Luxury, Transfunctionalisation and Dispensability

Marketing is a search for something material or mystical. Theoretically, marketing is about filling gaps or voids which leave people in a state of discomfort, displeasure and dissatisfaction.  Many brands therefore operate within the realm of what is needed; these fulfill need gaps, expressed or otherwise. Accordingly there are products and brands, the absence of which is likely to result in a state of annoyance and discomfort.  A necessity is something unavoidable or indispensable. Necessary goods are the ones which are essential for survival; hence they are indispensible like food, shelter and water. But no absolutes exist.  A necessary good for someone may be luxury for the other. Sunscreen lotion may be necessary for a working executive but luxury for a construction worker.

Luxury on the other hand is non-essential or unnecessary.  Luxuries certainly bring pleasure comfort but their absence is not likely to put life at risk. A watch is necessary for an MNC’s executive but Rolex is not. His travel to office is essential but driving a BMW is not.  And his signing of paper is indispensible part of his job but writing with a Mont Blanc is not. Luxuries in this conceptualization are un-necessary, dispensable and avoidable. So the big question is how marketers transform their inessential wares into something deeply coveted, cherished and wanted. The market for luxuries is huge and growing.  Luxury is a two tiered phenomenon.  First, the luxury connotations prevail at goods categories level and secondly, at the brand level.

Absence of a necessity creates a condition of discomfort and this gives rise to their marketing justification.  But then what justifications do luxury brands offer? So why must luxury brands like Mercedes, Jimmy Choo, Louis Vuitton, Harry Winston, Vertu, Hermes, Macallan Single Malt, Chanel, and Ralph Lauren be bought? Luxury brands develop their justification not by fulfilling the discomfort or annoyance void by functionality. The first building block at the heart of a luxury brand is its ‘inessentiality’. Luxury brands do not address to annoyances and discomforts rather they subvert brand narrative by pushing it into the realm of inessential, something which is dispensable for survival. The discourse about essential or functionality is opposite of the concept of luxury. Luxury in this construction implies discovering something material or immaterial that falls outside the boundary of the ‘essential’.

Is the concept of luxury universal? Luxury is a culturally constructed phenomenon.  For instance, a high carat diamond may not hold any luxury connotations for an African tribe. This is also true for brand building, the connotations or symbolism signifying (Nichole Kidman/ diamond dial for Omega Ladymatic) luxury depends upon culture.  A car denotes a vehicle but a BMW connotes luxury which is more than a car. A watch denotes a time keeping device but Rolex connotes luxury.  Luxury making is about making appearances and disappearances. In both these cases, the objects (car and watch) fade into background and some symbolic construction comes to forefront.

Luxury branding is about investing something ‘extra’ into a product.  This may take physical or non-physical form. Luxury brands transform the way they are looked at by their consumers. But then there is not universal way of looking at things. The way of looking at things is culturally determined. Culture supplies values, codes and norms which are then applied to decode meaning.  Objects can be viewed employing physical, mechanical, economic or social perspective.  Meanings operate at two levels. The first order meaning is about what it denotes and is functionally determined. The second order meaning or connotation is creation by the process of transfunctionalisation . Initially an object is devoid of any sign value. Luxury is not about denotation or functionality, it is about connotation.  The sign value (brand as signifier) is constructed by an interplay of socio-cultural process. Marketers use cultural as sign system to achieve this transformation, in which mass media plays a dominant role. Here the product is made to stand for something that it is inherently not by and interplay of signs and codes drawn from the culture.

A semiotic study of luxury watch brands revealed interesting findings as to how these time keeping devices are transfunctionlised into pieces of luxury- unique and highly desirable.  The five codes used by these brands were:  transfunctionalisation into jewelry which takes the watch away from its functionality. It is signified through design aspects like looks, diamonds, bracelets and availability at jewelry stores.  Second, luxury signified through quality or what is inside the case of a watch- the technology.  It is expressed through complications of movement, precision, sapphire glass etc.  Then there a code relate to jewelry is about watch’s construction with precious metals and materials like diamonds and gold. And lastly luxury is about scarcity and exclusivity. These brands create an impression of scarcity by not letting their brands available everywhere.    

Making of a luxury brand is about transformation of an object into a construct of imagination by systematic conversion of exchange value into sign value.

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