A new definition of luxury in products and services

It’s a familiar scene: an Instagram-vintage glow illuminates a workshop, heavy, metal tools laid out on a wooden workbench, or colourful textiles stacked next to towers of drawers full of beads, yarns and findings. The artisan sits centre-stage; the protagonist in a story of authenticity that is as much about the process as it is about the finished product.

 The authored product – from handmade shoes to bespoke furniture to limited-edition cars – has always represented luxury and exclusivity. Exclusivity came from inaccessibility, from the price tag to the customer profile that the brand was appealing to. However, now that the internet and digital tools have provided a whole new way for brands to find and connect with their customers, a new breed of craftsperson has emerged; one who can take the story and authenticity of the artisan to the mass market. Not only can they use new tools to design, make and package their goods, but thanks to a global digital network, they can tell their story at an international level and connect directly with a customer who looks for originality in a world of mass-produced, hyper-industrialised goods. When many of the objects we interact with are made in anonymous factories and identical the world over, something with a history has great appeal. Add to this that nothing is truly scarce in the digital world, and it’s no wonder that people have a renewed appreciation for objects made from more natural materials, that have a visceral appeal to our senses and have been crafted with intention rather than manufactured with automation.

 

Entrepreneurs have been quick to embrace this revival of artisan values
They have taken advantage of the new ways to communicate their story, and created fresh businesses in every sector that are competing with the industry incumbents to meet their customers’ evolving needs and desires. The food and drink sector provides excellent examples of startups that have taken products commoditised over time and reframed them for today’s market.
Beer was one of the products ripe for reinvention for the 21st century; with industrial production it had become one of those products abstracted from its roots and sold on basic qualities like price, sponsorship deals or basic flavour. Several companies saw how they could elevate beer and create a new market by putting the product back into the context of a human story with quality ingredients. The rich history and endless variety of beers are perfect for shaping a narrative that’s both aesthetic and emotive – both of which make for great brand material in the age of the internet. The trend in craft beer companies emerged, with the premise of making their brewing process visible and transparent. Indeed, they have leveraged it to convey a message of integrity that’s often obscured in products we buy today. They speak to today’s consumer who likes to buy from brands that represent their own views of the world. Whereas in the 80’s, we might have chosen things that showed off our purchasing power, today we buy to show our affiliation with a brand and its values, and the story-based, people-centred companies of the new artisan can convey that well.

 

Barcelona-based Edge Brewing highlights its story and process on the website, and talks about how its founders joined “the craft beer revolution”.

Bread, another commodity product, is also seeing a transformation in the way it’s made, marketed and positioned. Where the manufacturers’ aim forty years ago was to cheapen, speed up and standardise, new bakery brands are bringing the artisanal alchemy to the loaf. A growing network of independent bakers are championing local ingredients and traditional methods and recipes, and finding loyal customers who want to invest in the notion of authentic, honest food. Whilst the old giants in the bread industry are suffering a fall in sales, the entrepreneur and startup breadmakers are successfully tapping into the trend for quality ingredients, transparency of methods, human faces and the idea of buying into a philosophy beyond the product. Conscious, instead of conspicuous consumption.

 

Numerous artisanal bread companies have formed in recent years, but one example that combines the quality of product with a strong provenance story is Hot Bread Kitchen in New York. They bake traditional breads from around the world, and employ low-income, immigrant and minority individuals to help prepare them for a career in the culinary industry.

In our fast-paced world, time is at a premium. Handcrafted, artisanal products are steeped in this scarce resource: created from expertise built over years, unhurried, with materials that take time to mature. By buying and using them we are associating ourselves with the luxury of time. We are buying and – in wearing or sharing our purchase – showing off something that represents an investment in quality-over-quantity work. Slow is the new black. We can see this new value consistently expressed in artisanal brands, from the noble materials used and the time needed to prepare them (think wood, leather and ceramics), to the aesthetics that hark back to a more slow-paced, analogue time (think of the hipster in their fifties’-style workplace attire and cottage-industry workshed).
If time is a now a luxury, then the experience of interacting with a product is an expression of luxury too. As an example, in the five years coffee has seen a transformation from delivery of a fast caffeine hit to product wrapped up in ritual and experience. The barista herself has become an artisan, an expert who will take us on a tour with aromas, flavours and history. Cities are now full of coffee shops, and the drink receives the earnest reverence traditionally associated with a vintage bottle of wine or an expensive perfume. This context also enables personalisation, which is another important factor of the new luxury. It’s the coffee made fresh in the moment for the customer with their preferred combination of ingredients, but it’s also the delivery of the experience, the personal interaction between artisan and customer.

 

Sightglass Coffee in San Francisco offers a “distinct and immersive experience”; see the roasters at work, speak to the baristas, try coffees from around the world, meet in the community space and buy materials (artisanal, of course) to make your own brews.

As usually happens with disruption, we see the industry incumbents moving slowly and following the old rules, whilst the startups are creating innovative new responses to changing customer behaviour. The newcomers are taking the lead in reacting to and shaping the new definition of luxury, quality and exclusivity, but established businesses are taking steps to stay relevant.
In some cases, large companies emulate the values and techniques of the artisan startup, by copying the branding style – the image of the skilled expert, the slow pace, the quality ingredients. This can work on face value, but the authenticity and honesty so integral to the artisan brand can be compromised and might eventually alienate the consumer. In the bread market, supermarkets are often launching their own brands of so-called artisanal products, but recent studies question the meaning of artisan and accuse supermarkets of capitalising on the branding, whilst ignoring the substance.
The alcohol giants have taken a different approach: they are increasingly working with or acquiring the small players that already have proven success in responding to new customer needs. For example, multinational AB Inbev has bought eight US craft breweries to date, Mahou San Miguel has invested heavily in Founders, one of the fastest-growing brewers in the craft segment in the United States. The success of deals like this will depend on an ability to retain the original brand and product appeal, and maintain the customer perception of quality and integrity that comes from an artisan product.
Companies in the coffee industry who want to differentiate themselves have taken a different angle; they help the customers themselves to become the artisan by providing tools, ingredients and know-how that help to shape a ritual and create their own story. Whether it’s Nescafe with their capsule machine and milk foamer or Gaggia that makes machines that claim to bring the cafeteria home, the customer is buying an experience – an indulgence in time and quality.
Whichever approach we take, we need to recognise that customers’ perception of big themes like luxury, quality and exclusivity are being redefined, and use these insights to design better products, services and experiences.