Consumer attraction, engagement and loyalty are arguably the three sacred pillars of brand success. In this two-part series, Stylus identifies the assorted rites, rituals and culture clubs crucial to the connection.
As shared interests begin to trump traditional demographics, expressive cultural connections are becoming key to boosting luxury brand relevancy and avoiding the pitfalls of ubiquity unleashed by digital retail.
From ritualistic retail to covert commerce, here we will reveal new strategies for cultivating fans, driving addiction and re-establishing rarity.
“ Expressive cultural connections are becoming key to boosting luxury brand relevancy ”
Part 1 will examine the following four trends in detail:
Tribalism Over Demographics: Globe-spanning digital culture, including social media, is accelerating consumer tribalism – increasingly rendering shared interests and personality types more significant for retailers than traditional demographics such as age. Trading on shared passions is especially relevant to affluent or aspirational consumers now seeking more meaningful connections from luxury brands.
Cultivating Brand-Fan Tribes: Understanding how to tap into the growing landscape of socialised, community-driven retail is increasingly key to gaining traction (online and off), particularly with future consumers. From new-gen fanzines to flagships conceived as temples, smart luxury brands are consciously creating platforms primed to incite cult-like followings.
Insider Access: Cult Followings & Collectibles: From travelling retrospectives to social media teasers, cleverly mediated access to visionary brand figureheads and their previously inaccessible worlds are helping shrewd luxury brands build fandoms capable of establishing products as covetable, collectible brand souvenirs.
Ritualistic Retail Drives Gen ‘Me’ Brand Addiction: According to multinational advertising agency Havas Worldwide, 58% of global, early adopter ‘prosumers’ would now prefer to borrow or rent products than own them (May 2014). Reflecting this shift from outright ownership to temporary leasing, future luxury retail must convey ‘feeling’ richer as much as ‘owning’ richer. Ritualistic retail concepts that indivisibly meld product with participatory experiences are feeding consumers’ increasingly self-centric desire to make their own mark – and sparking long-term brand addiction.
“ Visionary luxury brands are tapping into the appetite for kinship with carefully mediated vistas into their privileged worlds ”
Driven by trans-global, social-media fuelled communications and online communities, shared interests have become an increasingly critical part of the retail landscape. Visionary luxury brands are tapping into this appetite for kinship with sophisticated, carefully mediated vistas into their privileged worlds, designed to cultivate loyal fandoms. Key formats for such extended brand consumption include exhibition-style ‘introspectives’, fanzines and stores conceived as temples.
- Welcome to the Inner Circle
Leading the fandom charge with a crowdsourced concept based on ‘affirmation seduction’ (the allure of feeling ‘in the know’) is British fashion label Burberry’s ongoing ‘Art of the Trench’ initiative, launched in 2009. Fans are encouraged to upload images of themselves wearing Burberry trenches to its website, via Facebook. These succeed initial images shot by renowned US photo-blogger Scott Schuman – shrewdly using consumers’ burgeoning narcissism, specifically the seductive promise of self-promotion, to propagate the brand itself.
Nicola Formichetti, artistic director of Italian label Diesel, founder of luxury unisex clothing line Nicopanda, and leading innovator in new media communications – launched a temporary cyberpunk-influenced store-meets-fan hub in New York for Christmas 2013, which paid homage to his roots in London’s cult 90s club scene. The store included a production studio, where visitors could create digital portraits or sharable social media content – echoing Formichetti’s recent campaign strategy #DieselReboot, where Diesel fans were invited to co-create content.
Louis Vuitton Series 2 travelling exhibition
- Archive Attractions
Self-referential initiatives, especially those that reboot heritage with fresh, insider-only details, are engaging a new wave of connected consumers hungry for knowledge and expectant of increased brand access (courtesy of social media).
