longer only for the elite – it had reached the masses.
Then the 2008 global financial crisis hit. As if luxury’s elitist reputation wasn’t already losing its luster, financial circumstances quickly made it tacky and undesirable for consumers to flaunt their wealth as they had done in the 80s and 90s. In the austere years that followed, the appeal of conspicuous consumption dwindled. Consumers, faced with a growing backlash against vagrant displays of wealth, suddenly found themselves eschewing recognizable logos and even tearing labels off their clothes. It wasn’t that they no longer cared about luxury; they simply no longer wanted the visibility that came with it.
Giana Eckhardt, Professor of Marketing at Royal Holloway, University of London, first noticed this trend toward inconspicuous consumption in the United States and Europe. However, she realized the trend’s global scope while she was on a 2012 sabbatical in China.
Observing that her Chinese colleagues unexpectedly preferred discretion when it came to their own upscale clothing and accessories, Professor Eckhardt and two colleagues set about to find out why. They summarized their findings in The Rise of Inconspicuous Consumption, which appeared in the Journal of Marketing Management in 2015.
Professor Eckhardt recently shared her thoughts with FUSE about why today’s global consumers gravitate towards inconspicuousness and what luxury brands should consider as they move forward into a new era of consumer consumption.
FUSE: Let’s start with the U.S. What caused the trend toward inconspicuous consumption there?
In the U.S., consumers are living in the age of access, not ownership. Services like Rent the Runway and Bag, Borrow or Steal allow the consumer to borrow luxury items for a short period of time. Ownership isn’t required. Along with this convenience comes an understanding that just because you see a person with a label doesn’t mean they necessarily own it or even have the requisite means to afford it.
This concept, coupled with the fact that there are so many counterfeit products on the market today, has really changed the signaling offered by traditional luxury brands. Logos no longer signal wealth or prestige the way they once did. As a result, more sophisticated consumers – the ones who previously embraced luxury brands with recognizable logos precisely because of their association with wealth and status – are rejecting this sort of overt branding.
When you are aspirational, you need the signaling that luxury brands offer. However, after you achieve a certain socioeconomic level, that need for signaling lessens. This is even truer when the signal becomes diluted.
This isn’t to say that affluent consumers are walking away from luxury brands altogether, because they are not. These discerning consumers still want the quality that comes with a luxury item, but they want it quietly and discreetly so they opt for a style that isn’t quite so in-your-face. Perhaps they choose a less recognizable Epi leather Louis Vuitton bag or a Burberry trench coat with just a hint of plaid on the lining. In these consumers’ minds, the people that matter – their peer group or others of similar socioeconomic status – will still recognize the brand, but it becomes more of a shared secret that the general masses won’t necessarily comprehend.
FUSE: Now let’s discuss China. Tell us a little bit about the consumer consumption trends you noticed there.
Well, first it is important to understand that China is one of the most conspicuous consumption cultures in the world. The entire Asian region has always been drawn to very bold displays of luxury, and Asia is also the main market for luxury goods today.
Consumers there love logos and have always preferred them to be bigger than Western consumers ever demanded. Just consider the Ralph Lauren polo pony. What started out as a small, discreet chest image eventually took over nearly the entire front of the polo shirt for a time. Same with the Louis Vuitton “Monogram Canvas” bag which saw some fairly loud versions come onto the scene. Likewise, both Volvo and Mercedes place larger symbols on the cars they sell in some Asian markets.
So when I went to Shanghai in 2012, of course I expected to see a lot of luxury branding everywhere. What I wasn’t prepared for was the gradual shift I noticed among my colleagues. They were really starting to downplay the whole logo thing. Instead, they were opting for more discreet handbags and clothes. Seeing this play out, coupled with the trends I’d already noticed in Western cultures, I really started wondering whether there was something more there to study. That is what led to my formal research on the subject.
FUSE: What do you think caused the shift in Chinese consumption?
Well, definitely the global economic downturn between 2009-2012 influenced consumer demand. It was no longer socially acceptable to flaunt wealth, and that is exactly what heavily branded items do. So you saw consumers shying away from those products.
China, though, had something more at play. The country has always been infamous for its rampant corruption. Historically, around 50% of the average government employee’s total income came from his or her employment, and the other 50% came from corrupt sources. So you’d see government employees who, on paper, could never afford a designer watch or handbag, yet many owned them. It was pretty obvious what was going on. People just turned a blind eye to it for a long time.
