The phrase 'post-aspirational consumers' is catching on in marketing circles, implying that consumers have evolved beyond aspiration as a motivator for purchase.
Bain, one of the leading lights in the luxury market, gave the term its official imprimatur describing the “rise of a post-aspirational mindset.”
For years the term “aspirational consumer” has been used in the luxury market to describe a less financially-secure consumer who aspires to own luxury brands as a means to enhance one’s status and self-worth.
In effect, these less-than consumers can become more by purchasing certain brands. It’s what Mick Jagger sings about in the iconic Rolling Stores hit “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” – “He can’t be a man ‘cause he doesn’t smoke the same cigarettes as me.”
If aspiration is gone, what replaces it? Bain proposes the idea of purpose with an “emphasis on diversity and inclusion, in addition to sustainability and environmental issues. These ‘activist’ consumers seek brands that align with their vision and desire for purpose.”
Aspiration will never go away
But aspiration is essential to luxury marketing and more importantly, an essential part of our human DNA. Since the beginning of time, people have conferred special meaning to objects. By owning these objects, individuals gain power and status that distinguishes them from others. Such objects have a magical, symbolic significance that is conferred to its owner.
As much as we’d like to believe in our postmodern society that we’ve evolved beyond aspiration, the reality is it hasn’t gone away and it will never go away. Rather than talk about post-aspirational luxury, we need to reframe the concept.
We must embrace a new concept of aspiration that transcends the old ideas of aspiration as a motivation that applies to others but not oneself to a new aspiration that applies to all.
We are by nature aspirational creatures. The question luxury brands should be asking is what magical, symbolic objects can be offered that satisfy our deeply-rooted aspirational drives.
Correctly Bain identifies something fundamentally has changed in the mindset and values of luxury consumers:
“By 2030, the industry should be drastically transformed. We will not talk of the luxury industry anymore, but of the market for ‘insurgent cultural and creative excellence.’ In this new, enlarged space, winning brands will be those that build on their existing excellence while reimagining the future with an insurgent mindset.”
The keywords for luxury’s future are “cultural and creative excellence” and that I fear is being forgotten as luxury brands pander to the masses in search of growth and profits.
Professor Daniel Langer, founder of the luxury strategy firm Équité and recently named one of the global “Top Five Luxury Key Opinion Leaders to Watch 2021” by Netbase Quid, predicts that post-pandemic up to 50% of luxury brands may not survive.
In the search for relevance, luxury brands have forgotten the even greater need for excellence.
Generating more growth and profits can’t be the ultimate goal for luxury brands. Rather, profits should be the result of creating excellent products that transcend the ordinary and reflect the best that money can buy.
“The essence of luxury is its inner substance, like timelessness, well-crafted handmade things with functionality and durability that transcend the present moment. This essence of luxury has been stripped away,” says Dr. Martina Olbertova, the founder of Meaning.Global, author of The Luxury Report and world’s leading expert on creating meaning in luxury.
“The push towards generating profit in the mass market has resulted in the loss in value – the soul and essence of fine craftsmanship that has been the legacy of luxury for hundreds of years, from generation to generation, was suddenly lost,” she continues.
Aspirations toward personal meaning, not social status
Luxury brands have directed their marketing toward consumers’ aspirational drives for social status but away from what they truly aspire to.
“The value of luxury in our society has been externalized and used pragmatically to enhance one’s self worth and social value in the eyes of others through outward displays of flashiness and opulence,” Olbertova says. “Now, the value of luxury brands needs to shift from what is on the outside back to the inside, toward what is essential and therefore valuable in the consumers’ lives.”
Olbertova argues that aspiration is not a bad thing, but luxury brands need to understand luxury consumers’ real aspirations and what we aspire to today. Consumers today, especially in the light of COVID, aspire to elevate their quality of life, rather than their social status.
“Luxury brands need to think about what makes the consumers’ life rich and fulfilled and what are the things they want to surround themselves with that enhance their own sense of identity, rather than buying into a brand-created persona that isn’t real,” she says.
Authenticity of the brand that reflects the authentic self of the consumer is the focus that is needed today. “Luxury is at a breaking point where we are entering a new paradigm in search of what is essential and meaningful in our own lives. That is the shift toward what we are now aspiring to. Authenticity is becoming the new luxury,” she explains.
Search for deeper meaning
Olbertova warns that unless luxury brands align their essence with where meaning lies with the consumer they will lose.
“After the disruption of the pandemic, people are reawakening to a new sense of self – to what is truly important in their lives,” she shares. “For luxury brands to be relevant and profitable, they have to align their journey with the one consumers are on, otherwise they will lose the customer because they are moving in a different direction.”
Luxury brands must connect with the consumer in the middle, she advises, “At a place where what is meaningful for the brand and for the consumer naturally meet. They must create the meaning the consumer is searching for.”
Olbertova sees the new luxury consumption model shifting from conspicuous consumption to more meaningful, conscientious consumption.
Purpose-driven values that Bain speaks of, like diversity, inclusion, sustainability, environmental and social responsibility, only scratch the surface of the deeper meaning today’s luxury consumers are searching for.
The ultimate value in luxury lies in its meaning, which must transcend the ordinary to enable the consumer to realize a deeper personal fulfillment that we all aspire to.
“Luxury is about transcendence. It has the divinity element to it that transcends the present moment and through the beauty and perfection of both its form and essence transports you somewhere else, to a higher state that uplifts your spirit,” Olbertova says.
“Luxury when done the right way is a deeply spiritual practice and experience because it’s meant to connect us to the deeper parts of ourselves, instead of being determined by the social meaning that we gain through others. Luxury objects should be spiritual objects for everyday use in everyday life. That’s why they’re full of meaning,” Olbertova concludes.
Pamela N. Danziger is an internationally recognized expert specializing in consumer insights for marketers targeting the affluent consumer segment. She is president of Unity Marketing, a boutique marketing consulting firm she founded in 1992.