Run Time: about 32 minutes
Many brands aspire to a life of luxury—or rather, they wish to be positioned and perceived as a luxury brand. But luxury is subjective. To some it means a brand for the rich, to others it means a brand with richness. Because so much of our branding work revolves around the concept of luxury, we’ve developed a strong point of view on how to express it in various categories. But we decided to ask some experts how they might define it.
Nowhere is the “luxury” designation more applied (and perhaps abused) than in the world of automotive brands. Our guest, Phil Patton, characterized it this way:
It occurs to me that there are not that many products we explicitly refer to with the adjective “luxury.” We don’t say, “I’m going to buy a luxury laptop,” but people do say, “I’m buying a luxury car.”
Phil is a columnist who writes about automobile design for The New York Times. He describes a luxury car as having “design, grace and elegance.” But he suggests that some brands have a harder time defending their claim on luxury status. For example, many people ask whether or not Acura is really a luxury car?
This was a perfect jumping off point for our show, not least of which because we have just completed a new Brand Dependence Index that studies brand attachment to automotive brands (the results will be announced on November 19th at the LA Auto Show). We wanted to know why some auto brands seem to be a natural fit for luxury designation, while others have to work hard at it? And how does that interplay affect attachment?
Studio Chief Larry Vincent interviewed Virginia Postrel, author of the book The Power of Glamour, and a frequent contributor to Bloomberg View. Virginia’s extensive work on what makes brands glamorous is very relevant to an understanding of how to connote luxury.
There’s a very deep connection between transportation and glamour, and it’s because of this idea of escape and transformation.
A car brand can be glamorous without being positioned as a luxury, but most luxury car brands rely extensively on glamour to drive brand attachment.
Vehicles that go faster than human beings can go have this promise of taking us someplace wonderful, and also enhancing our abilities. So you get in the car and you inhabit the car in the same way you get in the dress and inhabit the dress.
This ability to cast a glamour on a brand is crucial to what makes a luxury car a luxury car. Guest Matt DeBord refers to it as a “brand aura.” Matt is the Transportation editor at Business Insider. He and Larry discussed three auto brands that are effectively repositioning themselves in the luxury category. The first is Cadillac.
There’s no real reason why Cadillac shouldn’t be thought of in the same way as BMW, Mercedes, and Lexus. … In the old days, you started out with Chevy and then you worked your way up to maybe Pontiac or Oldsmobile and then you went to Buick and then you finally reached nirvana and you bought a Cadillac and you know, you retired and died … after buying 3 or 4 Cadillacs.
Matt thinks Cadillac suffered because it was part of GM, a much larger company that makes many non-luxury auto brands. In effect, GM’s brand architecture put Cadillac on uneven footing with BMW and Mercedes which only make one kind of car: a luxury car. But Cadillac has recently taken some bold steps to level the playing field. It relocated its headquarters from Detroit to New York City, and it has invested billions into new vehicle designs that have been winning awards and critical accolades.
Next, Virginia and Matt both mention Audi as a brand that is surging forward in the luxury category and staking a claim on territory long held by German rivals, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Virginia credits its ascent to “wised-up glamour.” Matt puts a finer point on it.
It’s Iron Man’s car, right? Tony Stark in Iron Man drives around in Audis. Lots and lots of young guys in LA who would otherwise be driving around in BMWs are driving around in Audis. They’ve successfully conquested, as they say in the auto industry, a lot of people over to the brand.
And then there is the newest entrant to the luxury car category: Tesla.
When you talk about Tesla’s Model S, you’re talking about a luxury car. It has everything that you are supposed to have. It checks every luxury box. But there’s something more … Which is, it’s Silicon Valley. You know, it’s a tech brand. So not only does it have this amazing luxury aura in the automobile industry, it has this aura in the tech industry as well.
So, three luxury brands that are creating strong attachment in three very different ways. Cadillac is winning new drivers through a renewed commitment to American design and performance. Audi has leveraged the power of cool and Hollywood to connect with the aspiring elite. And though it has the smallest share, Tesla has burst into the luxury category appealing to those who thirst for the promise of innovative technology and sleek design.
What glamour does is it takes these sort of deeper longings that we have, and it embodies them in some particular idea or image that says: this can answer those longings.
The best luxury brands aim higher than their price point. They design for glamour. They help consumers project into an ideal world–they help them escape and long for that which most inspires them. And, of course, position their product as the perfect mode of transportation to get there. This is brand attachment at its finest. A connection between a brand and an ideal self.
This episode is only part one. We’ll release part two on Wednesday, November 26th and reveal the results of our Brand Dependence Index on the automotive category. We’ll feature special guests from some of the brands profiled in the index, so you can hear how they are creating brand attachment and defining luxury straight from the source.
Music in this episode (“Backed Vibes (Clean)”) was performed by Kevin Macleod (c) and licensed under Creative Commons.
The Point of Attachment is a podcast series developed and produced by UTA Brand Studio. It focuses on what draws people to brands through the lens of culture, design and storytelling. It is hosted by Larry Vincent and produced by Frances Harlow.