Smitten by Luxe – A surmise of the Indian high-end luxe customer

Luxury industry in India is gradually flourishing given the increasing disposable income and consequential entry of luxury brands in recent years. With over 80,000 millionaires and 49 billionaires as prospects for an increasing number of luxury brands that together make over $450 million luxury market in India – one of the most assiduous exercise for luxury marketers has always been to understand potential customers in order to effectively market their brands.

So, what’s the big fuss in understanding this small percentage of India’s urban population? – We are commonly aware that most buyers from this set are brand-conscious, net-savvy and time-poor individuals who are driven by exclusivity to derive an expression of individuality and style, yet we cannot generalise this belief across all potential Indian luxe customers. We need to understand that though they have similar spending power, they differ in their thinking, up-bringing and life-experiences. Hence, there always exists a need to dig further to understand what will attract their preference towards one luxury brand over another in the same category.

In case of luxury, products are created and brands are developed to not necessarily fulfill a need but in order to create a want that results into an emotionally-driven purchase motivation. Therefore, most brands demanding a high investment have always tried to connect by means of intangible benefits that their prospects perceive to achieve by owning them. It becomes essential to build appealing emotional triggers around the brand, such as fulfillment, enjoyment, respect, success, etc. as the intangible competitive advantage helps in maintaining trust and preference for brand when competitors are busy introducing ‘copied’ products at lower rates. For instance, Armani communicated that ‘fashion is not to dream but to live with: people have to be allowed to use fashion and change it’; that’s why Armani doesn’t pursue the total look concept. The jacket, which is Armani’s most representative item since 1975, can be dressed with everything else, in many different ways and for many years, thus making Armani’s jacket a real revolution in womenswear and one of his biggest successes as it allowed the brand-buyers to express themselves distinctly from the crowd (…in, if we happen to think, the simplest manner). On the other hand, Mercedes appeals to the need for recognition and sense of achievement and owners of a Mont Blanc, feel rewarded with a luxurious pen by projecting an image as a select member of a small group of writing connoisseurs.

In India, the aura of intangible benefits driven by many luxury brands works wonderfully as Indians, by default, are emotional souls and they are used to the idea of romancing any thought, thing or idol that they develop a liking for. By and large, they have always enjoyed being associated with international or foreign’ brands; emulate western culture and are easily driven by ‘global’ appeal, nevertheless, the concept of ‘Indian-ness’ still conjures their attention. This is because India is a multi-tiered and multi-layered market and its history, traditions and approach towards conditioning their children has somehow instilled a sense of belonging and pride towards the essence of Indian culture that is niche and inimitable when compared to other parts of the world. The Indian minds, therefore, are observed to adopt ethos of the West but a surreal, lasting attachment with their roots results in portrayal of behavioral characteristics that quite differs to that of Westerners. Luxury marketers in India, hence, need to deal with a constant challenge of uncovering disparate attitudes towards lifestyle and preferences – unique to every individual, spanning across different age groups, gender, wealth possessions, professional achievements & aspirations and the quintessential geographic culture connect. Moreover, the attitude towards buying luxury goods like apparels and accessories differ distinctly to that expressed while buying electronic gadgets and automobiles… to that expressed while buying yachts and private jets… and to that expressed while buying art / artefacts. Another factor that tends to be a great influencer for driving preference is the underlying perception regarding different luxury brands among the peer group. With a sea of emerging global luxury brands now easily available locally, the customer has plenty to choose from to satisfy his/her continuously changing needs and brand-loyalty fears to become a story of the past. Hence merely transplanting strategies from other markets may not work with a set of customers with disparate mindset and attitude that constantly demands experiences or solutions to suit their personal needs. Ermenegildo Zegna, Hermés and Canali have smartly localised the ‘global’ appeal and projected the essence of India in their advertising campaigns – Zegna’s 2009 campaign illuminates its India-inspired collection against Jaipur’s palaces, street markets and tea parties on the lawn

Zegna's 2009 ad campaign shot entirely in Jaipur

while Hermes rolled out it’s 2008 campaign on the theme of ‘Indian fantasies’ having Laxmi Menon as the lead model in the first campaign

Hermes 2008 ad campaign

and Canali’s India-centric campaign, titled The Journey, represents a ride that’s reminiscent of the ‘Raj’.

