Luxury: The Business of Selling Dreams


Duke Greenhill | September 19, 2012

Duke Greenhill, founder & CEO of Greenhill Partners, details the three core differences between mass and luxury marketing

Duke Greenhill, founder & CEO of Greenhill Partners, details the three core differences between mass and luxury marketing

“Why would I need to know how the watch industry is doing? I’m in the luxury business,” the CEO of Rolex once famously quipped. Though exaggerated, the proclamation is revealing: the luxury category is unlike any other, utterly unique, existing for reasons all its own. So, too, is the marketing of it.

Most non-luxury brands succeed because they are marketed in terms of the problems they solve. These are their reasons for being. This t-shirt whisks sweat away to keep you cooler. This sweetener gives you the taste without the calories. This car gets more miles to the gallon so you spend less on over-priced gas.

“ Most non-luxury brands succeed because they are marketed in terms of the problems they solve, their reasons for being ”

Not so in the business of luxury. No one wears a Burberry trench coat merely to stay warm. No one buys Dom Perignon just because they’re thirsty. And no one forks over two hundred grand for a Bentley simply to get from point A to point B.

No. Luxury products exist for a much less rational reason. Therefore, the marketing of them must be much more emotional. In short, mass marketing is the business of selling reality. Luxury marketing is the business of selling dreams.

So how does this fact translate into luxury brand marketing? These three core differences between marketing to the masses and marketing to luxury consumers are a good place to start…

1. Fantasy vs Reality

The vast majority of mass marketing products and services promote themselves in terms of the problems they solve in the real world. Conversely, luxury brands are exclusively marketed through messages meant to make the consumer dream of a different world.

A world where they’re sexier, more powerful, more content. Consider these two famous automotive campaigns, one from a mass-market brand, the other one, luxury.

The first is the “Think Small” campaign for VW by Doyle, Dane, and Bernbach in 1959. With copy like, “32 miles to the gallon,” “5 pints of oil instead of 5 quarts,” and “squeeze into a small parking spot,” the marketing clearly succeeded with a focus on the product’s real-world problem-solving value.

The second is the from a 2007 Mercedes Benz campaign by Merkley + Partners, which asks the consumer to imagine a fantasy where they are a “hero,” and then suggests that owning an S-Class can make you become one.

Cartier’s US Homepage during Labour Day Weekend

2. Emotion vs Reason

Dreams are inherently emotive. They are completely illogical, emotional experiences based on circumstances and environments that do not really exist. They are purely inventive, and forgo reason and reality in order to conjure emotions that are not otherwise experienced in the real world. This is the playing field of a luxury brand. This is the currency of fantasy.

As we’ve seen, mass-market brands are purveyors of reality. They focus almost exclusively on the real world and on real world solutions. Therefore, they use logic and reason to hawk their wares. It’s important to note here that mass-market brands do, of course, employ emotional marketing messages, and from time to time, luxury brands engage in rational marketing. But on the whole, luxury operates in a realm of emotion, and mass-market brands, in a realm reason.

Consider the Labour Day weekend designs of the Cartier and Zales homepages. Cartier ignores completely that it’s a major shopping holiday in their primary market (the U.S.). Instead, they lead with an utterly evocative message equating their product with the most coveted emotion of all: true love. Zales, on the other hand, ignores emotion all together and focuses strictly on reason: bargains, discounts, getting the best “real-world” deal.

Zales’ US Homepage during Labour Day Weekend

3. Yearning vs Satisfaction

The purpose of all marketing is to create “want.” Whether the brand is Chanel or Levi’s, the goal is to make consumers desire the product. When it comes to luxury brands versus mass-market brands, the difference is found within the nature of that desire.

Luxury marketing performs best when it conjures a yearning in consumers – a deep, quiet rumbling of desire that gestates, almost imperceptibly, and grows until the consumers decide they must have the product, even if they don’t quite understand why.

Mass-market brands, on the other hand, perform best when their marketing conjures a completely conscious and recognizable desire. Unlike the want generated by luxury marketing, which thrives on emotion and fantasy and can therefore never be sated, the desire generated by mass marketing is most effective when it’s designed specifically with consumer satisfaction in mind. Again, mass marketing depends on solving problems.

Prada presents ‘A Therapy’

Consider these two online marketing videos, one from Prada, the other from Old Navy. The Prada video, entitled “A Therapy,” stars Ben Kingsley and Helena Bonham Carter, and is directed by Roman Polanski. The video centres on a women’s purple, fur jacket that the Kingsley character becomes inexplicably fixated on.

In short, the video is about an impossible yearning that the Kingsley character could likely never satisfy in his real life. The yearning, perhaps, to wear women’s clothes, and certainly, a yearning that ties in well with the “Prada suits everyone” campaign slogan.

The Old Navy video does the exact opposite. It deliberately conjures no emotion and focus exclusively on reason: one-dollar flip-flops… a deal not to be missed. Unlike the Prada video, which centres on showing a yearning, the Old Navy video comes right out and tells the viewer his or her desire in it’s voice-over (“You need a pair for every pedi[cure]”).

The tactical differences are stark: Prada creates a yearning that most people are not bold enough to ever have; Old Navy creates a desire for which satisfaction is just a dollar and sandal away.

To further investigate marketing and communications on Luxury Society, we invite your to explore the related materials as follows:

- What Instagram Means for Luxury Brands
- Luxury Fashion Brands Using Cinema Directors in Video
- What Makes for a Successful Luxury Re-Brand?

Duke Greenhill

Founder / CEO

Duke is a leading creative and strategist for luxury digital marketing and branding. With a focus on authentic brand narratives (the "stories" of brands), Duke has become recognized as an innovative, strategic and creative professional with the unique ability to drastically increase the value of luxury brands as business assets. From Hollywood to the White House to Ivy League halls and Madison Avenue, Duke's experience and success in virtually ever media arena has taught him how to develop authentic, effective campaigns, and has led him to founding New York City's premiere luxury brand-specific consultancy, Greenhill + Partners. He has created over 300 award-winning campaigns, produced three independent feature films, and written on assignment for publications like the New York Times, The Atlanta-Journal Constitution, The Harvard Review, Media Maker Magazine, Filmmaker and many others. He has won Telly awards, Pollie awards, MTV awards and a film-short Academy Award nomination. As a chief creative at Washington, D.C.'s, illustrious Stevens Reed Curcio & Potholm media agency, Duke worked on prestigious presidential and corporate image campaigns. As the principal producer for In Media Res Films, he produced and marketed Hollywood films. And as founder and executive creative director of Greenhill + Partners, Duke has worked in front of and behind the scenes on campaigns for such lauded clients as Chanel, Ritz-Carlton, the Government of Monaco, Adidas, Fairmont Hotels, HBO, countless fashion and hospitality brands and many more. Duke is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin's school of Communications (Bachelors), and Columbia University's Graduate School of Film and Media (Masters).