Should luxury brands lend social activism a hand?

luxury brands

Many of us will remember 2020 as the year the world was changed by a virus, but it will also be remembered as a year of activism across the social, environmental and political spectrum. 

But how does a glitzy brand successfully support such movements without risking damage to its own reputation in the process?

Lewis Hackney, Founder of luxury marketing company Etch’d, steers us through these potentially treacherous waters… 

luxury brands - lewis hackney

From gender politics and environmentalism to the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements, social activism in 2020 has forced businesses and brands of all shapes and sizes to evaluate how they position and market themselves.

For many luxury brands, this is uncharted territory.

Whereas mass-market brands often remain relevant by reinventing themselves and following the social trends of the day, luxury brands pride themselves on being classic entities that stand the test of time.

Their timeless, aspirational values pass from generation to generation and the way in which they position themselves doesn’t change.

Wholesale social upheaval is, therefore, unnerving for these companies – so what can they do to best do navigate today’s modern marketing minefield?

Luxury brands and big issues

To a degree, high-end brands have typically had the luxury (no pun intended!) of not having to concern themselves with the issues of the man of the street.

Their products, lifestyles and image are beyond most people’s financial reach, and as brands, they lift themselves above the everyday. Yet the strength and intensity of social activism over the past 12 months means even the luxury bubble has been penetrated.

Socially aware: Brands need to respond carefully to social activism.
Socially aware: Brands need to respond carefully to social activism and follow through on words with actions.

Today, no one is immune, and this means luxury brands can’t afford to just do nothing. Whilst many luxury brands quickly responded to the events of George Floyd’s death, for example, the fashion industry in particular was criticised in many quarters and across social media for being too slow.

A number of high-profile models called out the industry for its silence, leaving many brands exposed and on the back foot.

Silence not an option

The first lesson to be learnt therefore is that silence simply isn’t an option.

It isn’t, however, just a case of responding per se; the way in which luxury brands respond and position themselves in response to social change is just as important as the act of acknowledgement itself. Indeed brands run the risk of making things worse for themselves if they respond in the wrong way than had they not responded at all.

Luxury brands therefore have to be incredibly sensitive to, and aware of, being potentially seen to simply react in a wooden, insincere or knee-jerk fashion to social change.

Countless luxury brands in recent years have been criticised for paying insincere lip service to social causes through social media and fluffy statements, whilst having no ethnic diversity at senior leadership level, or failing to actually address their sustainability and environmental impact.

luxury choices
Brand baselines: Luxury brands need to be sincere and genuine in approaching social causes.

Luxury brands can’t therefore just be seen to just be saying something; they have to be actively marketing themselves as doing something – be it guaranteeing better minority representation on their boards, donating to relevant social causes or joining industry environmental initiatives. Lip service just won’t cut it.

From a marketing perspective, luxury brands also can’t be seen to be capitalising upon or taking advantage of mainstream social issues.

Positioning amid the pandemic

Taking the Covid-19 pandemic as an example, many people have experienced difficulties and financial uncertainty. Brands therefore need to be cautious and sensitive to that; they need to be emotionally intelligent and can’t afford to be seen as completely out of touch.

At the same time, luxury products are purchased because of the lifestyle that is perceived to have been obtained by owning these items.

Purchasing a luxury item is a pick-me-up – it makes us feel better and like we are moving up in the world (albeit perhaps temporarily) when everything around us feels negative. Many people feel sad right now, which means there is demand for these products and the feelings they bring.

In essence, luxury brands shouldn’t look like they’re obviously capitalising upon Covid-19 misfortune by overly positioning their products as an emotional escape/fix following a tough year. They have to be more discreet and subtle, and can’t be seen to be opportunistic.

Focusing content and marketing

Rather, brands should be looking to focus content and marketing more on making people feel good about life – the message being that there is a brighter, more positive and aspirational future ahead, and reminding us of positive life values.

Now is not a time to be selling hard; it is a time to be selling stories. This will resonate far better in times of social unease and crisis, and as we approach a new year, than an overly consumeristic message that purely promotes product.

Gucci has hit the nail on the head with this in recent weeks with GucciFest, with the whole project subtly placed around normality.

Some of their films were based around an everyday event, such as going to a café – a basic comfort that brings us reassurance at troubling and uncertain times.

Luxury ‘in touch’ with issues

Ultimately, the luxury brands that market themselves as in touch and in acknowledgement of the social issues of today, demonstrate real commitment to change and adapt, and avoid the trap of capitalising on social instability to shallowly sell product will resonate and make the most impact.

Those brands that demonstrate a lack of social consciousness, fail to pivot and overtly push their products will quickly see their marketing campaigns fail to resonate and their reputations may well fall flat.

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