Luxury in India, not long ago, was a privilege enjoyed only by the imperial or established business tycoons. But post liberalisation, the booming Indian economy has increased the percentage of wealthy individuals – commonly known as the nouveau riche’ – a group that shows signs of being the most potential prospects for the luxe market. These potential luxury customers are ambitious risk-takers… who aspire to possess the prized product, go ahead and acquire it – even if it amounts to holding debts for a while. Luxury is seen by them as a reward, both for achievements in life as well as showcasing these achievements to others. Nouveau riche, however, is not a new phenomenon and has been a continued dynamic in every generation but they need to be followed since, compared to the ‘old rich’ who have had their tryst with luxury many moons ago, these individuals wish to become a part of the luxury sphere with a fresh perspective. Again, the perspective of one individual from another towards possessing luxury may differ basis their story of reaching this far – For example:

A young IT Consultant who has progressed to the top rung on the career ladder may reason out his indulgence in luxury goods as a means to feel arrived and appears to be quite updated with the buzz on the latest and most preferred luxury brands via peer groups, discussion forums, social networking or self-research. He could be tagged as a luxury fanatic sporting a Rolex, BMW, LV shirt and Versace sunglasses. This individual wants to be noticed and owning premium or super-premium brands helps him shout out his presence in a subtle fashion. The purchase of this individual would be driven by the idea of wanting to reflect specific personality traits among his social and professional circle. Hence, most of his purchase would be directed towards grooming and outward appearance and possession of automobiles and electronic / digital gadgets that reflect his taste. Similarly, a young Indian woman entrepreneur who has made it big wouldn’t display very different emotional nuances towards luxury brands. She may not have the luxury of time but has the spending power to reward herself with a collection that she always longed to have. Her luxe collection of Burberry, Chanel, YSL, Jimmy Choo and Indian designer outfits are an excuse to reward, enjoy and pamper herself in return of the hardwork and substance put in to achieve success this far, in a male-dominated society… On the other hand, a middle-aged, family-oriented businessman whose efforts have finally seen the light of the day has now become a buyer of luxury brands in order to state to his own self that now he can afford, for himself and loved ones, all that was earlier only a distant dream. His first impression comes across as a grounded individual in simple attire coupled with Cartier wrist watch and a few gold rings. He possesses the latest digital mobile phone but isn’t net-savvy and is still getting a grip on speaking English fluently. Most of his spends on luxury brands, consciously or unconsciously, are reasoned out as investments and are usually inclined towards satisfying desires of his family and professional needs. Needless to add, these individuals religiously adhere to their traditional roots and beliefs and take great pride in their conservativeness and discipline as they believe that these ideals have supported them in achieving their success. Most of the luxury purchases of such individuals involve buying a new home or re-furbishing their home that overtime hosts a modest collection of art pieces / artefacts; or owning luxury automobiles as it not only boosts their ego but is considered as a necessity to aid in projecting desired image among their professional circle. Family members, however, indulge themselves in luxury spa treatments, demand exotic leisure trips and invest in jewellery or expensive purchases from leading designers.

Then, there’s another group of young affluent heirs, often termed as ‘Rich Brats’ of both the new and old rich individuals. These young, spoilt individuals often play a dual role of being both luxury brand buyers as well as strong influencers. Irrespective of their intention to buy, they are ready with an opinion on latest global & local trends and ‘buzz’ of the town in the luxury market. Often observed to be evaluating and commenting on different choices available via blogs or discussion forums, they generally happen to be key influencers for big spends for the family and friends. They generally happen to be the least brand loyal as they easily get bored with constancy and wish to stand out from their circle by possessing something different. Flaunting the latest in digital gadgets, zipping past in latest cars and letting their hair down at happening parties and rock concerts comes naturally to them. Most have lived overseas for a considerable time for pursuing education and hence, reflect hints of western attitude and are seen to come back to India to join their well-set family business. The Indian media has showcased heedless behavior of some rich brats with their fast cars, drugs, alcohol, easy cash and an ‘I, me, myself’ attitude but there’s more to it than meets the eye. Contrary to belief popularized by the media, these affluent heirs have their share of fun but also level towards proving their mettle, more to contradict their negative image. The parents also now seem to pay more attention towards the conditioning of their children as opposed to the earlier trend of simply rewarding their children with money and expensive gifts as a substitute for their time for them. Moreover, these parents are directing and encouraging their kids to grow up with an agenda… an agenda to bring in change, for themselves and for the society. The recent award for ‘Excellent Contribution by a Child’ to Akshay Kumar’s son – Aarav for his involvement in the reduction of global warming has done the trick for encouraging more such participation from other doting, rich parents and their children (…even if it’s merely an act to grab some media attention).

Akshay Kumar's son Aarav Bhatia receiving the Green Globe Foundation award

Moreover, recent terrorist attacks and episodes of political imbalance and environment disruption have played a key role in encouraging discussions among this community towards meaningful topics. The slow, upcoming revolution in India that calls in participation for welfare of the society, ‘eco-friendliness’, promoting literacy, AIDS awareness, etc. sees a positive response from this young blood who are often perceived to be indolent, carefree minds. Social networking sites, blogs, discussion forums and marathon movements have been channels to voice out their support, agreements and disagreements on various topics. This trend well shows that they intend to be change agents and their opinions aren’t limited to materialistic pleasures but loom large on social issues and changes that they may want the country to act on. Therefore, in addition to providing quality products, the best way to be-friend these rational minds coupled with a streak of spoilt, snobbish attitude is to partner them in participating and contributing in activities having social, political or moral interest. This not only will build in a strong relationship but also reflect the luxury brand with a positive face if the cause is promoted with right intentions.

