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Adapt or die: 5 design principles for today's luxury brands

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The world is changing fast, and luxury consumers are changing with it. So, what should luxury brands do to adapt, and how can design help?

As a generation, we’re far better off than our parents. Millions can now afford things that were once impossible extravagances.  The global market for high-end products is greater than at any time in history.

This is a huge opportunity for luxury brands. But it’s also a huge challenge.

Until now, luxury was the preserve of the fortunate few. Luxury status was held by a handful of venerable brands, resting on the laurels of their distinguished heritage.  But in an age of mass affluence and rapid social change, the game has changed.

The democratisation of luxury means consumers must now be treated as your true brand partners and co- creators while the super rich become markets of one.

With these challenges in mind, here are five design principles to help luxury brands adapt their creative assets and messaging to stay relevant, seize new opportunities and avoid falling victim to irrelevance.

 

1. Design for self-expression

Today’s successful brands harness technology and comms to help consumers creatively express their own identities.

But by handing over greater creative control a brand’s message and design assets must be locked-down. There must be no mistaking the colours, iconography, tone of voice and visual identity of the brand.

Tiffany is a perfect example. They featured four highly individual female celebrities, including Elle Fanning and Lupita Nyong’o. Each wore Tiffany in a way that expressed her own unique style, energy and point of view, but Tiffany was always front and centre. 

 

 2. Design it personal

Globalisation and mass production mean more people can afford to own more things – and more once-exclusive brand names – than ever before. But the more things we can buy, the less they mean to us.

Luxury design is moving beyond simply creating things, and more towards unique, rare, bespoke and personalised experiences.

This allows luxury brands to empower their consumers by using fluid design and sensory assets that come alive beyond traditional media. Think beyond the visual to sound, taste, smell and touch.

For Selfridges this resulted in their Fragrance Lab a one-of-a-kind profiling experience where you leave with your own signature scent that represents your character.

 

 3. Design luxury into the everyday 

Luxury used to be reserved for ‘best.’ Rare and special things, treated with awe and kept carefully aside for special occasions. But a rising tide of affluence, combined with the rise of ‘always-on’ social media and 24-hour internet shopping, means more and more people don’t want to wait to experience luxury. They want touches of luxury here and now, in the essentials of daily life.

Design can do this. It can bring a touch of specialness to even the  most  essential items, and can make the everyday more luxurious.

Take Bailey’s, a brand Lewis Moberly helped grow into new areas through innovations like  Bailey’s Chocolat Luxe, a blend of Bailey’s Original Irish Cream and decadent Belgian chocolate. The trick is to ensure these new offers complement and enhance the core brand story. Consumers, inundated with bolt-on incremental innovations, have become more discerneing than ever.  Everyday luxury can’t be a veneer.  It still has to carry special meaning.

 

 4. Design for the cultural pulse

The world moves on at an ever-greater speed. Today, even the oldest, grandest luxury brands have to work hard to maintain the respect that was once their birthright. To stay relevant they must take the story of their heritage, craft and legacy and bring it into the cultural context of today to appeal to the new generation of customers.

Adding a touch of irreverence can immediately gain attention of a younger audience and at the same time, by contrast, give new life and relevance to a revered  pillar of the luxury establishment.

This was expertly done by Gucci in the 2019 Year of the Pig campaign, where the traditional Gucci colours, monogram and brand were overlaid with Disney’s cartoon Three Little Pigs.

 

 5. Design for social values

We live in a world where we create who we are. We use our choice of brands as markers and signifiers of the identities we create for ourselves. The balance of power is shifting from brands towards consumers, and those consumers increasingly look to brands to be vocal on social and political issues.

Some of the most successful luxury brands have come to realise that by giving a voice to and advocating the social and cultural values they share with their customers, they can grow their business.

This is something that needs to be handled with skill and sensitivity. It’s not as simple as jumping onto the latest ‘woke’ bandwagon – as some have done in recent years.  Purpose must be integral to the core brand philosophy even if that means painful self examination.

Dior understood and tapped into the attitudes of its consumers in its lobbying for gender equality, and became Insta-famous through its feminist T-shirt campaign with Jennifer Lawrence.

So, whatever area of luxury a brand operates in – apparel and accessories, jewellery and timepieces, travel and hospitality or high-end food and drink – these are design principles luxury brands simply can’t afford to ignore.  As the best can testify.

Nick Gray is strategic business partner at London-based design agency Lewis Moberly.

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