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StrategyAcademic

Iconic must-have or Ephemeral new collection: the crucial choice

As the luxury market becomes more fast-paced, experiential and dematerialized than ever, luxury marketers have important questions about how ephemeral products from their latest collections may be received and perceived in the marketplace compared to iconic pieces from their classic assortments. A study jointly led by researchers from Northwestern University, Boston College and the University of Neuchâtel stresses the differences between these two types of products (ephemeral and iconic), both essential to luxury brands.

Dr. Perrine Desmichel

By Dr. Perrine Desmichel29 juin 2020

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Luxury leaders are wondering about the place to reserve for new collections compared to the iconic pieces in their catalogues. Here window display of a Hermès boutique in Moscow, 2020 (Shutterstock)

Luxury brands are torn between their promise of eternity and their role of trendsetter

Traditionally, luxury has been praised for its iconicity. In their influential work Kapferer and Bastien wrote that “Luxury aims at timelessness: the great classics represent a high share of the sales of a luxury brand, whereas last years’ fashion has little value and can be bought on sale on the internet” (2009, p. 315). Indeed, still today, iconic items are at the core of luxury brand collections. For instance, in 2014 Louis Vuitton celebrated the 160th anniversary of its Monogram collection, with a massive communication campaign and a series of new monogram bags.
At the same time, consumers expect luxury brands and their artistic directors to create new fashion trends in each collection, and they eagerly await limited edition items that will spark enthusiasm at the next fashion show.
“Luxury is an exercise in projection, and a guess about what’s next. There is always risk involved, but to opt out of the game is to relinquish the urgency that hooks consumers,” argued the New York Times fashion journalist Vanessa Friedman (2017).
To balance consumers’ desire for classic and timeless pieces (i.e., iconic products) with their desire for novel and changing items (i.e., ephemeral products), luxury brands offer both types of goods in their collections. Louis Vuitton, for example, always carries its classic Monogram Speedy handbag, while also periodically launching ephemeral limited editions, such as the handbags co-designed by artist Jeff Koons during the 2017 season. This dual strategy raises questions about the consequences that buying and sporting different luxury products may have for consumers and brands.

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Louis Vuitton has created a limited edition with artist Jeff Koons (Shutterstock)

Advantages of consuming ephemeral over iconic luxury products

Dr. Desmichel, Prof. Ordabayeva and Prof. Kocher recently published the findings of a series of studies comparing how people respond to ephemeral versus iconic luxury products and consumers. The researchers find that consumers are perceived differently if they sport ephemeral vis-à-vis iconic luxury products. Specifically, because ephemeral products are fast changing and new, they more effectively signal consumers’ creativity compared to iconic products. That is, consumers of ephemeral goods are believed to be highly creative because they choose novelty over tradition.
Interestingly, because creativity is so strongly valued in modern society, perceptions of creativity further boost perceptions of ephemeral consumers’ achievement and earned success. Just think of past and present cultural icons such as Steve Jobs, Coco Chanel, Oprah Winfrey, or Andy Warhol, who achieved the height of recognition and success in their fields owing to their creativity and hard work. Because of strong associations that exist between creativity and achievement, people deem consumers of ephemeral luxuries to have earned their success (and hence to be deserving of their status), because these consumers are believed to be highly creative.
Importantly, these differences in perceptions of ephemeral and iconic luxury goods have tangible consequences for consumers.

Consumers are perceived differently if they are associated with ephemeral or iconic luxury items

Dr Desmichel, Prof. Ordabayeva and Prof. Kocher

Specifically, sporting an ephemeral luxury product boosts consumers’ chances of being hired at a job interview as well as the amount of influence and social recognition that consumers enjoy compared to sporting iconic luxuries. For example, in one study, participants were more likely to follow the lead and advice of an ephemeral, rather than iconic, luxury consumer when designing a marketing slogan for a contest. In another study, consumers were more likely to post a positive review of a high-end restaurant that touted its ephemeral, rather than iconic, features. The researchers found that displaying ephemeral luxury yields tangible benefits even on social media. To test this idea, the researchers examined how audiences on a social media platform reacted to consumers’ posts about different products. They found that posts featuring ephemeral luxury products (e.g., which were tagged as “last collection” or “new”) received more audience likes than posts featuring iconic luxury products.

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Consumers can also find refuge in iconic purchases, which remain secure values at a time when uncertainty and change are also a concern (Shutterstock).

Different types of products require specific marketing strategies

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People intuitively have the impression that the ephemeral luxury consumer has earned his success and social status (Shutterstock)

In addition to offering useful insights for consumers, this research is also informative for luxury marketers. Companies have been growing wary since the new digital trend started to permeate the luxury market. For example, executives in the Swiss watch industry reportedly mixed feelings when Apple launched Apple Watch in 2015 with a premium positioning. Yet, over the last five years, some luxury watchmakers such as Tag Heuer have developed their own smart watches, introducing ephemeral models alongside their extensive iconic offerings. The present research can reassure luxury marketers by showing that ephemeral products do not dilute luxury brands’ exclusive image, since ephemeral consumers are perceived to be as prestigious and high-status as iconic consumers; rather, ephemeral products offer unique benefits to consumers which may help companies sustain customer interest and grow their clientele.
Nonetheless, because ephemeral and iconic products reflect distinct individual characteristics, one can expect that the profile and expectations of consumers for these two types of luxury products will be distinct. For example, ephemeral product lines may be better positioned than iconic lines to benefit from endorsers who symbolize creativity, hard work, and achievement, and they may benefit more from imagery of achievement rather than legacy or heritage. Therefore, there is a solid basis for luxury brands to rely on young and creative ambassadors to promote their ephemeral product lines, as illustrated by the success of Tag Heuer’s smart watch campaign featuring sports prodigies Cristiano Ronaldo and Tom Brady. Luxury brands could similarly benefit from portraying self-made entrepreneurs and artists to exacerbate the creative appeal of ephemeral product lines.

Why are these insights even more relevant today?

This research identifies specific contexts in which ephemeral luxury products create perceptions of achievement and yield benefits for luxury consumers and brands. These contexts include:

  • Meritocratic contexts which value and reward hard work and individual effort. Ephemeral products are particularly attractive in contexts that promote a strong work ethic (such as the Silicon Valley). Because meritocratic ideals are proliferating in modern society (e.g., with the rise of start-ups and self-made women and men), one can predict a bright future for the ephemeral luxury goods market.
  • Uncertain contexts in which social positions are in flux and individuals can feasible grow their social standing (as opposed to contexts with stable social hierarchies). Creativity becomes a critical asset in uncertain contexts where individuals need to adapt in order to overcome new challenges. Therefore, two predictions can be made about the future of ephemeral products. On the one hand, the current uncertain period (due to COVID-19 and its economic ramifications) may strengthen the exclusivity and attractiveness of ephemeral products in consumers’ eyes, because economic success is increasingly difficult and effortful for individuals to achieve, and fewer brands may launch ephemeral collections during this period making ephemeral products harder to come by (cf. Patek Philippe, Rolex; Gomelsky 2020). On the other hand, some consumers may prefer to opt for iconic and tried-and-true products during this period when uncertainty and change also happen to be a source of significant stress (cf. the price raise of Hermès Birkin handbags on the Chinese secondhand market; Fu 2020).

In sum, this research uncovers unique meanings and implications of ephemeral and iconic luxury products for consumers and brands, and it offers useful insights about how consumers and companies can leverage these meanings to secure favorable outcomes and achieve success in the marketplace.

Link to the abstract of the academic article: read here

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