Louis Vuitton’s Series 2 – a travelling exhibition that hit LA in February 2015 – trades on accessing the Parisian brand’s creative director Nicolas Ghesquière via staged vistas onto his creative vision and unseen slices of the brand’s backstory. Set within a Hollywood warehouse, highlights include holographic installations, a showcase of archived accessories and 360-degree projections of the new collection within a hall of mirrors.
Shrewdly acknowledging fan-power and coalescing the brand’s high-end stance with transient pop-culture whimsy, visitors can take away souvenir stickers depicting everyday items such as hair dryers and headphones featuring a print from the collection. “Fashion shows are amazing, but they are for a small amount of people," commented Ghesquière.
“ Cult brands require cult leaders – original visionaries that inspire long-term loyalty ”
In April 2015, Italian fashion megabrand Armani unveiled Silos Armani – a former factory space in the brand’s spiritual home, Milan – hosting a permanent exhibition of designer Giorgio Armani’s archive designs and sketches, as well as the brand’s new HQ and external exhibitions.
Cult brands require cult leaders – original visionaries that inspire long-term loyalty. US fashion designer Rick Owen’s eponymous label is renowned for flagship stores featuring near-messianic statues of the man himself, while the interior of Californian jewellery designer Irene Neuwirth’s LA flagship, launched in 2014, is based on her own home – a subtle, but equally sure nod to the cult of the personality.
- Reframing the Fanzine
Fashion brands Acne, Louis Vuitton and Kenzo (Swedish and French respectively) all have brand magazines formulated as premiumised fanzines designed to magnify their cultural kudos and stature as arbiters of taste. Kenzo’s is even dubbed Kenzine, and boasts a restricted 1,500 copy run to augment exclusivity. Echoing Louis Vuitton’s Series 2 stickers, use of the printed format in a highly digitised culture reinforces their role as collectible brand mementoes.
“ For the uninitiated, houses are an educational journey into the heritage and craft of the brand ”
- Culture Clubs Tap the Knowledge Economy
British watch brand Bremont’s new flagship in New York; Hedonism wines and Dunhill tobacconist in Mayfair, London; Etc Wines in Hong Kong (owned by Chinese wine distributor Altaya); and whisky brand Johnnie Walker’s ‘Houses’ in Seoul, Shanghai and Beijing all position themselves as temple-like venues. All host platforms, from lecture evenings (Bremont) to tasting suites (Hedonism, Etc Johnnie Walker) – core congregation destinations that boost their aspect as educational hubs with cultural, contextual depth.
Chris Lee, founder of Singaporean architects Asylum, which designed the Johnnie Walker houses, told Stylus: “For the uninitiated, houses are an educational journey into the heritage and craft of the brand. For fans, it’s a place where you celebrate your shared passion – a place where we convert consumers into brand ambassadors.”
Less traditional, but equally aficionado-heavy luxury formats are deployed by premium US sportswear brands Kith and Jordan Heads. Already highly invested in the premise of fan culture (in this case, sneakerheads), they illustrate the value of store-venues in cultivating obsessional behaviour.
Jordan Heads sneaker installation
Brooklyn-based Jordan Heads is a resales store devised as a place for fans to congregate and resell cult models in person, while NY-based Kith similarly serves as a meeting place, helmed by a homage-based sneaker installation.
“A store can act as a focus for this culture/community – celebrating and offering knowledge of its history and heritage, even helping to validate products outside of the usual online media hype,” says Nathan Gale, British art director and co-founder of trainer blog, Art & Sole.
- Multi-Brand Fandoms
Malls, too, can exploit this tactic. Fashion Mall in Rio has instigated Fashion Mondays – a weekly event where Livraia Cultura, its lynchpin bookstore, hosts mall-wide lectures on fashion, style, politics, economics and lifestyle – pitching itself as a beacon for cultural congregation. Village Mall in Rio also hosts exclusive seminars and gatherings, notably based not around consumption itself, but fashion specialists – transferring the insider-authority of business-to-business communications to a consumer audience.