Finally, as mentioned earlier, the oldest users and connoisseurs of luxury – the ‘Old Rich’– continue to be primary influencers among the luxury owners. This is the group that the nouveau riche often tries to emulate and intends to be a part of. This class of individuals has been habituated to indulge in luxury even before luxury was introduced in the Indian retail market. With time, this group of people appreciate luxury not much for its aspirational value but because they believe they have an eye for fine art and reason out high expenses as a given for high quality. They enjoy being considered as representatives for stating a final word on quality and craftsmanship and hence, their affair with luxury remains evergreen. The aristocrats of this circle have kept the concept of Indian-ness alive with their opulent traditional Indian weddings and by being gracefully loyal to the saree and sherwani couture. The international brands in the apparels and accessories categories, hence, also face competition from Indian labels that may include Indian designers like Satya Paul, J J Vallaya, Manish Malhotra, Ashima-Leena and Shyamal & Bhumika or the conservative Joy Shoes located at Taj Mahal Hotel, Mumbai. International brands, however, are always preferred in luxury categories like automobiles and electronics as they have recognition and trust for quality. Overseas trips for business and leisure often involve collecting expensive brands or items of specific categories and this recurrent practice conflicts the reason for recent emergence of international brands in Indian retail market. Many buyers reason that their purchase overseas evades duties and incurs less cost along with providing them wider choices. Nevertheless, frequent social gatherings among their circle invite a temptation for swiping credit cards on something new and stores within India become instant saviours. At the same time, this set of customers, knowingly or unknowingly, evaluate the conduct and approach of the sales team in India and compare it with what they have experienced overseas. Luxury is a way of life rather than indulgence for these individuals who want to ‘live it all’ and have the power to afford ‘it all’ and hence, an experience away from the usual gets their attention. The aura and experience they receive, while deciding on their purchase for a brand, often begets their loyalty towards that brand or rather sometimes even towards the sales person who services them while selling that brand. They drive preference of others and are not generally influenced themselves and hence, often their primary reason for being loyal to particular luxury brands happens to be because of the sales approach or service provided by the sales team rather than the popularity of the brand among their circle. Another notable characteristic of these individuals is that they feel socially responsible and though the recent Bain & Co. study labels the wealthy Indians as least charitable, there are quite a few observed to be involved in philanthropy. To state a few, Wipro czar Azim Premji and telecom tycoon Sunil Mittal have set up charitable foundations, Vineet Nayyar, head of software firm Tech Mahindra recently gifted a third of his shares to another charity and Neeta Ambani is busy supporting the underprivileged kids of five NGOs through an initiative called ‘Education For All’ during the recent IPL T20 Season 3. If luxury marketers can open more space for such individuals to team up together for an honest cause, it will definitely instill respect and admiration deservedly in its true sense.

My learnings above are a mere overview of Indian affluents wherein, clustering different types of Indian affluents based on gender, geography and occupation is a far more comprehensive task – one doesn’t normally observe an affluent from a conservative South India portraying similar charactistics to that of an affluent from pompous North India and a Bollywood celebrity behaving absolutely similar to a regal heir. And there is no sure-shot single chart that can come in handy to unravel an ever-changing mystery of attitude, behaviour and perception of Indian affluents to enter their consideration set yet have listed a few points that may perhaps help to create interplay with the Indian luxury customer:

1. Culture is a constant connect – Global Approach, Indian Heart

Numerous languages, cultures and festivals bring together the lurid nature of India and make the ‘Ethnic’ chic globally. Art is no longer just associated with English and French heritage but appreciates Indian craftsmanship and handicrafts in variety of options ranging from fashion statements to artefacts to symbols defining royalty. Given the global acceptance of Indian art, heritage and culture, an attempt to build a connect with the roots is welcomed rather than a bias towards the western allure.  A fusion of global and local senses is a strategic route adopted by quite a few international brands like Lladdro and Jimmy Choo by showing Indian culture with style and elegance.

