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& Other Helpful Insights for Marketers by Richard Wise

Posts tagged cultural codes

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How working as a servant to the ultra-rich helped me to understand the cultural code of luxury

I got my introduction to the culture of luxury while studying semiotics and anthropology at the Sorbonne. 

I lived in a chambre de bonne, as the French quaintly call maid’s quarters.


And I drove a Mercedes 450 SEL with a built-in bar and state-of-the-art electronic everything. 


I had snagged a job as a luxury chauffeur and I could work for a month and pay for my chambre de bonne for a year.  To qualify for this job, the easy part was driving skills: I learned to drive from a race car driver, my talented and versatile father. 


The hard part was what they called “connaissance de Paris,” which meant I had to memorize the names and addresses of approximately three hundred of some of the world’s most expensive hotels, restaurants, night clubs, fashion houses and jewelry stores. 


My clients were mostly Saudis and the royal family of Morocco.  I was a servant to the rich.  And like all servants, I became a connoisseur of their lifestyles and mores without ever being able to afford them on my own. 

So what do the servants talk about?  About whether you have class or not.  Has your wealth or your fame gone to your head?  Do you judge your lessers with contempt?  Are you haughty and indifferent to the needs of those less fortunate than you? 

30 years later, I try not to forget what I learned from that experience.  The Good Lord, however, has been kind to me and has not crushed me with either fame or wealth. 

You can imagine my interest, though, as a marketing anthropologist when I read that a new study showed that buying food at Whole Foods makes you act like a jerk. 


Seriously, that’s actually true.  Loyola University’s study showed that eating organic foods produces two major behavioral changes.  1) We become more judgy.  2) We become less willing to help strangers.

Why might that be? 

Because buying organic food helps us deal with our number one problem: our existential anxiety, our denial of death.  This problem is so big and unsolvable, it is shelved by the conscious mind but the unconscious mind is tormented by it our entire lifetime.

Anything that reduces the load of carrying this unresolvable existential question allows us to feel more entitled to live, more like we belong here, that our life has a transcendent meaning. 

Cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker called such solutions “immortality projects.”  Have children.  Or friends who will remember you when you’re gone.  Be a good member of your church.  Build a home.  Decorate it beautifully.  Or, even, write a book, create a new philosophy, become wealthy and have buildings named after you.  All of these are more keenly appreciated when we view them as immortality projects.

Organized religion has fallen out of favor among Western intelligentsia and for those who feel the need to justify why they don’t go to church, a popular construct is “because they’re so judgmental” and because “they don’t practice what they preach: they walk out of church in their fine clothing and stride right past the homeless people.”

Isn’t that interesting?  Those are exactly the two kinds of behavior the Loyola University study found afflict people who eat organic food.

We are so familiar with the concept of religious hypocrisy that we are prepared to encounter it and it doesn’t surprise us if we’re not inside the cult (“ha!”) and if we are in it, there’s usually a similar enjoinment to resist luxuriating in our newfound existential entitlement.

But buying organic foods, that’s not an organized religion, right?  Yet it addresses our existential angst, our undeservedness, so what happens?  We get caught being human.  As soon as we feel more entitled to be here, we start acting elevated.  We judge.  We close ourselves to the stranger in need.

So what does this have to do with the cultural code of luxury?  Everything.  In fact, it has everything to do with any brand that seeks to give its consumer an elevated experience of life.

I remember my first luxury purchase.  I didn’t call it a luxury purchase.  But it was one.  I was starting to make it as a professional anthropologist in Paris and the watch I had had through my student years broke.  Why not get a new one?  One that would last?

I shopped what was out there and saw that with a retail discount AND a buying club discount I could actually afford the cheapest Rolex for just a few hundred dollars.  Forget that that was close to my then net worth.  It looked beautiful in all its clean stainless steel streamlined elegance – and it would outlive me, I said to myself.  An immortality project indeed.


My cool friends all thought it was a good choice: discrete, no flashy bells and whistles.  I got my emerging status affirmation with subtlety.

But then a friend of mine, Laurence, who was ten years older and further advanced in her career as a professional intellectual in Paris, bought a watch that I found out was ten times more expensive than mine.  The brand was Patek Philippe. 


Now this was the kind of brand name that my luxury chauffeur clients could actually afford.  Wow.  Why did she do that?  Why spend all that money?  What was she trying to prove?  Nothing, she said.  The watch was a moving work of art, as far as she was concerned.  It didn’t necessarily keep the most accurate time but it was made by a small company that had been making them for generations.  No two were exactly alike.  Each had its own personality. 

I was not surprised when, years later, Patek Philippe actually built the idea of “immortality project” directly into their advertising.


The story of my Rolex and Laurence’s Patek Philippe reveals the cultural code that governs the unfolding future of luxury.  Luxury gives us permission to be selfish and the higher the degree of preciousness, the more that story is required to sanction the luxury.

We can plot this insight as the intersection of two ancient values: pretium and historia

Pretium is the Latin root of both precious and price. Pretium is where rare, costly and desirable all meet.

Historia is the Latin root of story.  But also of wit and vision.  It is where interesting, intelligent, artful and storied all come together.

If something is all pretium but no historia, what is that?  Bling.


Consider this quote from the king of camp, John Waters: “I like rap music. But bragging about being rich to poor people is really offensive. I want to hear a gangsta rap song about buying a Cy Twombly painting or dating a museum curator.”

If something is all historia but no pretium, what is that?  Memento, curio, cool item.

So Laurence’s watch was further out in pretium than mine.  But she did not have to be ashamed of her purchase because it was correspondingly more richly endowed with historia.


