Marketing: The Image of Reality

By Christopher Zoukis

In his delightful book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell inadvertently underscores the idea of status when he writes about teenage smokers. Gladwell explains the reason the anti-smoking movement has failed is because the tobacco industry has made smoking cigarettes cool. The anti-smoking movement’s response was to present smoking as uncool. As Gladwell writes, “But that’s not the point. Smoking was never cool. Smokers are cool.”  Image courtesy

In other words, the idea of cool carries status. Status is the goal. Therefore, teenagers smoke, because it provides them with status.

This idea of status and marketing to it is especially true in the toy industry. In fact, The Toy Zone, which is an online site devoted to analyzing the latest trends in toys, states that the toy industry is completely marketing driven. The reason toys are so driven by marketing is because “need” does not sell upscale toys. “Desire” is what sells luxury toys. Luxury toys sell because toymakers instill in children the desire to want to own them. This desire is instilled by means of marketing, which includes:

     ~Affiliation with popular brands and current media products, such as blockbuster movies.

     ~Generating artificial shortages of a luxury toy by limiting production of the toy.

     ~Communicating the idea that ownership of the luxury toy carries popularity and status.

Trendwatcher (TW), a marketing publication, tracks and reports on the latest innovations in marketing luxury products. The publication reminds readers that as marketing professionals they are really in the business of providing status to their affluent customers. Affluent customers are consciously or subconsciously influenced by the desire for status. Usually, they find this status in products that other people cannot get because the products are too expensive, too scarce, or too inaccessible. These are the products affluent customers boast about. The products that leave them in awe, which means the best, the most, the rarest.

TW points out that owning a high-performance luxury car, such as a Lamborghini or a Ferrari, having a NetJet membership, traveling to Le Saint Geran in Mauritius, and staying at the Four Seasons Resort in Bali will certainly increase the status of affluent customers. This is a fact. But there are other ways to appeal to status too. Many companies are discovering these methods and marketing to them. One of these new ways is appealing to “status skills.”

“Status skills” are skills that affluent customers learn in order to enhance their status. They receive status because they are good at something. Since they are good at something, they can tell others about it. This means they can tell stories about their skills, which, in turn, provides them with status. According to TW, this new area of status enhancement opens up new markets for those who teach status skills.

Another new area of status enhancement is called “status lifestyles.” In a “status lifestyle,” status can be increased by “doing the right thing.” Examples of the “status lifestyle” include eco-friendly living, gaming skills, and profile popularity on social networking websites.

TW cites examples of businesses and luxury brands, which are incorporating “status skills” into their marketing. This is accomplished by helping affluent customers acquire status skills, and providing ways for customers to show off their newly acquired skills. In the case of luxury brands, the status skills aid customers in making the most of their purchases of the brands.

A number of interesting and informative examples are offered by TW. All are “status-sensitive,” which means they are marketed to appeal to the status-desire of affluent customers.

Crushpad, which is a winery located in San Francisco, targets upscale wine retailers, restaurateurs, and affluent customers who want to make their own ultra-premium brands of wine. Equipment, expertise, and other components are provided by Crushpad. The grapes come from celebrated California vineyards. Crushpad’s appeal is obvious. For not only do affluent customers gain status by serving ultra-premium wine, but they also get to tell the story of how they made the wine themselves. This fact enhances their status even further.

Ladybank Distillery offers affluent customers the same opportunity as Crushpad. Only Ladybank’s Whiskey School, which is a three-day site-intensive program, educates participants in the tasting and making of whiskey. Thus participants can instruct friends and associates on how to judge the quality of any whiskey, and provide a taste of their own creation.

Two companies that offer status skills to travelers are Equitours and Access Trips. Equitours specializes in horse-riding junkets, which allow participants to learn how to ride correctly. The tours include locations in both the United States and Europe. Access Trips provides expert instruction to affluent clients in such sports as hangliding and surfing. And the company has plans to expand their offerings to include photography and cordon bleu cooking.

