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luxury, desire, and pain

I'm involved in a heated discussion among luxury-focused professionals on LinkedIn. The question we're approaching relates to typical failures in luxury retail customer service. The general consensus among most is that customer service personnel should, in a phrase, cater hand and foot to everyone who walks in. After all, they argue, you cannot tell just by looking at people whether they are your target customer. 

Note the implied syllogism: "Anyone can be our customer, so we must make them all happy from the moment they walk in." 

Luxury marketing, however, makes this seemingly logical conclusion incorrect.

I think the important point for luxury brands has to do with desire, which implies a distance. That distance can be "distance between one's reality and the brand's fantasy", or "distance between one's power and the brand's power as expressed in the store," and many nuanced variations. This distance - which CREATES desire - is essentially painful. It is what creates immense delight when that distance is overcome; for example, when you finally walk out of the store with a $5K LV bag. The brand does not exist without desire, with distance, and without pain.

Power distance, individualism, culture, and pain

A useful analysis of power distance in culture - across cultures - is to ask, in which countries is there large power distance? Do these countries produce luxury goods generally, or desire them? Why? Check out this excerpt (thanks to Google Books).

Power distance in many developed countries such as the United States and Germany is moderate. In Asian countries, it is high. This is in part cultural, and in part economic. This relates directly to how and why people spend money on luxury items. Check out this excerpt. (Interesting sections follow on Country of Origin effect, by the way.)

If you think this power distance construct isn't useful for figuring out your luxury strategy, take a look at this:

Notice where France lies in the chart. Now, in analyzing the Brazilian company Natura's strategy in entering France to sell its cosmetics and lotions, do you think Natura would be well-advised to consider that contrast in power distance between Brazil and France? 

Power distance is not just imposed from above, either. We unconsciously adopt that construct in our own societies; it is a core belief. In fact, some researchers call the phenomenon "power distance belief." You don't want to offend your customers by violating their beliefs, do you? Then perhaps you should reconsider your attempts to overcome the power distance between you and a customer. Interesting, odd conclusion: Perhaps that distance is affirming of your customer. (This analysis applies to all kinds of consumer brands.)


Now, pain is negative, right? 

My answer is, yes it is, and no it is not. That is, the right kind of pain makes the brand both desirable and memorable (unique). The wrong kind of pain (from failed service experiences) is to be avoided. But it does not follow that any service experience that is free of pain is a good service experience. In fact, it is plainly wrong that this is the case. 

1. If all luxury stores catered perfectly to customers to avoid a painful experience, their in-store experiences would be undifferentiated. Given, as you say, that the associate and the retail store is often the face of the brand, then such painless experiences are a waste of money. If everyone kisses everyone, you might as well be kissing no one. 

2. The pain one feels in a luxury store should focus on desire; if the customer enters the store and does not feel an almost painful level of desire to participate in the brand, something has failed. Think of the goal as "almost kissing." 

3. The differentiable elements of the in-store experience should be on-brand, and in fact the brand should be defined in large part based on how target customers will respond emotionally (affectively), cognitively (rationally), and conatively (driven to act). So, compare perfumes that appeal to sexuality vs elegance. Both are perfumes. But the brands, and the stores, should elicit responses in the customer that generate "pain" (distance between customer and brand) in different ways. One brand asks, "Are you sexually powerful enough to follow through when you wear this perfume?" The other brand asks, "Are you elegant enough to cause others to desire your world-view and lifestyle? If so, this perfume is yours." 

This notion of pain being a positive element in an experience design seems counterintuitive, but that's because our intuitions were developed when we were quite young, when pain is bad and pleasure is good. Pain was useful then as a way of determining what was safe. But as we grow up, without realizing it, we replace this hedonic view of the world with another view, one that Victor Frankl might characterize as driven by meaning. Pain and suffering, caused by a desire to participate in a brand's vision or essence (which by implication we do not currently participate in), is made meaningful through a purchase - and sometimes display - of a product. 

The meaning in our lives that we attempt to create in a luxury purchase can be generally broken down into two characteristics: the quantity of power distance we overcome in the purchase; and the amount of knowledge needed for others to decode the meaning of the purchase. Stew on those two variables for awhile, and I expect you'll discover a whole range of strategies for your luxury brands.

Training for luxury differentiation

How would you train customer service personnel to generate distance between the customer and the two perfumes mentioned above?  The question becomes:

For each brand, how do you accent the sexual (or elegance) power distance between the prospective customer and the brand while in the retail store? How do you show the prospective customer that people who "really know" perfumes, sexuality (or elegance), and personal power will understand - and even desire - what this brand represents? 

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