I used to think it would be fun to be rich. Don’t get me wrong, I’d still be fine with it, but it ain’t what it used to be. Once upon a time—in the ’80s, say—half the fun would have been in showing your wealth off. Driving around in something German, wearing an Armani suit with huge shoulder pads, maybe a Rolex, a Mont Blanc fountain pen and one of those aluminum briefcases…people really wanted to be that guy. That envy fuelled their ambitions, and made marketing luxury products a model for marketing everything. In fact, it gave the whole business of luxury brands an almost moral purpose. In return for floating around as objects of envy on a golden cloud of schadenfreude, rich people provided the vital social service of reminding the rest of us why we should work so hard.
But if you’re rich these days, it’s becoming difficult to hold up your end of the bargain. It’s not even clear that wealth itself is an aspirational goal anymore— at least not one that anyone will admit to out loud (especially in the combat zone of Toronto’s emerging class war). Balzac’s assertion that a great crime lies behind every great fortune seems to be the consensus in the current climate. Every yacht club in the country would probably be Occupied by now, if only the subway lines went that far. And even if you did have the nerve to show off your money by consuming conspicuously, these days it’s hard to know what to buy.
For one thing, the social meanings of plutocracy’s go-to brands have been contaminated by the worst sort of parvenus. It’s bad enough that mall parking lots now frequently resemble dealerships for Mercedes, Lexus and BMW. Lately, strutting about draped in Italian designer logos and Swiss watches is more likely to read “oligarch” or “thug” than “successful entrepreneur,” even if the valet still parks your car in the front row. When Vanity Fair recently published an infographic charting the brands mentioned in Jay-Z’s rap lyrics, it was tough not to notice that they were all either luxury products or automatic weapons. With friends like that, Gucci hardly needs enemies.
If they did need an enemy, they’d have to look no further than the nearest mirror. Luxury brands are doing a pretty good job of frittering away their exclusivity all by themselves, through affordability and over-distribution. After the 2008 troubles, plutocrats slumming for socks and underwear were betrayed by the discovery of Missoni at Target, or Jimmy Choo at H&M. Today, there are more Saks and Nordstrom outlet stores in America than there are Saks and Nordstroms.
Even Aston Martin has tried its hand at debauching its rarefied status, by rebadging a tarted-up little Toyota (the Cygnet, which was wisely discontinued this fall). The greatest risk to elite brands, as one industry analyst put it, has become “ubiquity.” Indeed, it’s got to be almost impossible to feel special anymore, even if you can afford it.
Go ahead and laugh, but not too hard. The vulgarization of luxury brands has not only mortgaged a lot of shareholder value, it’s also dealt a body blow to the very idea of middle-class ambition. It’s not a pretty truth, but it’s true nonetheless that prosperity—and all of the social good it can bring—depends partly on a restless consumer. Way back when the middle class was a new idea, Charles Kettering said that fostering dissatisfaction is marketing’s most fundamental purpose. People wanting something better, something that’s just out of reach, are second only to population growth among reasons anyone has a right to forecast business will be better next year than last.
That’s why making luxury brands too common is a bad idea. Aside from the ironic plight of the anonymous rich, truly elite brands keep envy alive. It may be a deadly sin, but it’s also a natural resource. Scratch that itch conclusively, and you’d just be left with complacency and entitlement, neither of which is a path to prosperity. Mortgaging prestige may seem like easy money, but it can end up being the most expensive marketing you ever do.
Bruce Philp is a brand strategy consultant and author of Consumer Republic, winner of the 2012 National Business Book Award