The Myth And Realities Of Luxury Marketing

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

In a former life, your humble author had a bit of money and liked to buy some expensive cars. Most particularly, I chose the ownership of two Phaetons over one Flying Spur about eight years ago. This bit of contrarian behavior happened after I had a long discussion with my local Bentley dealer. As a consequence, I’m still on the mailing list. Since Bentley is in the business of selling $80,000 Volkswagens for $180,000, they have the kind of profit margin that lets “mailing list” refer to a bunch of people getting Patrick Bateman-quality creamy bond paper mail instead of anonymous HTML spam. So what do we have here? Are you interested? I kind of was, so I opened it.

This is what brilliant marketing looks like. It’s long since been proven that advertisements are effective because they are aspirational or confirmatory, not because they contain useful information or competitive comparisons or anything you’d see in a typical Pontiac ad of the Eighties. Advertising shows us who we’d like to be, or it confirms the brilliance of our existing choices and makes us more likely to purchase again.

To quote one of my favorite authors and one of my favorite articles by that author:

The target demo is not the 1%; the target demo is the Aspirational 14%. They know they are supposed to like quality and goodness and etiquette and discretion, but no one ever taught them what those things look like, so when someone does point it out to them they will go all in. Hence: anything in Trading Up. And they don’t care about the next generation. Not really. They don’t want them to be eaten by zombies but anything past 2069 is of no consequence. What they do care about is how a product brands them, what it says about them now, now that time is running out. Can’t afford to be subtle, which is the same thing as saying I’m willing to pay… to get the message across. There’s a difference between what the brand is and what the brand says about you. You’ll pay 10x for the former and 100x for the latter.

While the Continental GT is cheap by the standards of Goldman Sachs bonus babies, it’s cheap to no one else and it’s exceptionally difficult to “stretch” your way into a CGT because the cheapest lease I was ever quoted for a Continental GT of my very own was about $2300/month with all the right options. $2300/month in the tax bracket where you can afford it is really $5000/month of pre-tax money which means that by the time you insure and fuel the car you’re spending $80,000 a year of pre-tax income on a car in a country where the average family has half of that much money on which to live, eat, and purchase healthcare.

So how do you pitch aspirational to people who have that kind of money to throw around? Typically it’s done by putting the CGT next to something that costs even more, like an $8000/hour executive jet or the kind of home that retails for $25 million anywhere but a McMansion lot in Texas or the Midwest. But there’s another way and The Last Psychiatrist nails it:

The man in the photo is not a representation of the target demo; he is the impossible aspiration of the target demo.

What’s impossible for the kind of people who can afford this car? Why, it’s the one thing that’s impossible for anyone to buy: youth. Of course the woman is young, but she’s not that young. She’s not the SeekingArrangement girl who’s charging five hundred bucks for an hour with one of her sorority sisters’ fathers or the Vegas career prostitute you’d see on the arm of a Russian mobster or NBA owner. She’s the thirty-four-year-old gorgeous mother who married our water-logged hero three months after she graduated from Vassar and he graduated from Dartmouth. (And ignore the British registration; that’s just so they can remind you it’s a British car.)

These are beautiful, successful young people who were born to money and achieved distinction on their own. They’re still sexy, still spontaneous, still enviable. I can assure you with 100% certainty that their real-life versions do not own a Continental GT. They have some sort of malevolent-looking GL or Range Rover or Yukon Denali, depending on geographical location — if, that is, they even own a car at all.

The average Continental GT buyer is fiftysomething and is interested in showing off a bit. Most of the people I met while hanging out at Bentley dealer events were self-made types. Most weren’t very good-looking or put-together because when you build and run the kind of business that gets you that kind of income in one generation, your hands don’t stay idle and you don’t spend much time looking after your looks. You have money. What you want is excitement, sex, the thrill of youth. Could you have some of it in a Continental GT? Of course not. But if you want to kid yourself about it…

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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  • Wmba Wmba on Sep 15, 2014