“ The premise of ritualistic retail focuses on shared, but also self-centric, immersive experiences ”
While the concepts in Cultivating Fandoms are based on creating destinations that incubate fan congregations, the premise of ritualistic retail focuses on shared, but also self-centric, immersive experiences within those platforms to drive brand addiction. Indulgent, ceremonial processes that inextricably meld product and experience are feeding longer-lasting brand-fan relationships – especially relevant to affluent consumers already attuned to connoisseurship.
“Participatory processes provide much more than the traditional idea of transactional satisfaction, because they prolong and deepen the experience; the anticipation, the build-up, then the memory all sustain desire in a way material products alone no longer can,” says Mair. “Additionally, rituals allow the crucial aspect of participation and personalisation that ‘Gen Me’ consumers now expect, while allowing brands to keep the products themselves ‘sacred’, thus maintaining their authority.”
- Multi-Tiered Immersion Deepens Connection
Launched in 2013, the Dunhill tobacconist in Mayfair, London is a reboot of a century-old heritage retailer that celebrates product and expertise within a members’ club environment, underpinned by ritualistic behaviour. The tobacco is presented like fine jewellery in cases featuring magnifying glasses, while the venue includes a cigar lounge that extends into an events space, one-to-one access with the master blender and, for a price, access to personal humidors. It was devised by British branding agency, Household Design.
“ Stores conceived as venues for hosted, guided experiences trade both on the bond of like-minded consumption ”
“Tiers are crucial,” Michelle du Prat, Household Design’s consumer experience director, told Stylus. “Consumers see the product; they enjoy the sensory rituals of smoking together and then dive deeper via private humidors or master blender. It constitutes a very ritualistic, addictive experience that’s resulted in 85% conversion plus 390% uplift in sales month on month since launch.
“Women, too [the store was traditionally male-oriented] are starting to use the space to create their own rituals, which is indicative of a shift towards personality types rather than demographics,” she adds. “The latter terminology now feels quite high street.”
- Hosted Experiences
Stores conceived as venues for hosted (guided) experiences trade both on the bond of like-minded consumption and the slow satisfaction of ceremonial process.
Paper & Tea, Berlin
Paper & Tea in Berlin hinges on the modern translation of an ancient process – making tea – mixing artistry and cultural education. Teas are arranged according to their level of oxidation, staff are expert ‘tea sommeliers’, and the brand regularly hosts specialised, participatory tasting sessions.
Louis Vuitton’s Place Vendome jewellery boutique in Paris includes a facility where consumers can pick their own gemstones, integrating themselves into the production process.
- Social Seduction
Partly self-guided rituals with an overtly social complexion cross the border into hybrid retailing – indicative of a wider retail shift from stores towards lifestyle destinations. The Johnnie Walker Houses replicate the workings of the brand’s original distillery, but also feature a bar, blending suite, members-only whisky vaults and a museum, rendering it the ultimate activity-oriented clubhouse. In UK department store Selfridges, tasting rituals that begin in its Wine Shop (relaunched in 2014) lead to purchases that can be drunk in the adjacent Harry Gordon’s space, blurring the boundaries between retail and hospitality.
“ Extending the process beyond the retail venue further establishes the atmosphere of a co-authored experience ”
- Pleasure of the Extended Process
Extending the process beyond the retail venue itself – before or after the official retail juncture – further establishes the crucial atmosphere of a co-authored experience. Independent cosmetics store Haeckels in Margate, southern England, creates bespoke fragrances based on items visitors collate themselves – from rosebush buds to pencil shavings.
Meanwhile, French fragrance brand Le Labo’s scents are hand-blended and prepared in front of consumers’ in-store. Each decanter is dated, with the consumer required to allow the perfume to marinate for a week before use.
“The rite of passage for luxury was to actually identify the passage and buy the product; now there’s a reification there that’s connected to rituals,” Jon Wilson, professor of marketing and branding at Greenwich University, UK, told Stylus. “It’s about tapping into the facets that make us human because, ultimately, the nature of luxury is such that excess is at its heart, and excess is an emotional trait that we have to manage.”
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