Luxury brands at the time of Covid-19: towards a new humanism?
Dr. Federica Carlotto, luxury insight specialist, explores the ways in which luxury brands have responded to the Covid-19 pandemic with a renewed sense of empathy and focus on humanness, taking initiatives ranging from empowering people's creative talents during lockdown to organising live events.
The spread of Covid-19 has undoubtedly represented a stress test for the luxury industry.
Companies had to hibernate or scale down many of their operations and embrace for a double-digit decrease in revenues. At the same time, brands still had to “be here” and stay relevant, demonstrating even more clearly to their customers what they really stand for, beyond their commercial offerings.
This can be a challenging task. Luxury companies have been building up their brands along promises of status and exclusivity, with a recent millennial diversion towards playful and irreverent self-indulgence. In a period of social and economic distress, this aspirational and hedonistic vocabulary suddenly seems to hit a wrong note. Conspicuous consumption becomes taboo. Carefree enjoyment feels inappropriate.
Since the very early stages of the pandemic, luxury groups and corporations have committed to the fight against the virus: they have made consistent donations, converted their production, supported the categories on the frontline. This makes the headlines, although it is also somehow expected, considering the policies in social responsibility the luxury industry has been implementing so far. It is commendable, but institutional.
According to analysts and advisors, empathy is the most effective remedy for businesses to survive through the Covid-19 crisis. Companies must work on the quality and the level of the connection they establish with their customers and audiences. To become empathic, not only do they have to understand the feelings and the unspoken needs of the other, but they also have to make those feelings and needs their own.
Stripped down of any glamorous flair or marketing scope, the communication of luxury brands has found a new avenue. A few brands have turned to humanness, as shared and shareable condition. They focus on those words, gestures, experiences that resonate with us irrespectively of our specific economic, social, and cultural circumstances. Through a series of initiatives, projects and contents articulated on their digital platforms, luxury brands are trying to regroup with their audiences around what being human means in this very unique moment.
One of the most powerful luxury narratives of the Covid-19 era is people at the helm of the industry opening up about their vulnerability. In an interview, Silvia Venturini Fendi remembers the pandemic outbreak, and her concern about flying her daughter back home safely. Patou’s new artistic director Guillaume Henry, on the phone for the LVMH “News from Home” Instagram series, describes his working-from-home outfit, which now comprises slippers. In an episode of the Business of Fashion’s podcast, Alber Elbaz jokes about the smart-working fatigue, that makes him feel like a “Zoombie”. Authenticity in luxury has been so far associated with the provenance of goods or to the brand’s consistency; now, it is the about brands having the confidence to reveal that, behind a name and a logo, there are hearts beating.
Luxury companies have also been particularly responsive towards the human consequences of the productive break. This frustrates the fundamental human impulse to do, make, create. Whether in furlough, jobless or smart working, the lockdown individual is often feeling deprived of purpose and agency over their hands and brain. The luxury sector comes to the rescue with a series of initiatives for people to engage in manual or creative processes. Manolo Blanhik has made the sketches of its iconic shoes available for download and colouring. The watchmaker Ressence has launched the #WatchesAgainstCovid19 competition for the creation of a new Type 1 Slim Watch with the winning design to be produced and sold by Sotheby’s. People can join the McQueen creative team in their weekly Instagram challenges or they can educate themselves in the traditional crafts with the #DGFattoacasa workshops-tutorials, courtesy of Dolce & Gabbana. Luxury brands have always celebrated the creativity and the craftsmanship of their workforce. Now, they have used this asset to our benefit, providing us with solace, dignity, and sense of accomplishment.
In these days, luxury brands have been incrementing their presence on music streaming platforms, with Chanel, Lanvin, Alexander McQueen, and Supreme releasing their playlists on Spotify, Youtube, and Apple Music. While luxury companies are not new to try out various formats to reach new audiences, those playlists, played in a lockdown environment, sound very different. Rather than just another exercise in branding, the selections of music and tunes by brands’ creatives and sound designers seem to blend in their curatorial know-how with the caring attention of the old mix tapes by friends and sweethearts. These luxury playlists offer guidance and companionship, cutting through the confused noise of the Covid-19 news and bulletins.
Isolating at home is not equal to staying at home. Self-isolation is a non-place and non-time condition, which disrupts the rhythm and the rituals of our social lives. A few luxury brands have taken our calendars in their hands, penciling in multi-platforms live initiatives. In April, Salvatore Ferragamo launched Trivia, a series of 5 digital appointments with anecdotes and quizzes about the history of the brand. With its Sunday Movie Nights and other live events, the project “Bottega Veneta Residency” aims to give us back the weekend feelings. Organizing live events allows people to overcome the alienation of the lockdown, restoring their sense of belonging in place and time. It aggregates individuals into a community sharing the same experiences. It reclaims another fundamental aspect of our being human, i.e. being social.
By focusing on humanness, luxury companies seem to have articulated a particularly effective empathic presence. In comparison with other industries, the luxury sector already possessed a lead. Human capital is, after all, the main asset behind their luxury value propositions. The temporary interruption of the productive pipeline has just allowed luxury companies to appreciate their human capital under a different light: “I was already aware that humans and humanity would have to go back to the center of the process,” Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli explained in an interview to Vogue.
What came out of necessity seems, however, to have set a new phase in the evolution of luxury branding. For a long time, luxury brands have been tastemakers sending top-down signals of distinction, drawing the line between the haves and the have-nots, the cognoscenti and the outsiders. With the emergence of more democratic luxury codes and social media communication, brands have become our lifestyle coaches, helping us to find our own community and way of living.
In the Covid-19 era, brands have proved to be generous and selfless buddies. They have turned the transactional relationship brands-customers into a human-to-human interaction. They have used social media and other digital platforms not to promote themselves, but to reach out. They have set up challenges and games not to generate buzz and likes, but to keep people company. It has been less about them – brands and products, and more about us people – whether luxury CEOs, designers, employees, or John Doe in isolation.
In the next normal, commercial intent and genuine altruism will eventually balance out. But the exercise in empathy undertaken during these few months have equipped many luxury brands with the critical strategic tool to make significant strides and get traction in the post-pandemic competitive landscape.