Label lemmings: Overseas luxury buying is getting more restrained, but South Africans still love their status symbols. Picture: Moeletsi Mabe

Staff reporter

South Africa’s luxury consumers are bucking the global trend when it comes to the values driving their product and brand choices. Consequently, marketers responsible for guiding the fortunes of these brands should think twice before simply adopting communication strategies developed for European and US markets.

Dr Inka Crosswaite told delegates at the recent Wealth Conference in Johannesburg: “Luxury has many meanings – it is a social construct, rare and unique. It has dream value, and offers a specific sensory world of refined aesthetics, sensuality and indulgence. It often builds its identity around a creator and has its roots in history.

“Luxury also means you don’t consume, and you don’t even own. Instead, you build a relationship with the luxury object; it becomes part of your identity.

“The challenge for the luxury brand is about fuelling this relationship in a changing and progressive world.”

Crosswaite has a Doctorate in Social Anthropology from the University of Cape Town and was a lecturer at Stellenbosch University. She now works for brand development and marketing insight consultancy Added Value.

She said the concept of luxury had evolved over the years.

Today, luxury brands tell beautiful stories to inspire dreams and desire, and this is evident in their communication – it is all about depicting playful opulence, elitism, status display and a sense of discernment and knowing.

“In Europe, the stark reality of the recession has focused people’s attention on the value of other things, such as health, family and freedom. Even luxury brands are showing restraint – at Hermes, when it’s time to leave with your purchase, you’ll be asked if you’d like a branded shopping bag or a plain brown paper packet.

“Careful frugality and a focus on value have replaced ‘bling’ as an expression of luxury. Even BMW is no longer about the flashiest, fastest car – it’s now about joy and creativity, about simply being,” she said.

In South Africa, however, the emphasis was still very much on exhibiting status, and this had its roots in the very essence of who South Africans are.

“South African society is emblematic,” explained Crosswaite. “Traditionally, black culture marked social categories of age, gender, kinship, and rank in their attire and etiquette. For example, a woman’s clothing indicated whether she was married or not.

“Similarly, aristocratic chiefs symbolised their authority by wearing special animal-skin clothing, ornaments and other paraphernalia of power.

“They were entitled by custom to display, mobilise and increase their wealth through the acquisition of wives and large herds of cattle.

“Status display is part of South African culture, and this is reflected in our relationship with luxury goods and services. Proper attire and display of wealth are perceived as honourable, expressing the wearer’s dignity and setting codes of behaviour.

“Therefore, possessing and flaunting status symbols like luxury brands is an expression of pride and not excessiveness.”

She said in the case of luxury brands, “the understatement and overt simplicity driving the European and American luxury goods markets only applies to the minority of luxury consumers in South Africa”.

However, she did say these behaviour drivers could change in the future.

“There is a low-key trend which Added Value has termed ‘Afro Luxe’, which marries the very modern world with Africa’s very traditional one,” she said.

“It is not international expression with an African spin; instead it is modern African luxury. The trend regards luxury as authenticity, vibrancy and dynamism, and taps into a growing desire of South Africans to do things their way and express who they are in their lifestyle choices.

“This means that ethical and sustainability issues affecting luxury globally are emerging, especially in terms of philanthropy, with its close relation to the spirit of ubuntu.

“But for the medium term, the beauty and power, glitz and glamour of a wealthy and conspicuous lifestyle will fuel the luxury goods market.”