A view from Tracey Follows

The future of luxury brands in an on-demand world

Can luxury brands both embrace the sharing economy and remain aspirational? It's an existential question they now need to answer.

What is the future of luxury in a world that where everything is on-demand? That is the question that many brands are grappling with in the 21st century.

Luxury brands are prefaced on the idea of scarcity – what is scarce is of most value, and what is difficult to acquire or to access confers status. But in a world of abundance, in which nearly everything is accessible and nothing is scarce, what are the symbols and codes that communicate that something is a luxury? It’s a subject that will be discussed at Future Laboratory's Luxury Futures Forum next month.

Digital has democratised so much of what had only been attainable by the few – whether that be through access to information or actual ownership. But now technology is being used for luxury brands to tap into the sharing economy and it’s hard to know what is exclusive or not any more. The sharing economy and the luxury economy are now coexisting. And nowhere is that more obvious than in social media. Communities have sprung up on Instagram and Snapchat that promote luxury brands and a luxury lifestyle, making brand promises everywhere and promoting themselves as accessible to everyone. 

But brands should be wary of being too accessible. In a recent article in Fast Company, Elizabeth Segran writes about the decline of premium American fashion brands and claims that the reason many are losing share and have become less profitable than they once were is because they were pushed to grow quickly in the short term, manufactured offshore, discounted through outlet channels and, all in all, lost sight of how to manage a luxury brand and create the right perception with consumers. 

She may well be right. But as Grant McCracken points out in a related blog post on the subject, the challenges luxury brands face are cultural too. Even a luxury brand, perhaps especially a luxury brand, needs to be more in touch with the multicultural landscape and other social changes. Once upon a time, the authority of a house, or its creative director, reigned supreme in an untouchable fashion. Now houses are bringing on guest editors, offering mass customisation through online, and even employing tastemakers as influencers to push out positive images of inclusivity through social channels. 

The millennial consumer wants to have their say in the design, in the output, and certainly has a viewpoint on the company’s values and behaviour. 

And, to an extent, that need for involvement and participation has been met through technology. Many luxury brands harness social media to bring the consumer closer to the collections. Burberry tweeted new collections from the runway a few years ago. Now, brands are using "click to buy" straight from the runway. And, as a result, more people than ever are perusing and purchasing luxury items over a tiny mobile-phone screen. The logical conclusion of these brands’ attempt to meet this exponential on-demand need in premium goods may be the end of the habitual six-month collection altogether.

But there are signs of a backlash. Perhaps frightened by too much digital evolution, some luxury brands are pushing back. Bold brands are choosing to stand their ground rather than kowtow to every consumer whim. And there’s no bolder brand than a luxury brand. As Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, once said: "If you’re not pissing off 50% of people, you’re not trying hard enough."

Earlier this year, Proenza Schouler previewed its pre-autumn range to the press but banned outside photography or reviews until the clothes and accessories ranges were in-store. Everlane, an apparel business that practises "radical transparency", recently launched a private Instagram account that only accepts up to 100 followers a day. And other brands are throttling back on the amount of choice the consumer can experience as they "take back control". And, in a sense, this is what is at the heart of a luxury brand: being core about your target audience, controlling who can choose you – increasing the brand’s ability to become a brand everyone can aspire to but only a few can attain. 

We’re gearing up for a battle between the luxury brands that are open to the new and emerging environments, formats and ideas associated with the sharing economy, and those that still wish to exert control over access and acquisition. And what it will come down to is a question of where people get their most sophisticated pleasure from: sharing what they have or showcasing something others don’t have. Is it sharing or showing that is more in demand than on-demand? That, for luxury brands, remains to be seen. 

Tracey Follows is chief strategy and innovation officer of The Future Laboratory