If a premium brand were a person, they’d be one of those obnoxious, self-centered types who is inexplicably likeable and somehow has three times as many friends as you. If premium branding is the guy that gets all the dates, mainstream branding is the one people go to to discuss their relationship issues with.
Early in my career, while working on user experience projects and mainstream consumer brand advertising, I was trained in the art of catering to the consumer’s every whim. My job was to achieve business goals by being nice, useful and customer-focused.
My first premium brand project was a shock. While consumer data was certainly central to forming the strategy, everything else was turned on its head. There was no need to talk to the consumer directly, no focus on meeting needs. Instead, it was all about brand storytelling. And when I say ‘storytelling’, I don’t just mean it in that general way that marketers use the word to refer to anything from proposals and product demos to eCommerce shopping cart flows. I mean real stories with characters and cool lighting and makeup.
Premium brands are, by their nature, somewhat opaque and mysterious but over time I’ve been able to define 4 key rules that govern the storytelling at the center of successful premium branding:
Premium brands are never shy. They are ‘the most brilliant’, ‘the height of craftsmanship’, ‘the pinnacle of creativity.’
Premium brands don’t compare themselves to others because there are no other brands in their category worth comparing themselves to (at least not in their view). They are not just ‘the best’, they are ‘the only’. The only comparison you’ll see a premium brand make is with itself: ‘our most refined engine yet.’ This is because the story of progress and growth are very much part of the premium brand ethos.
Premium brands make no reference to their consumers. The words ‘you’ and ‘your’ are largely absent from the premium lexicon as premium brands are all about themselves. The brand won’t try to paint a picture of how much better life will be with its products – instead, it’ll create stories about itself that let the consumers imagine themselves in the world of the product.
Loewe is a premium consumer audiovisual brand. This is an example of a piece of communication for the excellent “Loewe Reference” TV. Even the name exudes confidence: “Reference” is the term used in the audio-visual world to denote the most true output by which others are judged. It is not just “perfect’; that perfection is “effortless.” For a producer of perhaps the best TV’s in the world, quality output is elemental for Loewe, not something the brand has to work to achieve. Notice too, that there is no image on the TV screen; there are no saturated blue skies with brightly colored hot air balloons to show off the picture quality because of course, the quality is good. It is up to you, the potential customer, to experience it in person. There is no reference to the consumer or how easily the product can fit into their lives. That’s for them to imagine and ultimately experience through purchase.
Premium brands are not just commercial endeavors; they are ideas and passions brought to life. The origin stories of premium brands are told and retold as historical narratives, as fantastical fairytales and as short films reminiscent of art movies.
Premium products are also mythologized: their features and functions take a back seat to the story of a product’s genesis. We hear of the design challenges overcome by inspired thinkers, the creative inspiration that led to the choice of materials and the 500-year-old Tibetan wood-turning technique that was revived specifically to bring the product to life.
Premium brands create a sense of dynamism by telling stories of challenge, contradiction, transformation and triumph. A premium brand may tell the story of a struggle against design conventions or the transformation of raw metal ore into a fine watch mechanism.
Premium brands build up their mythology by associating themselves with grander things: a computer is made with aircraft-grade aluminum, a luxury car’s engine has been race-track tuned, a piece of jewelry was wrought from eternal fires.
These are the homepages of two successful brands: Burberry and Uniqlo. These pages are prime selling real estate, but the idea of “selling” for a premium brand is much different than for a mainstream brand. Burberry uses their prime selling real estate to tell “The Tale of Thomas Burberry” while Uniqlo packs in the pricing, products and product features.
A key tool in premium brand myth-building is the association of the brand and physical products with grand and elemental concepts. Elemental concepts represent timelessness, genuineness and potential energy to us, so associations with earth, fire, wind, passion, creativity or any number of elemental concepts help elevate premium products from mere objects made of glass, metal, and leather to magical status. Some elements leveraged by premium brands include:
This video for Master & Dynamic, a premium brand of headphones tells the elemental story of transformation from the raw to the refined. It celebrates the capture, taming and transformation of the raw element of metal into fine components that are carefully calibrated (note the close-up of the headphone stem with etched numbers) and the christening of the almost-finished product in the elemental fire of precise red laser etching.
Premium products are genuine, magical and eternal. They are forged from earth and fire, crafted based on age-old philosophies, designed to flow like water and shine in the starlight. They are one-of-a-kind. They are light as the wind yet satisfyingly heavy in the hand.
This video for Chopard is like a dictionary of elemental concepts – particularly the voiceover: “'L' for 'launch', for 'learning' for 'light.' 'L' for 'legacy,' for 'liberty' for 'leadership'… 'C' for 'celestial,' for 'craftsmanship' for 'care' for 'challenge'…”
While mainstream brands often use scenarios, testimonials and stock photography of everyday people to paint precise pictures of how their products fit into the lives of consumers; premium brands are about leaving room for the consumer to imagine themselves using the product. For premium brands, the selling happens in the consumers' imagination, not in the product demonstration.
Premium product photography is large and often extremely cropped, showing only tantalizing details. Products are in shadow or silhouetted and shot at oblique, unusual angles. The goal is to bypass the part of the mind that reduces objects to symbols: if we show a photo of an entire car all at once, the mind tends to categorize what it sees and put it in the generalized (and emotionless) bucket called “car.” But premium brands don’t want people making simplistic evaluations. Premium brands need to keep the mind in the world of light, speed, power etc. to keep the consumer in the realm of imagination as long as possible.
Images of people in premium communication are foils to let the products shine – not focal points for consumers to identify with. To this end, representations of people in premium communication are either mere fleeting glimpses of normal people: silhouettes, profiles, blurs, hands or fantastical characters, mega celebrities or uncannily beautiful models.
When people such as celebrities, beautiful or interesting-looking models feature prominently in premium communications, they represent the brand, not the consumer. So, when a celebrity expresses that a perfume is about all about "moi" that is a brand expression not a connector to the consumer.
As mentioned, premium brands tell stories to create a mythology around their brand and products. Narratives rooted in fantasy, mystery, wry humor or gritty reality are used to spark the consumers’ imaginations. The products are often only fleetingly featured in these stories.
Premium brands rarely create product demos but when they do they are more like music videos, presenting just enough detail to convey the most important benefits while creating a rich imaginary space for the consumer to inhabit.
This ad for the Range Rover Evoque features tantalizing detail shots of the car and only fleeting shots of the driver and his companion. The people in the ad are sketched in with such a light touch that they allow room for the consumer to mentally put themselves in the driver's seat. The feeling is that of a music video - something mysterious, exciting and inspiring that invites the viewer to imagine themselves part of the world of the product.
So, when thinking about premium branding, the first step should be to understand the values and inspiration behind the brand and its products and then weave that into confident, uncompromising, awesome stories that your audience can inhabit.