GENEVA, Switzerland — What defines us? At the risk of oversimplifying, being is a combination of doing and having. Yet, many companies would have us believe it all hinges on what we buy.
Luxury goods companies are certainly no exception, but with a twist: they thrive on the perception of exclusivity. To put it bluntly, their message is this: buy this product from us even though (or perhaps because) it is many times pricier than what the hoi polloi can buy, and you will be special because you have something that very few people do.
Indeed, the impression being promoted by the industry is that its products are desirable because they are rare, and because they are rare they deserve a hefty premium. And the heftier the premium, the fewer the number of people who can afford them, making them rarer and even more desirable – and so the circle goes.
It is quite a wonder that the entire luxury industry rests on this fundamental principle — even though it mass produces leather handbags, silk scarves and a plethora of other products every season. Indeed, the modern luxury industry has perfected the art of selling exclusivity by the millions of units.
Gucci has been pulling off an even more phenomenal feat recently. It has grown organically at roughly 40 percent to 50 percent for a year and a half now, a blistering pace unprecedented for such a massive brand. What’s the secret to its success?
At its Capital Markets Day last month, chief executive Marco Bizzarri turned the concept of luxury as exclusivity on its head. Given how big some brands have become — Gucci being a case in point — he said focusing on exclusivity would be self-limiting. He spoke instead of a younger generation of consumers that wants to belong to a tribe, while being able to express their own individuality. In short: inclusivity is the new exclusivity.
The modern luxury industry has perfected the art of selling exclusivity by the millions of units.
This is not just talk. The group has been investing accordingly in a new store concept that promotes customer inclusivity. This could involve, for instance, making it much easier for customers to touch and feel its products in-store, rather than maintaining a physical distance between them. The latter is, of course, part of a multi-pronged strategy built on that longstanding principle: people only want what they can’t get.
The brand has also rolled out an eclectic range of products that cater to one and all. These range from its classic monogram bags for the conservative Japanese lady to its rule-bending “Guccy” handbags favoured by bloggers looking to raise some eyebrows. This is certainly one form of inclusivity, though the price tags remain decidedly less so.
But is inclusivity indeed the new paradigm behind Gucci’s success that the wider industry would do well to mimic? Or has the hallowed house simply been the beneficiary of a confluence of happy factors that have nothing to do with the concept?
Consider what’s happening in other sectors. Take Apple and its iPhone. The smartphone is priced at a handsome premium to its rivals, yet that does not stop millions of people from religiously lapping up every new edition that is released, thanks to an entire ecosystem that has grown around it. It is no exaggeration to say that many users build their lives around their iPhones — contacts, social media, playlists, photos, email, calendar. No wonder then that iPhone addiction is increasingly a concern.
Another case in point is Rapha, a cycling-focused sportswear and lifestyle brand. From its roots as a clothing company, it has now become not just a brand but an entire lifestyle for the cycling enthusiast. Luxury travel? Cycling club? Publications? Check, check, check. The Rapha store has become a meeting place, with a bar where cycling enthusiasts can chat with the like-minded and organise cycling expeditions.
Is Gucci the luxury sector’s Apple or Rapha?
Importantly, Apple and Rapha involve a high degree of doing and not just having. An iPhone user posts her thoughts on social media using the device while listening to the latest tunes from Drake. A member of Rapha’s cycling club puts on her gear (Rapha, of course) before embarking on that long-awaited ride with fellow enthusiasts. Spending an inordinate amount of time on something like the iPhone or being part of a community like a cycling club leads to emotional investment and stickiness.
Such stickiness is not as apparent in Gucci’s products. It is not clear that fashionistas are doing anything different with their "Guccy" handbags than with their Saint Laurent or Louis Vuitton totes. Even though the latest Gucci threads might be a work of art, people are still simply wearing them to be seen in them. Consumers’ engagement with the brand remains all about having rather than doing. Instead, Gucci is doing so astoundingly well right now because it boasts superior creativity and merchandising.
This is no small feat. But it also means that the spectacular growth the brand is enjoying is unlikely to have anything to do with its consumers wanting to be part of a Gucci community, making it less sticky than truly inclusive brands. Simply put, consumers may decide that their $1,000 Gucci T-shirts are not quite as indispensable as their $1,000 iPhones. So, while Gucci-owner Kering has a red-hot brand in its hands right now, investors would do well to evaluate the stock with a cool head.
Luca Solca is the head of luxury goods at BNP Exane Paribas.