WØRKS Growthby Design Hero

Luxury brands have had a prosperous decade, but as things have slowed lately*, we’re stripping away the verbosity that comes with market expansion, and asking ourselves… what is the true essence of luxury? How can we define it, today, right now? And more importantly: as designers, strategists and thinkers, how can we convey that to an audience? After a discussion with our friend and strategist Tom Dietrich*, we came to some interesting findings.

There is, to us, a singular concept that underpins all subsequent expla­na­tions: access.

Luxury is simply, access.

Access to products, services or experiences. And like any rela­tion­ship of opposites, access can really only exist through its restriction. Gaining this access elicits the emotional response* that we define as luxury.

The con­ven­tion­al paradigm of luxury, dating back to just after the French Revolution*, where crafts­man­ship, provenance, and time justified elevated price points, is no longer the only narrative. Not every brand has the storied legacy or skilled artisans of Hermes or Loewe. As we entered the information age, we invented new forms of luxury — by means of access — because the old paradigm initially couldn’t keep up with the speed of culture.

By studying how brands in the luxury brand space use and portray different forms of access, we can understand the landscape, and better speak to luxury audiences in the coming years*.

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Brands know that luxury as access manifests in many forms: it might mean entry into an exclusive social circle, access to privileged information, or immersion into a novel way of thinking and living. Today, brands in the luxury space know that the quality of their identity is just as important as the quality of their products.

As we move further* into digital-only worlds, it’s more important for brands to control and convey how that access is granted. Brand com­mu­ni­ca­tions are the gateway, showing audiences how they can access the essence of your brand.

Let’s put this into more concrete terms.

If crafts­man­ship is the soul of your brand, the design process must be exalted. The afore­men­tioned Hermes is a great example of this.

On the other hand, if discretion defines your brand, a measured approach to com­mu­ni­ca­tion makes more sense. A brand like The Row proves this point.

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By looking at things this way, we can make sense why brands like Hermes and The Row show up the way they do. Down to the way they showcase products, their Instagram strategy, and even their typography choices.

We’ve devised a framework for these access playbooks” employed by con­tem­po­rary luxury brands. Brands can be organized into four quadrants based primarily on styles of access and their accom­pa­ny­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion strategies, but inevitably linked also to brand and product char­ac­ter­is­tics. This type of framework helps identify archetypes, categorize brands, and ultimately find strategic ways to grow the luxury brands.

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Product vs Identity

A brand’s com­mu­ni­ca­tion strategy defines what the audience is gaining access to. Product driven brands focus on roman­ti­ciz­ing the artisans and crafts­man­ship behind the product. These brands leverage their storied legacy and unique approach to craft, and the object itself is paramount. Contrarily, identity driven brands entice audiences with the lifestyle surrounding their products, building a world of taste. Less tangible, but just as potent. All brands occupy some mix of these two ideas to varying degrees.

Tra­di­tion­al­ists vs Mavericks

Tra­di­tion­al­ists present their products according to accepted and historic tropes of luxury: crafts­man­ship and time. Often, these brands operate on a more traditional (slower) timeline as well, and champion a right way to do things.” Mavericks operate on their own terms — outside of the traditions of luxury. Whether through product drops or subversive marketing efforts, these brands often go against the grain and disrupt the way we have come to think about luxury.

Crafts­man­ship Model (Hermes + Rolex + Loewe)

In this traditional playbook, crafts­man­ship is at the core of the brand and com­mu­ni­ca­tions. Access comes in the form of rare goods, crafted by skilled artisans that only brands with a storied legacy can create. This sector is all about product, and those whose lifestyle reflects this brand’s ideals are given access to its goods and services.

  • Char­ac­ter­is­tics: History is at the core of crafts­man­ship, aspi­ra­tional Living and product Driven (the IT bag, like the Birkin)
  • Products: Highest quality and crafts­man­ship, goods maintain value because they are perceived as treasured objects, and targeted toward a consumer that is not as price conscious
  • Access: To the history, class, and most importantly: the product
  • Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Strategy: Romanticize the craft 
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New Mastery Model (Cristaseya + Acronym + Chrome Hearts)

These brands produce high quality goods for a niche community of enthusiasts and cultural creators. They operate on their own schedule, dis­trib­ut­ing products when they see fit and often through word of mouth, or less traditional marketing means. They explore non-traditional means of creating garments — mastering these new techniques. This hyper fixation and passion breeds an equally passionate community.

  • Char­ac­ter­is­tics: Your favorite artist’s favorite designer, product rarity, by appointment only
  • Products: Subtle branding, high quality materials, but using them in new ways and products are released outside of the traditional hype cycle
  • Access: Product remains important, but the real value here is giving access to information
  • Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Strategy: Word of mouth, and direct to an Artist or niche influencer, well connected, and transcends hype cycle 
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Social Club Model (The Row + Phoebe Philo + Off White)

Brands in this quadrant focus on the specific lifestyle surrounding the designer, or head of the brand. They’re often propped up as an icon or deity, and access to them is limited to a select few. Operating this way results in intrigue and projects the image of an intimate social circle. The audience buys into these brands, hoping to gain access to this exclusive club.

  • Char­ac­ter­is­tics: Discretion to build intrigue, not par­tic­u­lar­ly inviting, mysterious and built around designer’s identity
  • Products: Timeless quality, discrete branding and low price elasticity
  • Access: To a social club, being a part of a select group of individuals that exude the qualities of the founder
  • Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Strategy: Building enigma, little reference to the product, more on the lifestyle surrounding it to build intrigue
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Cult Model (Thom Browne* + Rick Owens + CDG)

This quadrant focuses on a specific way of thinking, which is projected into the world through product design, experiences and com­mu­ni­ca­tion strategy. It pushes against traditional luxury, creating an immersive world where new norms are explored. It’s often an all-or-nothing aesthetic, restricting access from those who aren’t willing to take the plunge.

  • Char­ac­ter­is­tics: Often a uniform: come as a set to be worn together, push against a societal norm, and products stretch across all categories
  • Products: Timeless quality, discrete branding and low price elasticity
  • Access: Limited by the commitment deemed necessary to join, through indoctrination
  • Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Strategy: Singularly focused world building, irreverent to society
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Using the Framework

We encourage you as the reader to take part in the same thought exercise. Which of these placements feels right? Which don’t? The thinking and jus­ti­fi­ca­tion is as important as the placements themselves.

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At its core, a strategy for con­tem­po­rary luxury needs to be clear on the access it promises. This framework helps us think about those access strategies deeper, allowing us to define our own playbook. In researching and writing this post, it soon became clear to us that this is just the tip of the iceberg. Within each quadrant lie vastly different paths — a diverse collection of brands that define their own forms of access.

As creative pro­fes­sion­als, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the luxury space, we’re often entrenched in the stories our clients want to tell. While that remains important, it can be helpful to balance that thinking with how audiences wish to receive those stories.

Photography by Cecilia Poupon*
Written In Col­lab­o­ra­tion with Tom Dietrich*