Switch is a company that teaches participants practical high-tech skills, which enhance knowledge and status. Using computers and fashion design, Switch brings in celebrity designers who instruct participants in how to create and produce their own custom-line of clothing. According to Switch, designing, creating, and then wearing one’s own chic clothing is the ultimate status enhancer.

Volkswagen/Audi offers a course called AutoStadt Driving. The goal of the course is to teach driving skills to participants. These new status skills allow affluent customers to make the most of their cars. Part of the course includes driving an Audi all-road Quattro. Audi hopes to build brand loyalty, while at the same time appealing to the psychological desire for status in its customers.

Mini-Cooper has a similar program. It is a one day driver training course, which, naturally, focuses on Mini-Coopers. BMW offers Performance Driving Schools, with courses for beginning, intermediate, and advanced drivers. The goal is to enhance the status skills of participants and, hopefully, expose them to the advantages of BMW’s high-performance luxury cars, which can also enhance one’s status.

Mercedes, Porsche, Landrover, Maserati, and Ferrari offer similar driving schools. As does Harley-Davidson motorcycle company.  All are designed to teach status skills.

Nikon offers affluent customers training in how effectively utilize their advanced digital cameras. Expert photographers travel around the U.S., providing instruction in photographic techniques. Owning a Nikon carries one kind of status. Knowing how to use it to take beautiful photographs carries another kind of status.

Apple stores offer status skills courses in the U.S., Canada, Japan, and the United Kingdom. Virgin Atlantic Airways used to offer Blackberry seminars to affluent customers. The seminars taught Virgin’s first-class passengers handset hocus-pocus. These high-tech “tricks” allowed Blackberry users to fully exploit the capabilities of the devices. Then, of course, Blackberry fell out of favor and was replaced by Apple's iPhones.  Each and every year, 67,000 affluent customers attend cooking courses offered by Viking, which makes luxury kitchen appliances. The Viking Cooking School not only teaches status skills, it gives students the opportunity to experience the status transferred by cooking on luxury appliances.

InnHype is a store in Rio de Janeiro. The store sells hard-to-find vinyl records to affluent music aficionados. As an added attraction, and as a way to teach status skills, InnHype offers recording classes, along with practice studios. And Hema, which is a luxury department store in Holland, teaches status skills to its affluent customers by means of online courses. Hema’s curriculum includes wine tasting and selection, foreign languages, and choosing cosmetics.

In each example cited by TW, the marketing of status skills uses one or more of the following tactics:

     ~A proactive approach, which means that Nikon does not just want to sell a lot of cameras. Nikon wants its customers to enjoy owning a Nikon camera. This translates to knowing how to take good photos.

     ~Image evolution, which means that status skills enhance customers’ self-images, as well as augment the image of the company teaching the skills. This means that the concept of status flows back and forth from the company to the customer, and vice versa. In other words, status is not a one way street when marketing luxury products.

     ~Offering status skills to customers provides companies with new opportunities for product innovation. Why? Because affluent customers provide immediate feedback about the product.

     ~Brand extension, which means that status skills become attached to the specific brand with which the skills were learned. This creates brand loyalty.

Appealing to the psychological concept of status is being aware of the perceptions of others. In other words, the affluent man who buys a Ferrari to enhance his status does so because he is aware of the perceptions of others. His friends, business associates, and family members make comparisons, which, in effect, aid in enhancing his status. This means status is in the eye of the beholder. The man who buys the Ferrari believes the car enhances his status. This belief has its foundation in the fact that when he sees another affluent man driving a Ferrari, he assigns status to the driver. The more often he sees this, the more he believes his Ferrari will give him status. There is an emotional connection.

The point is this: marketing and selling status to the rich involves selling the idea of status to their psyche. The emotional connection substitutes the image of reality for reality itself. In the affluent buyer’s mind, the image of status is owning and driving the Ferrari. This image takes the place of reality, which means that owning and driving the Ferrari provides status. There is no doubt that he will buy the Ferrari.

This means that marketing and selling luxury products to the affluent is nothing more than connecting the idea of status to the product.