Is scarcity flirting with “self-destruction”?

Elena Cozza

By Elena Cozza08 juin 2021

What could be more intriguing and attractive than the unattainable? The decision to stop selling a bestseller seems to be the new way for luxury to create an aura. Based on rarity, heritage and nostalgia, the concept of "self-destruction" is a way to recreate desirability.

Launched for the first time on 5 December 2019 in Europe, the Prada Timecapsule concept presents a new item on the first Thursday of every month, an online exclusivity for just 24 hours. Shown here is the "Drop#13" capsule collection released in January 2021 (Prada)

According to an old Italian saying, “in amor vince chi fugge”. The translation of the saying means “In love, the winner is the one who flees”. What is more intriguing and attractive than chasing what seems too far, too unavailable or too difficult to get? Wanting the out-of-reach and fighting for it, makes anything (or anyone) instantly more appealing and desirable.

In support of la dolce vita way of thinking, Alessandro Brun, Director of Global Executive Master of Luxury Management at MIP Politecnico di Milano , states “After the sacrifices of lock-down, customers will crave for hedonistic products and services to satisfy the need of self-indulgence and personal pampering. As the world is finally (and slowly) heading out of the pandemic, the link between the concept of luxury and the longing for happiness - embedded in human nature - is getting stronger every day. Experiences will be a paramount aspect of the “new luxury”, with customers living the moment, having became more conscious of the fact that “You Live Only Once”, and turning YOLO into a true philosophy of life.”

Breadcrumbing: newest luxury practice

The process behind the continuous chase has a name: breadcrumbing. Breadcrumbing is the activity of encourage sporadic, yet frequent interaction to allow an individual to not lose interest towards something or someone, but without allowing enough interaction to move towards something tangible and secure. It can be said that luxury brands are real-life examples of breadcrumbers. Rarity is the definition of luxury and luxury consumers are captivated and hypnotized by its scarcity.

The famous Patek Philippe Nautilus 5711/1A-010 model, which was discontinued by the brand. (Patek Philippe)

An interesting example of this trend is Patek Philippe's recent strategic decision to discontinue its best-selling Nautilus 5711/1A-010 in 2021, after 15 years on the market. Failing to respond to consumer demand is a virtuous circle fueled by envy. This is how Patek Philippe has succeeded, once again, in creating a craze around the entire Nautilus collection, an almost frenzied desirability for the brand, a feeling of missed opportunity among the consumer that now "must" be filled.

Moreover, pieces that are not in the market anymore have become so intriguing that brands are now dedicating websites to celebrate their legacy. This is the case of Romain Gauthier, according to which watches of collection are now undeniable timepieces, steadily increasing in rarity and now part of the patrimony of the brand. Discontinuing an item does not only mean allowing it to vanish in an aura of nostalgia and memories, but it also means respecting and embracing its history as accomplishments necessary to the growth of the brand.

The Romain Gauthier brand honours its "Legacy" watches of which production has been stopped. Here, the Logical One model in pink gold (Romain Gauthier)

According to Geoffrey Perez, Global Head of Luxury for Snapchat, scarcity can also apply to brands that target a younger audience. Geoffrey explains: “New generations are looking for exclusive experiences – we are seeing this formalize with the rise of Collabs, NFTs, Gaming and other forms of exclusivity in the virtual world. The digital world is a world of abundance while luxury is by nature exclusive. Creating exclusive experiences online is key to bridge the gap between old-school vs new-cool and Augmented Reality is a powerful tool to reunite this sentiment. The popularity of Snap came with sharing ephemeral messages and when associated with AR experiences, they're always a hit”

Burn baby, burn

The popularity of Snap came with sharing ephemeral messages and when associated with AR experiences, they're always a hit

Geoffrey Perez, Global Head of Luxury for Snapchat

Inventory planning plays a crucial role in defining a luxury brand, since it sets the availability of a product, therefore the allure. It is not exceptional hearing that popular luxury brands burn their stock, aiming to never incur in the possibility of selling off their precious and highly invested marketing practices to build a prestigious image around the products. Even though this is a highly unsustainable practice, which has been condemned for decades, destroying the stock meets the need to not dilute the brand image. The risk of seeing a famous handbag in the clearance shelf at Tk Maxx, must be avoided at all costs, in order to protect both brand’s reputation and consumers’ perception.

Banksy, anonymous street artist from Bristol, arranged his most famous work, called “Balloon Girl” to self-destruct after being sold at an auction for £1m. The canva got shredded through the frame, dangling from the bottom of it. The artist captioned it “Going, going, gone ….” on Instagram. “Having, had, will have” could certainly be a potential interpretation. During Banksy’s art stunt, the consumer can experience tangibility that becomes intangible, in a whirl of need for possession. The value of that self-destructed canva is now inestimable, surpassing £2m.

Sustainable scarcity

The French brand Hermès has also defined its strategy on the basis of demand exceeding supply, with the corollary of a hype around the concept of waiting lists. Hermès iconic handbag Birkin has been the emblem of elitisms for decades. However, more and more luxury brands are shifting towards more temporarily and dynamic practices to trigger consumers’ wants, such as limited editions.
Limited editions highly impact the brand’s image, repositioning the brands as more exclusive and luxurious. For example, Prada is now surfing the wave of scarcity and the appetite this creates. Every month, the Italian brand releases a super limited production of 50 unique shirts called «Prada Timecapsule» which has now become a must in the menswear.

Prada's "Timecapsule" collection, produced in very limited editions, is renewed every month. (Prada)

Human brains crave unpredictability. "Self-destruction" is the best technique to recreate a vanishing scenography around a fashion item. The adrenaline caused by an unexpected reward is the most intoxicating (yet thrilling) feeling that the human mind can experience. The illusion of coming close to something extremely hard to get, makes the luxury industry go round. Desires and aspirations are declinations of luxury, and scarcity is able to unleash the greatest impulses. Luxury brands are anchored to breadcrumbing practices and always will. Consumers indulge to eat more crumbs; brands concede them little by little.

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