President Lladro Commercial Rosa Lladro poses with porcelain products during the launch of the company's boutique in Bangalore

The demand for luxury goods in India is not limited to metros but small cities like Nagpur, Jalandhar and Ludhiana are becoming new hubs for luxury markets. This can be seen by the fact that Ludhiana has more number of Mercedes cars than in Mumbai. Potential customers in each of these cities portray different attitudes that reflect their geographic culture-connect. Mont Blanc, capitalises on this fact by customizing its letterheads, invitations or newsletters according to the local language and other aesthetic considerations such as colours used and the amount of decoration. For example, invitations created for potential customers in Punjab are more lavish and the language more boisterous than those sent to customers in South India.

On the other hand, Louis Vuitton and Rolls Royce have also localised their approaches by sending personalized gifts or surprise car service to potential clients for important events and celebrations.

2. Experience gets captured in memory… mere communication fades

The luxury consumer is always open to newer ways that satisfy his ever-changing needs. Their usually hectic and demanding lives seek to balance stress and routine from activities such as shopping, socializing, working-out at fitness centres or at home, taking adventurous holiday breaks or merely relaxing at exotic locales. In such ‘time-outs’ from busy schedules, even a good, unanticipated experience with a sales person or pleasant ambience leaves behind a lasting impression for the brand. Advertisements through different media channels does help in communicating announcements or product benefits or in building an emotional appeal but communication campaigns teamed with an experience-driven approach always drives home a more interesting proposition. For instance, BMW’s ‘Sheer Driving Pleasure’ was translated into an experience for potential customers by giving them driving lessons under different on-road and off-road conditions to highlight the stability, control and safety features available in all its models.

3. Building social capital

Luxury brands, in general, reflect distinction from the ordinary and are known for values that resonate with its buyers. These buyers are attracted towards the badge value and are keen on networking with groups of equal stature and interests. ‘Invite-only’ online social groups by luxury brands or lifestyle promoters, offering discounts on luxury brands or encouraging exchange of information, are slowly experiencing participation among groups of individuals. Luxury e-commerce in India is yet to take-off but a luxury brand’s homepage often happens to be a significant channel for potential buyers to learn about the brand’s products, heritage and DNA. These websites, therefore, become important channels for forming brand communities among desired audience and to communicate brand offers, product testing or news announcements.

Collaborative dialogue among the affluents who wish to be portrayed as thought-leaders is encouraged by many communities, events or forums that enable exchange of ideas / interests or reward remarkable accomplishments. Luxury brands ranging from luxury jeweller Swaroski to automakers Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi host golf tournaments to connect with its niche customers via the rich man’s sport. The objective of using this platform is for increasing brand loyalty and encouraging networking. In addition to this, business awards or communities like Ted are often appreciated by rich intellectuals or achievers and luxury brands leading such shows by means of sponsorships or participation win admiration and respect among its desired set of potential customers.

4. Higher price leads to seeking higher value

No matter how rich they are, Indians are value-conscious customers and spend conservatively, except for their big fat weddings. While the rich make news for gifting handbags worth a lakh of rupees to girlfriends or even just friends, it’s not a surprising phenomenon to notice a rich individual in India requesting discounts that normally would be considered insignificant considering his financial status. They reason out the high investment with what it helps them achieve – emotionally as well as rationally. The aura build on exclusivity and emotional appeal itself is therefore not enough and product strengths also need to be equally believable. Indian buyers making big investments in luxury brands need a story to reason out their purchase to themselves and to others. To state an example, a promotional viral created for Audi R8 reflected the model’s strengths for being really fast and safe. The viral video showcased Audi R8’s inability to turn over onto its roof as it is designed to cling to the road too well. The promotion was done by director Jon Favreau who explained the dramatic final scene of Audi R8 in the film, Ironman.

5. Risk breaking away from conventional

With luxury market in India getting cluttered with range of options to choose from in every category, its becomes essential to move above advertising and consider options that enable differentiation by sponsoring unique shows / events or partnering successful celebrities or collaborating with other brands that share similar sensibilities.

LP640 Roadster Versace

For instance, internationally, long-time collaborators Versace and Lamborghini announced the launch of the new Murciélago LP 640 Roadster and its exclusive collection of accessories. It allowed individual clients to create personalised sports cars, choosing the equipment specification, the colour of the exterior body as well as the interior fittings.

LP640 Roadster Versace interiors

The car was offered with a complementary Versace Collection range of accessories in black calf skin, and included a trolley bag, suit carrier, sports bag, suitcase, gloves, driving shoes, beauty case, and a pair of jeans, among other things.

Katy Perry with Judith Leiber’s Maharaja Elephant Purse

In India, Judith Leiber prefers promoting its handbags via eminent socialites or celebrities rather than using the conventional media and designer Suneet Verma will be designing a line of bags for Judith Leiber with Bollywood as inspiration.

Puja Puri grabs attention in a Roberto Cavalli creation, holding a Judith Leiber limited edition clutch

Judith Leiber clutches

Note: The examples of luxury brand campaigns and activities stated in the blog have been referred from multiple sources