Sin is woven into the word luxury itself.  Le luxe is French for luxury.  Le Luxure is French for carnal lust.  In the English language, the word luxury once meant the same thing: “lascivious, sinful self-indulgence” but then expanded to “excess, extravagance and magnificence.” 

A luxury is an indulgence.  Sin here, too.  In the Catholic church, an indulgence is a “softening” of the consequences of sin.  “Indulge me,” we say, meaning grant me the luxury of being selfish.

I talked about this with a fellow anthropologist, Andy Stubbins who was consulting for The Futures Company.

Andy pointed out to me that making the selfish permissible was just one of the three transformations that truly indulgent brands can bring about.  The other two:

-      make the extraordinary accessible

-      make the emotional comprehensible

Truly indulgent brands and experiences, he said, carry within them a rigor, a precision, a considered means of enjoyment - without which the transformative magic of indulgence doesn’t operate.  Lose this balance and you no longer have indulgence, you just have license.

Tim Stock maps culture using semiotic analysis at ScenarioDNA in New York and has written a brilliant piece on the culture of luxury which you can find by visiting his linked-in profile.  I’ve worked with him before and one of the things he’s taught me is the usefulness of the hero’s quest in understanding the role that luxury can play in the life of luxury consumers.

The hero’s journey encompasses the discovery of truths about what is really worth experiencing as well as the curation of these discoveries and the sharing of them; knowledge and transcendence are the twin goals of this journey.

Added Value Research recently used a team of anthropologically-savvy luxury detectives to detect the fine differences in meaning between brands that are considered merely premium from brands that are considered luxurious by young and influential luxury consumers.  They found that true luxury brands have common traits: timelessness, uniqueness and soul.  “Luxury crosses the seasons without a wrinkle,” they reported.  “Luxury is a vector for emotion; its objects are charged with meaning, often with history.”

Let’s take the watch example and plot the next point out in the simultaneous extrapolation of pretium and historia.

If we veer towards high pretium alone, we can just buy a well-recognized gold Rolex like the Daytona model worn by a head of security for Big Pharma as seen in “The Bourne Legacy.” 


He will have it lifted from him by Aaron Cross who will use it to buy his way out of a tight situation.  It’s almost pure currency.  No historia necessary beyond the brand name - which serves as pretium guarantee.  A new one will run you around 20,000 bucks.

Or we veer towards historia without worrying about pretium.

How about a simple stainless steel watch with a leather strap designed by the late, great Max Bill, the father of the modern Swiss design movement.  German-made with Swiss movements, it’s yours for $1,000. 


Only other ultra-design conscious people will recognize its aesthetic.  You’re not going to impress an Eastern European call girl with this piece.  But you’ll fit right in at one of Swiss Miss’s creative breakfasts, oh yeah.

Now let’s go way, way out in both pretium and history.  Consider a pocket watch made from a single-piece Colombian emerald, made by an unknown jeweler for an unknown member of the English royal family shortly after the time of Shakespeare – around 1640.  It was found buried in the cellar of a London house in 1912 near the old marketplace Cheapside. 


Historians believe that it was a work in progress by a prominent London jeweler who hid it before departing to fight in the English Civil War.  The watch is obviously priceless and the mystery behind it only escalates its pricelessness.  You can’t go buy it, but you can see it for free at the London Museum.

Alright, how about something you can actually buy?  Let’s look at two watches recently profiled by at BaselWorld.

Breva is a new watch company started by a non-watchmaker who couldn’t find the kind of watch he wanted to own and decided to create it.  This one doesn’t just tell time, it also predicts the weather as it has built-in barometric readings. 


Only 55 will be made and one can be yours for $150,000.

Or you can own a true masterpiece of animatronics inspired by the Commedia dell’Arte made by Bulgari.  Only ten watchmakers in the world can produce the kind of sophisticated work required to make the characters of this medieval theatre troupe come to life at the appointed hour. 


Only eight will be made of each model and they will set you back $800,000.


It is fascinating to watch the interplay of Pretium and Historia - and it becomes possible to anticipate where it will take luxury trends.

No doubt, Chinese and Russian luxury consumers will move away from mere status affirmation into experiences of the exceptional.  Signs of this abound.


Luxury codes will continue to more forward into higher and higher degrees of craftsmanship, artistry, passion and heritage.  We will collect luxury goods and experiences that have talismanic and liminal properties.  Magic items that tell who we are.  Threshold moments where we crossed from state of being into another.

I think we are yearning to leave behind Homo Economicus - man who spends – to rediscover Homo Ludens –man who plays.  This was how Huizinga described the culture of the High Middle Ages with its constant fairs, pilgrimages, troubadours, painted cathedrals, festive dress, guilds and craftsmen.


When you go to places like Mont St Michel in France or Kyoto in Japan, you can walk down ancient streets where fine goods and foods await your inspection - often even have a conversation with their makers.  


The Hermes atelier set up shop in London’s Saatchi Gallery - a great example of this.


We will know the backstories of our perfumes which will be made from precious substances artfully combined by a perfumer whose name we know.

We will ask our talismanic personal appliances like our watches, purses, wallets, phone cases to tell our story, with personalized heraldry that tells of our origins and quests we have been on.

How can you code your brand so that it has cultural foresight built into it?

Plot out your competitive set for pretium and historia and find the white spaces.  Ask yourself:

1.  What is becoming scarce?

2.  What senses are being neglected?

3.  What hidden desires are not being fulfilled?

And then go back and figure out how your brand can make the selfish permissible using its assets, reputation, expertise and history.

Filed under cultural codes luxury bling cultural trends trends