Everyone wants to live richly, and that's driving the truly rich crazy. But the truly rich will have to get therapy, because a redefinition of wealth and what it means in America is underway.
Welcome to the Age of New Luxury, the Rise of Masstige, the Democratization of Acquisition. It's the birth of a new consumer era that affects the kinds of cars we drive, the coffee we drink and the soaps we use. It affects our housing and clothing choices, where and how we travel, and what we do when we get there.
Heck, according to the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), a management consulting firm that tracks consumer trends for corporate clients, The New Luxury and its attendant themes could even influence our choice of worship houses--and therapists.
BCG laid out its theory in a recent internal report, "The New Luxury: Why the Middle-Market American Consumer Wants Premium Goods & How Companies Create Them."
Overdrive obtained a copy and is using it here with permission of the firm and the report's authors, Neil Fiske, Michael Silverstein and John Butman. The firm and authors stipulated one condition for use of the report: "Don't call 'new luxury' a fad."
Okay, it's not a fad.
Instead, The New Luxury is the natural outgrowth of an era in which people are working longer hours, earning more money, but enjoying it less. At work, they are worried about holding onto their jobs in a shifting economy and moving up the corporate ladder. At home, they are stressed about holding onto their spouses and children and keeping it all together.
The bottom line is that, as stated in the refrain of The Rolling Stone's rock classic, they "can't get no satisfaction." So, according to BCG, they try and try and try to get it in the marketplace.
"We don't see this as an emulation thing," Butman told Overdrive. "It's not a simple matter of middle-class people, or upper-income people trying to act like the rich. There are some very key, real emotional needs being met here."
"Yeah," said Butman. "Everybody knows that they can't satisfy all of their emotional needs through goods; but having the right goods help."
Thus, we understand the democratization of acquisition. It is the pursuit of living richly, as opposed to simply aping the rich. It works like this: You have $30,000 to spend on a car. You want it to be the best $30,000 car you can buy. You want it to have all of the whistles and bells available on more expensive cars, but you don't want make-believe trinkets. You want something real.
Globally, car companies have responded to that demand by introducing a slew of highly functional, high-quality "entry-level luxury cars." Audi has its A4. BMW has its 3-Series. Cadillac has its CTS. Mercedes-Benz has its C-Class, and Porsche has its Boxster.
BCG calls such cars "masstige" products--high-quality, prestige-name cars sold as mass-market prices. Current sales numbers indicate that the masstige makes are bringing in lots of buyers and lots of money from old-wealth car companies, such as Mercedes-Benz, that once were losing market share.
Why? Fiske, Silverstein and Butman contend that the masstige models are giving buyers emotional satisfaction and value.
The value point is important. Competitors in the modern rat race might be overstressed, but they are not stupid. They mostly are highly educated people who know that there is no true one-to-one relationship between price and value. Their mommas told them to shop around, and they enjoy doing it.
As a result, according to BCG, they have rewritten the rules of wealth as they apply to acquisition. For example, under "Old Luxury," the supply of the sought item was rare. Under "New Luxury," the supply of the desired product is accessible, but limited.
Old Luxury made little distinction between cost and actual value. For that reason, we had Rolls-Royce cars with lots of expensive gimcrackery. But, functionally, they weren't superior to a Honda Accord.
New Luxury refuses to tolerate that disconnect between cost and value. The car that offers more for less while distinguishing itself in terms of materials and design is the car that will sell. New Luxury even goes one step farther. As evidenced in the segment-busting Honda Element, a vehicle bound to alter the conventional concept of the SUV, it questions the need for extravagance and excess, especially if the extras do little to improve the joy of the ride.
It's all wonderfully revolutionary stuff, and corporations everywhere are beginning to lock on to what's happening, to perceive the difference between coffee and latte.
But it's a development, some marketers say, that has left the truly rich consumer out in the cold and wondering about what to do with their money.
How to define the truly rich? F. Scott Fitzgerald said it best: "The rich are different from you and me." The rich think rich. Theirs is an air of unquestioned entitlement. They seek both exclusion and exclusivity. How can a company please such people in the Age of New Luxury?
Mercedes-Benz seems to have come up with an answer. The company is applying New Luxury rules to old wealth thinking, as evidenced by the introduction of its Maybach super-luxury cars, which come with base prices ranging from $310,000 to $360,000.
That's a lot of money for a consumer item. But in the Maybach, Mercedes-Benz has connected price with value and value with the kind of exclusivity desired by the truly rich.
Everything in the Maybach, from design and engineering to choice of interior materials, from electronics to the quality of gaskets, is absolute top of the line. Maybachs aren't cars. They are art pieces, land-based corporate jets. Their exclusion is guaranteed by price and Mercedes-Benz's stated refusal to build any more than 1,300 annually for global sales.
At least, that should take care of some of the automotive angst among the truly rich. But, they are going to have trouble making other adjustments to the democratization of acquisition.
I mean, let's face it, Grey Poupon mustard ain't all that.