Lilian Raji is a luxury brand advisor and communications expert.
Luxury brands were among the last to get into e-commerce. Their argument was that luxury is about experience. They couldn’t reconcile how to create online something as intimate as a customer’s visit to a Cartier boutique to find something deeply meaningful. I mention Cartier specifically as they were one of the early adopters of e-commerce, in 2010 in the U.S. As someone passionate about the brand, I can attest my emotional experience during my first visit to its Place Vendôme boutique in Paris was nothing like my first visit to the website, where I spent hours making a wishlist.
While on the website I could fantasize about how a Ballon Bleu would look on my wrist or a Panthere de Cartier necklace would grace my décolletage, being in the store made fantasizing and wishing unnecessary. As any skilled salesperson will tell you, the easiest sales happen when your customer wears the item. My purchase was immediate once I fell in love with the salesperson’s recommendation.
So how does this type of experience now happen in the digital age? How are luxury brands growing the loyalty of high-net-worth individuals?
Unable to continue ignoring its value, once defiant luxury brands have now embraced e-commerce, doing so with the help of two additional Es: emotion and experience.
The pursuit of luxury is a passionate endeavor. Emotions override all logical sense when a customer evaluates a Timex against a Patek Phillipe. Both tell time, but the Patek also makes the customer feel something very intimate, very personal. Brands understanding how emotions influence the pursuit make storytelling a priority in their site design.
A visit to the Louis Vuitton website can elicit excitement, romance, and of course, desire. The brand achieves this with frequently updated videos, which tell new stories with every visit. While luxury has always been defined by exclusivity, the LV site encourages a sense of inclusivity — possible, of course, only if you make a purchase. The videos persuade you into believing that owning a Louis Vuitton item is entering a world of glamour and prestige. Your purchase gives you access to this exclusive world. For those who value that access, the money exchanged is well worth the price of admission.
Further into the site, you find product pages sharing in-depth stories, both visually and written, providing thorough details so customers can easily determine if the product meets their demands. If not, the site’s user experience is so engaging, customers can’t help but continue searching until they’ve found the right item.
Yet purchasing online is only possible for items under a certain price point. After a price, most luxury brands will insist on a personal interaction. This is how they’ve reconciled the in-person experience with the limitations of online.
When it comes to HNWIs, the URL will never defeat experiences offered IRL. To buy that $25,000 necklace or handbag, you’ll have to speak with someone, either by phone or by visiting a boutique. This takes the online experience offline and creates an intimacy that can’t be achieved by a website alone.
Once the customer makes their first purchase, the next challenge is to keep them coming back. Personalized newsletter campaigns are key to this, as is the occasional phone call from the selling associate who smartly gathered important dates from the customer during that first sale. When the associate knows the customer will need something special for an anniversary or a significant other’s birthday, the next sale easily occurs.
Let’s now enter the realm of customers who spend hundreds of thousands of dollars with a luxury brand. This is when brands ask themselves: What do you give someone who has everything and can afford anything?
You give them what money can’t buy: experiences, invitations and access — that is, access to the type of events only an elite percentage will ever get to experience.
While a sales associate at what is now Bucherer, I once had the privilege of curating a customer’s watch collection. Though he initially wanted a Movado, I introduced him to true horlogerie collecting, starting him off with classics like Tag Heuer and Breitling, then turning him on to Jaeger LeCoultre, Blancpain and Breguet before I left the company. When we spoke a year later, he told me he’d fallen for Breitling watches — in fact, he’d accumulated so many that Breitling had brought him out to visit its factory in Switzerland.
This is how luxury brands cater to the HNW customer in the digital age. They understand that, when money is no object, only unique experiences can keep the customer coming back for more.
Some luxury brands are embracing NFTs as digital becomes an even greater part of their overall strategy. Several companies have emerged to resolve the grey goods dilemma by minting NFTs to authenticate specific watches. Entering the NFT realm keeps luxury brands relevant to the ever-evolving hobbies of HNWI.
Italian watchmaker Panerai recently invited 50 customers who had purchased the limited Radiomir Eileen Experience Edition watch to sail the Amalfi coast on the watch’s namesake yacht. The company threw in an NFT artwork by the artist Skygolpe — who has, to date, sold $5.2 million in NFTs — and a digital wallet. That wallet becomes another avenue for Panerai to continue creating emotional bonds with its customers.
Said Jean-Marc Pontroué, chief executive of Panerai, in an interview with Kate Youde for the Financial Times, “We wanted to add this NFT to bring added value to customers to say we will connect with you before the experience starts, during the experience and after the experience. The NFT is a modern platform to connect people who love our brand.”
As new technology such as NFTs creates more opportunities to be part of the luxury customer’s lifestyle, so too does the digital age make e-commerce a crucial channel in the HNWI’s passionate pursuit of luxury.