Do you think we’re wising up to brands somewhat over-selling themselves?
I do think there’s an increasing number of people who are like me. Let me give you an example. I recently decided I needed to get a meat slicer and once you start to look into it becomes apparent very quickly that, well, yes, there’s how much things cost, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re that much better. You have to decide what the key things are that really matter when it comes to a meat slicer. And when you do that all the puffery becomes very clear too.
Do you think we’re getting smarter as consumers?
I think the last 25 years has seen a movement towards more [product] knowledge. Pre-WW2 there was a tiny group of luxury consumers who had a relationship with luxury goods that meant they knew enough to be in dialogue with the maker, so what emerged had a bit of them in it. Jump to the 1960s, 1970s [and] 1980s and all the millions of new consumers came from a position of very little knowledge at all. That was the transformation of luxury to what it is now, with money spent on marketing because marketing meant you could indicate to those consumers who you couldn’t know individually why they should buy you. But after they’d bought a few things, a lot of those consumers fell out of love with the brands and learned a lot more. It’s true there are always those people who do a lot more research just as there are those who care very little and just want the kudos from buying this or that [brand]. But I think brands under-estimate that growing knowledge at their peril. With the over-expansion of flagship stores and logos and all that, no doubt there was a backlash. We’re in a more subtle world now with people passionate about individuality. And how they buy into household name brands, or not, is a much more subtle process too.
Twenty or so years ago you came up with the idea of the “discernment curve”. What do you mean by that?
Look at different luxury consumers in different markets, some more mature than others, and what you see is a growing interest in knowing more about the brands and their substance, but also very strong cultural influences. We came up with this notional watch that had all the attributes of a highly complicated Swiss-made watch, but this one was made in China. The luxury consumers in the UK and France, for example, showed some interest, but the ones in China gave it a big thumbs down. I think if we repeated that now there would be quite a bit of interest in China. At that stage I predicted that the discernment in the luxury market would overtake the increase in wealth – the wealth would be the fuel you put in the engine [of the luxury market], as it were, but the discernment was the chips in its electronics, and it’s now very much the chips that drives the market. Even the big brands are having to think about what they need to do to appeal to these little groups and sub-groups and not get it wrong.