As most of us nurse our battered bank accounts after the most expensive month of the year, we thought we would turn our eye to the question of what we buy into when we splash out on premium products and brands. 

At the Forge we’ve had the opportunity to explore the premium end of a number of categories, from high value spirits to premium domestic appliances, and we think there are some interesting commonalities. 

So what are we really buying when we buy premium?

It depends on your point of view

We’re not all the same in this respect. Different people value, look for, and ultimately buy different things when they buy premium. 

There are the experts. For these people it’s all about the product itself. They want to be wowed with tales of the unique history and process. They venerate a depth of knowledge and understanding that brings its own version of exclusivity. They understand how different brands and products suit different occasions, and they truly enjoy using the product.

For example, in the world of high value fashion these are the consumers who are buying for the quality of design, the workmanship, and the quality of materials. 

There are the experience seekers.  For these people it’s all about the event. It’s the feeling, the buzz, and the context. They value the feelings and the moments that only luxury brands can provide.  Back in the world of high value fashion these are the consumers who are buying for the experience of the purchase…the beautifully designed store, the personal service. They are also the people who will be actively seeking new and unknown brands that bring distinctive stories and experiences. 

Grey Goose at the Toronto Film Festival is an example of a brand appealing to experience seekers (image courtesy of Grey Goose)

Grey Goose at the Toronto Film Festival is an example of a brand appealing to experience seekers (image courtesy of Grey Goose)

There are the signifiers. For these people it’s all about the social meaning. Its about what is says about me to other people.  Premium brands are acting as a badge so they need to be familiar and recognisable. This common meaning allows brands to be used as a social tool…as a way of fitting in, or indeed as a way of differentiating. In the world of high value fashion these are the consumers who are buying to connect, or to fit in, or to show their status.

So what does that mean for premium brands? 

Each of these different mindsets and value systems connects more to certain marketing channels, activities and content. So a brand that has clarity on the ‘version’ of premium it wants to offer and the consumer mindsets it wants to target can focus effort on the most valuable actions.

So for experts motivated by provenance and process stories a focus on specialist retailers and channels, and endorsement from other experts is likely to be more powerful than above-the-line communication. It’s important to stress that this doesn’t have to mean a recycling of tired old codes of exclusivity…this is also the territory of the small-batch, artisan codes that are resonating so strongly across categories at the moment. 

Brands like WhistlePig showcase a more contemporary version of expertise. (Image courtesy of WhistlePig Whiskey)

Brands like WhistlePig showcase a more contemporary version of expertise. (Image courtesy of WhistlePig Whiskey)

For experience seekers motivated by events and moments a focus on creating unique experiences that reflect and build the values of the brand and allow consumers to encounter the brand in memorable and meaningful circumstances (e.g. branded environments and events) is again likely to be more powerful than ATL. In contrast, for connecting with signifiers motivated by expressing social meaning, mainstream communication strategies are likely to have a stronger role in building this common meaning, alongside brand presence in appropriate contexts. 

The devil is also in the detail.

We’ve also noticed a number of tools for engagement that are used successfully across all types of premium brands. But even these play out differently when we overlay this lens of different consumer mindsets. 

For example, many premium brands use endorsement i.e. using other entities to provide desire and credibility for your offer, either explicitly or implicitly through companies, celebrities, experts etc. But depending on the consumer target the ideal endorser would have very different characteristics. A brand targeting experts should be seeking out a true connoisseur. A brand targeting experience seekers should be seeking out someone associated with unique, cool, cutting edge experiences. A brand targeting signifiers should be seeking out someone who represents the world of social meaning it wants to operate in.

Contemporary endorsement is increasingly built from depth not superficial association. (Image courtesy of Casamigos Tequila)

Contemporary endorsement is increasingly built from depth not superficial association. (Image courtesy of Casamigos Tequila)

So premium isn’t one thing. And that means premium brands will increasingly need to be clear on the consumers they are targeting, and the implications that has on the channels, activities and content they focus on. The bravest brands will create stories, moments and meaning that allows them to connect to multiple consumer mindsets. Some brands are doing this already. They’re easy to recognize. They’re the ones making all the money.

And for the rest of us it’s perhaps food for thought the next time we splash out.

With thanks to Money Images for the image

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