    I was intrigued by the comment of gtemnykh above concerning the Mercedes W126. And funnily enough, those Benzes were designed just before the huge rework areas at Mercedes' plants were "discovered" about 1990 and written about in "The Machine That Changed the World", causing DB to redesign their cars to be cheap replicars due to the embarassment of not being Toyota. 50 years ago, Volvo decided to open a car assembly plant in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Well, it was just reassembly of CKD kits, really. The 122S became the Volvo Canadian, just for us. These cars typically cost more than Chevs and Fords, so had to be marketed somewhat aspirationally. Things went well, and to increase assembly space, Volvo moved to a larger plant across the harbour in Halifax a few years later when the 144S burst upon the scene. TV ads flaunted Volvo's average 17 year life in Sweden while some nutcase drove 80mph down a dirt road in the background looking for a Skol lager. Other ads touted their precision design. One particular TV ad showed people using a 2 by 6 wood plank on an ostensible Detroit assembly line, under the door and above the sill on a '60s land yacht, which one hefty guy jumped up and down on. After each jump, he hopped off, and checked the door for fit! Great ad. The premise was obvious: Volvos fit together properly. Buy yourself some real quality. Well soon our provincial premier Mr. Smith was driving a Volvo, and Halifax patrolmen swollen by coffee and donuts were finding that no, two fat cops could not fit in the front of a 122S. They preferred the '65 LTD. So I was finishing up a mechanical engineering degree in 1969, owned a rusted out 1960 PV544 which had just blown its cam gear at 136,000 miles, and our class got the invite to tour the Volvo plant. Oh joy! They were starting to assemble the new 164 too. Even better. It was a busy place, and the guy who attached all the wires under the dash was amazingly fast. Our guide was unable to assure us that he was also accurate. It seemed impossible to be that quick even with practice. At the end of the assembly line after they red-lined the engine a couple times with the car on rollers, two guys with a two by six board were adjusting the door fits. I sh*t you not. Major downer. Never bought another Volvo. Hate being duped by false advertising. Most of the 240s some people go on about here came out of that plant. At least the paint was thick enough you couldn't even spot the "adjustments", so there's that. I have never been more than mildly amused by advertising since then. And then only by the ads themselves, never the product. Projecting a persona by flaunting the products you buy only impresses the other airheads - that's what aspiration is. The reality is moving the goods to keep to a factory production schedule. Making something good just for the sake of it now only happens with small companies, before they make it big and have payroll to meet. Merecedes Benz might well have been the last big company who really did try to make superior cars. They were then shamed for rework and confused poor assembly processes with the quality of the product itself, which was never really in doubt to that point. Pity.

  • Chaparral Chaparral on Sep 15, 2014

    You're in Ann Arbor, or Austin, or Columbus on a Saturday afternoon, looking to catch someone's eye. How well does a Corvette work? Not at all. How well would a Bentley work? Only well enough to identify you as the creepy old man who drove a Bentley to Ann Arbor. How well does a $60,000 truck work? Beautifully in College Station, probably not bad everywhere else. What works? From personal experience, a shined up eight year old Miata isn't bad so long as it isn't raining. A Morris Minor or an original Mini are the nuclear options.

    • See 1 previous
    • DeadWeight DeadWeight on Sep 15, 2014

      @S2k Chris I am in downtown Ann Arbor, not by choice, at least once a month, and am skeptical of Jack's claim, to put it mildly. There is the same overpowering waft of "ewww, an oil using, gasoline burning, carbon dioxide emitting motor vehicle" in the air (and in the looks on the faces of "let me just walk in front of your car without rhyme or reason" college girls who don't bother to shave their armpits or legs) as there was when I went to undergrad there in the late 90s.

  • JOHN One is for sale on an ebay car donation site.
  • Scott So they are losing hundreds of millions of dollars and they are promising us a “Cheaper EV”? I wonder how that will look and feel? They killed the Fiesta because they claimed that they couldn’t make a profit on them and when I bought the first one in late 2010 they couldn’t deliver the accessories I wanted for it! Then I bought a 2016 Fiesta ST and again couldn’t get the accessories for it I wanted. They claimed that the components were going to be available, eventually. So they lost on that one as well! I don’t care about what they say anymore. I’ve moved on to another brand.
  • Michael S6 CX 70 or 90 will not be on my buying list. Drove a rental base CX 90 and it was noisy and the engine noise was not pleasant. Ride was rough for a family SUV. Mazda has to understand that what is good for Miata isn't what we expect in semi luxury SUV. My wife's 2012 Buick Enclave has much better Ride and noise level albeit at worse gas millage. Had difficulty pairing my phone with Apple CarPlay
  • Michael S6 What is the metric conversion between one million barrels and the number of votes he expects to buy.
  • NJRide This could give Infiniti dealers an extra product maybe make it a sub brand