Luxury vs Utility: Defining Your Brand Promise

Hundreds of years ago, Rolex and Louis Vuitton started as luxury makers of tools. If you needed a watch or a suitcase, their brand promise was to deliver durable, functional, and visually stunning products.

However, they shifted gears overtime to compete more on opulence and style than on improving utility.

Their brand promise went from “we provide the toughest tools” to “we create luxurious experiences,” – which reaches a whole new audience and higher price point to match.

On the other hand, Patagonia is also a luxury tools company. Their clothing may cost a lot more than most, but some professionals still choose them regardless of the brand.

A Patagonia jacket is extraordinarily functional, and owning one goes beyond tribal affiliation and the dopamine hit that comes from buying luxury goods.

High-end consulting and design firms also sell luxury services, and so do many lavish restaurants and travel destinations.

You are not merely paying for the advice, logotype, or information they give you. You are investing in the experience of a comfortable, luxurious journey and becoming a part of an esteemed brand story.

Apple is actually a luxury tools company

Over the last year, Apple has heavily invested in the luxury component of their company. They’ve hired executives from the likes of Burberry and the Swiss watch industry and re-committed to their luxury-structured retail stores as well.

The challenge they face, and the challenge you’ll face if you choose to combine functionality with luxury, is that these two paths will eventually reach a point of divergence.

When Apple dumbs down their Pages or Keynote apps or allows bugs to fester for months on end, they’re taking the “luxury path” at the expense of the “utility path.”

Tools become more complicated the more technology evolves, and the cost of keeping the bugs out goes up. When systems are upgraded, they will often sacrifice some of the utility and UI that their tool-using customers need.

You must either choose to invest in improving the tool’s efficiency or make it more pretty, luxurious, and popular. It’s quite hard to do both (Android users roll their eyes).

Should you change the system font because it matches your look or because it’s more efficient? Would you sell these headphones because they sound better or because they carry a powerful tribal effect? Do you fix these bugs or build something entirely new? (We know what Apple chose when they built wheels for a PC tower… )

The tension between luxury vs utility

The tension between utility vs luxury sounds like this:

On the one hand, you might hear, “you’ve lost your appeal,” or, “the fit and finish aren’t there,” or, “The normies are buying this brand at H&M, and on the street, it’s peaked.”

This fate is what the Uggs brand (those thick tan-coloured boots) and countless other brands like them have experienced. The luxury goods maker fears the day they go out of style and lose favour with the fashionable elite.

On the other hand, the tool-maker fears hearing that “your user interface isn’t smooth,” or “the food isn’t as good as it used to be,” or, worst of all, “there’s a new guy making something that works better.”

These tensions have also undermined many large ad agencies recently. There is a push and pull between helping clients with authentic marketing while supporting company overheads and competing with the aggressive, big-budget giants we see on TV and billboards.

Honda cars are tools that have been painstakingly evolved over the years to function in line with their brand promise of affordable, trustworthy vehicles. But the brand is bland, and profits don’t align with how well they’ve actually solved the problem they set out to solve.

On the other hand, few Jimmy Choo customers complain about how they can’t run a marathon wearing expensive high heels.

It’s possible (but unlikely) that Apple will become the first long-term cutting-edge tool maker that exists simultaneously as a profitable luxury brand. It’s also doubtful that your company will pull that off either.

At some point in the evolution of every luxury brand, the users who care more about utility than luxury begrudgingly shift away to more functional options.

What is your brand promise?

So, the question you need to ask yourself as a marketer is:

Are you a luxury brand or utility brand? Then focus on how to solidify yourself in your category.

If you zone in on one side, then you will notice gaps on the other side. Here is an example:

Let us say that you are a utility brand. When you produce a luxury product, there will be hype surrounding it. If you try to be both, then you will receive criticism from the other side.

The saying “stay in your lane” fits in here perfectly. I am not saying brand extension is a bad thing. Rather, I encourage you to get good at one thing first and then focus on extending outwards.

Would you rather trust someone who can execute their one idea at 100% or someone who juggles two things by splitting their focus and resources in half?

Jordin Sparks said, “Take one step at a time”. If you’re building your brand to last across generations, then “there is no need to rush”.

Don’t try to copy another brand because it works for them (especially if it’s Apple with a revenue of $274,5 billion in 2020). Not only will you be more likely to fail, but you could also lose your audience as a result.

Build a brand worth trusting.

Trust brings recognition. Recognition brings loyalty, and loyalty brings sales.

Trust the process, and make sure to deliver on your brand promise.

Mike Bairstow

About Author /

Mike is a data-driven, brand communicator. He focuses on combining traditional management methodologies with contemporary business thinking in a way that delivers consistent, meaningful consumer insight and develop the path towards connecting the dots between the consumer and your brand.

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