By  on June 23, 2005

LONDON — If luxury brands are seeking inspiration, all they have to do is look to Apple.

Jeffrey Miller, a New York-based creative consultant, said the computer company has the right touch with consumers. "They've got the look, the product — and the service right," he told the audience at the Luxury Briefing Conference here. "Go to the Genius Bar at the Apple store, and you talk to real people who know more about computers than you do, and who try to teach you rather than tell you what to do."

Miller added that luxury goods companies should offer "services from the heart" and "crafts from the hand." That means training hotel desk clerks to be more empathetic to jet-lagged guests, supplying more oxygen and better food to first-class airline passengers and giving clothing, leathergoods and jewelry more of a human touch.

Miller suggested the luxury goods market could even help ease some of society's ills.

He warned that companies had to stick up for "freedom" in a world dominated by anxiety, fear and stress.

"Luxury people, pay attention! Many of the disposable dollars you discovered in middle-class pockets over the last decade, if you are not careful, will be redirected to defense products marketed as necessity," said Miller during the conference, the theme of which was "Substance Over Style."

Miller told the audience — which included representatives from companies such as Gucci, Chanel, Bally, British Airways, Leading Hotels of the World and Diageo — to "stop screwing people" in the workplace, and to practice trust and foster creativity, resilience and patience if they wanted to succeed.

Miller wasn't the only one rattling cages during the biannual conference, which took place at the Great Eastern Hotel. Philip Hook, head of modern art at Sotheby's, talked about how today's status symbols are about contemporary art rather than antiques.

A few decades ago, the nouveau riche would buy a Regency commode to prove his or her wealth and taste, while today it would be a Damien Hirst or a Tracey Emin work.

"The demand for the middle-range brown furniture market is slowing, and 18th-century furniture is now a bargain compared with a Hirst," he said, wondering aloud whether it was a dying market altogether, or whether there would be a return to the days of status symbols you could actually sit on.The conference wasn't all about the high end of the market. Paul Stead and Julian Ingrams, chairman and chief executive officer, respectively, of The Brewery, a London-based business, brand and design consultancy, debated whether technology can actually sell luxury.

"Technology — like RFID — can help the luxury business in so many ways — it can help personalize and authenticate products, and market them to customers with specific interests," said Stead. Ingrams disagreed, however, wondering how much technology was detracting from the "emotions" inherent in buying and using luxury brands.

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