Luxury is being redefined by unprecedented socioeconomic change. The classical view of luxury seems to be fragile in the face of new technologies and aspirations. Complex polarities are emerging between demographics, with each demanding their own personalized, bespoke experience. What of ‘luxury’ is reliably unchanging, and what is emergent that brands can take advantage of?
This is a series of articles, each addressing issues defining Luxury brands now, and in the near future.
Part II: Sincerity
In the last article in this series, I discussed the idea of Sophistication and Luxury. In the final paragraph, I promised to reveal ‘where Luxury can go for safety’, away from the contentiousness of Sophistication.
Instead of being a definitive answer, I present this article as something along the way to be mindful of. It’s a nebulous concept that is so overarching and so key to understanding the future of culture, branding, advertising and design, that it cannot be ignored. In fact, this article is relevant whether you’re a marketer, business owner, creative, in or outside of luxury goods and services. It’s a big deal. However, it’s an even bigger deal for Luxury, because these rapid visual trends flatly contradict the Classicism that Luxury often clings to.
I’m calling the near future The Age of Sincerity. You could replace Sincerity for Authenticity, Responsibility, Introspection… but Sincerity seems to cut through to the heart of the intent, and is least overused. In basic terms, The Age of Sincerity is a rediscovery of Humanity at its most essential. This would be conventional, were it not for the fact that our cultures have veered so far away from our essence that they have become oppressive and stifling. Thus, now comes the reaction against it.
The evidence of this reaction is everywhere, from the thirst for freedom of place (remote working) and freedom of schedule (entrepreneurship), to an indeterminate social conscience that manifests as protest, social justice, and veganism – as just three examples.
If I were to list all the symptoms of Sincerity, I would have a book – and I do, soon to be published. But for the purposes of this article, I’ll focus on how the drive for Sincerity impacts visual culture, brands and marketing.
The role that social media plays in The Age of Sincerity cannot be overstated. Example: when portrait photography was a young technology, the sitter would adopt an austere expression, dressed in their best. A photo-shoot was a rare occasion. Now portrait photography is so ubiquitous, the ‘map’ of Humanity is larger than the ‘territory’ of Human experience: every moment is captured and uploaded forever, by everyone, everywhere.
This creates an interesting effect: everyone is an influencer; there is no fashionable ‘look’; there is no preferential bone structure; the visual representation of Humanity has been democratized, there’s no shame, and everyone is in play. The only differentiator is as screens of become smaller, those with more pronounced looks – odd features, bright vivid block colours, brash tattoos, big beards – float to the surface of our attention. Brand Sincerity is being expressed in featuring Human diversity – every skin colour and body type is represented as part of a visual democracy.
The other effect of this visual democracy is a preference for a ‘beyond the screen’/’behind the scenes’ feel – inclusive spontaneity. The time between creation, distribution and presentation of video is incredibly short, and so anything that doesn’t have the same spontaneous feel, i.e. is over-produced and slick, feels tainted with insincerity.
Another key aspect of the Sincerity trend is Social Responsibility. Sincerity craves transparent business practices, which then determines brand loyalty. This is clearly demonstrated in brands that emphasize what they do for the environment, or how little environmental impact they’re having through use of recyclable and non-toxic materials. This communicates transparency of both process and ethics: the brand communicates like a concerned citizen who passionately demonstrates how they feel about the wider world.
Another effect of social media is the ubiquity of creativity; culture as become comfortable with an unprecedented level of artistic creation. Culture’s creative output is unprecedented in its visual diversity, meaning, volume and velocity. ‘Creativity’ (video production, photo creation etc) – once exceptional – is now a normalized part of self-expression.
This is pushing creative output to be more disruptive, surprising, dramatic, confident, and passionate. Attention is currency, and ever more valuable in a crowded, creative world. When this trend is mixed with social responsibility, we see intense, aggressive, provocative marketing attempts to cut through the noise. This could be STRANGE imagery – in the case of BALENCIAGA – but also marketing that seems to take a stand, using the brand as a platform for political statement – such as NIKE.
The most essential expression of Sincerity is a desire for a deeper connection with both nature and the self. Again – using Social Media trends as the protagonist – the ubiquity of tech in our lives is creating a hunger for a reconnection with nature; silence, stillness, and calm: natural materials, natural ingredients, natural colours, organic, vegan, unprocessed, as nature intended, balanced; beautiful places, crystals, healing, wellness, mindfulness, yoga, spirituality, self care, intention. A mere decade ago, these were fringe niches. Now they have mass appeal, in perfect negative correlation with the rise in smart tech.
Sophistication is a simple equation, a balancing act between conspicuous wealth and understatement. Such as balance is easy to attain if a brand is aware its voice, story and customer.
But I really fear for established Luxury brands that fail to adapt to the unstoppable trend of Sincerity, and the rapid change in branding and marketing that it demands. There are young Challenger brands who are built by social-media natives, and adopt the rules of Sincerity instinctively – they’re wolves at the door, ready to take market share away from old institutions that cannot move as quickly.
Dream Crazier by Nike… Feminist platform…
…versus Gillette’s take on #MeToo
Sincerity is like the peacock’s features – it cannot lie. Whilst consumers will forgive a brand’s occasional misuse of the Sophistication equation, a brand will suffer grave consequences for abusing the code of Sincerity, by clumsily tacking on lip service to Authenticity. One recent case study was Gillette, who miss-used the #metoo movement to sell men’s razors. The physiology of Gillette’s brand, unlike Nike, cannot accommodate a platform for Feminism – it is so far outside of Gillette’s brand conversation, their attempt to ‘be like Nike’ resulted in patronizing its customers. The lesson: sincerity can only be sincere, and when it’s not, it amplifies the opposite effect. Larger, more established brands must think about this very deeply; reputations will be made and lost by the level to which a brand’s narrative is able to hold up in the coming Age of Sincerity.
In the third part of this series, I will talk about the LAST PLACE LEFT for luxury brands to differentiate themselves…