But for the last two years, Chinese president Xi Jinping has made it his mission to crack down on corruption, rendering inexplicable displays of luxury and wealth in the public sector more difficult. As a result, sales of luxury goods in China have plunged. A side effect is that it has also created a culture where bragging about the things you own is no longer socially acceptable.
FUSE: Do you see this trend towards inconspicuous consumption as cyclical or long-term?
Honestly, I think this consumer movement away from overt branding is a permanent shift. I think of it as a natural evolution of how a brand is used. Today’s consumers don’t want to show off or be seen as gauche, and this is a mindset that, I believe, is here to stay. The economic climate has certainly played a part, but even as the economy rebounds and spending increases, the idea of “in-your-face” consumption just doesn’t have the attraction it once did.
Our research shows that today’s sophisticated consumers really respond more to a brand that speaks to experience, artistry or utility rather than as an aspirational signal. A perfect example is a comparison of the two Chinese luxury brands Shanghai Tang (part of Swiss luxury goods group Richemont) and Shang Xia (owned by Hermès).
Shanghai Tang primarily targets Westerners and their ideas of what Chinese luxury should look like. The designs feature a lot of brightly colored Chinese symbols and patterns. Chinese consumers don’t really gravitate toward the brand, as they see it as too loud and not exclusive enough. Yet Westerners embrace it, because they perceive the brand as sending aspirational signals to others.
Shang Xia, on the other hand, built its brand on the skill and craftsmanship of its artisans and the extremely high quality of its products. The items are quite understated yet each radiates a luxurious quality. It is hugely popular with Chinese consumers precisely because of that. There is no overt signaling going on, which makes it less appealing to those who don’t recognize the brand. In this case, that would be the typical Western consumer.
FUSE: How are luxury brands responding to this movement towards inconspicuousness?
Some brands are already onboard with the idea and have taken steps to meet changing consumer demand. Burberry, for example, is ahead of the game. They saw this trend happening and have already revamped their marketing strategies to address it. One example is how they are taking their distinctive plaid and really muting the colors and pattern. They are also making the pattern placement much more discreet wherever possible.
Another great example is the Dubai-based, luxury hotel and resort chain Jumeirah. This is a brand that has historically trended toward the opulent and overstated. However, in recent years Jumeirah has really modified their approach to focus more on the experience rather than the bricks-and-mortar. They realized their customers didn’t want to show off anymore, so they’ve made the experience more about the unique opportunities offered by each of their properties.
For example, guests in Frankfurt can enjoy tea service with honey personally collected from the hotel’s rooftop hive. This is really where and how consumers want to differentiate themselves in the future. They want to fulfill an emotional need. They want a unique experience they can talk about later, which is vastly more appealing and socially acceptable than describing the gilding in the hotel lobby.
On the other end of the spectrum there are brands that were completely caught off guard by this growing demand for inconspicuousness. For those brands that have built their entire identities on calling attention to their products, this is a harder change to implement. Companies like Swarovski, for example, are finding it difficult to restructure and respond to this shift.
FUSE: How has social media impacted the inconspicuous trend?
Great question. I think what social media has really done is allowed niche brands to become a new sort of status for media-savvy, like-minded consumers. Smaller brands that don’t necessarily have the marketing presence to go head-to-head with well-known brands can achieve exposure and reach large groups of people with similar interests effectively via social media. Without platforms like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, these brands would not have the same impact.
When followers and fans start liking and sharing images of these niche products, the brands become suddenly quite popular with those in the know. The people embracing these relatively unknown brands send subtle signals to each other, signals that are lost on the general public. This creates an aura of exclusivity where the discretion itself provides the cachet. By simply recognizing the discreet brand, a consumer gains access to the private circle.
Giana M. Eckhardt is Professor of Marketing at Royal Holloway, University of London. She was formerly on the faculty at Suffolk University, Boston and the Australian Graduate School of Management, Sydney and was recently visiting faculty at CEIBS in Shanghai. She received her B.S. in Marketing from the University of Connecticut and her Ph.D. in Marketing from the University of Minnesota. Giana has published widely in the field of consumer culture theory; in particular on issues related to consumer behavior in Asia, branding, globalization and consumer ethics. Giana has received research grants from the Australian Research Council and the Marketing Science Institute, and has worked closely with companies such as McKinsey in Asia and Dunkin’ Brands in China. She has presented her work at top institutions and conferences around the world, including at the United Nations CSR Global Forum. She teaches global marketing and brand management to MBA and executive MBA students.