Middle Class Seeks Luxury Lifestyle

One of the ironies of today's market is that, in order to understand the middle, you have to start with the luxury market or, at least, what used to be the luxury market.

"Since the 1980s, the bulk of consumers of luxury have not been the wealthy, but the middle class. The democratization of luxury has been the single most important marketing phenomenon of modern times," claims James B. Twitchell in his popular book, Living It Up: America's Love Affair with Luxury.

A professor of advertising and English at the University of Florida, Twitchell has identified a new market he calls "opuluxe," or "luxury for all."

"It's not being consumed by the rich, but by the rest of us," he notes. "Savvy marketers are figuring ways to provide it, or at least a close facsimile, for a lower and lower price."

The driver behind opuluxe, says Twitchell, is a new sense of entitlement to branded objects, evident especially in Yuppies, and increasingly pervasive among the young.

The dynamics of opuluxe push both ways: they change the luxury and the middle market.

What follows are some of Twitchell's key observations about the new (and the old) luxury, and some of my interpretations of how they are playing out in the kitchen and bath industry.

Opuluxe starts at luxury, then moves, often very quickly and treacherously, downstream. Indoor plumbing was once thought a waste of space and an environmental hazard, Twitchell reminds us. The cycle is from luxury to "want to have" to "need to have."

And the cycle is moving a lot faster than it used to. Recent examples include the decline of solid surfacing from luxury to commodity. Granite, once strictly a high-end product, now sells for about $50 a sq. ft. at Home Depot. Stone floors are now available in a veneer form at Lowe's. The shallow depth, built-in-look refrigerator is now available at a range of price points, as are stainless steel appliances. Full-extension, self-closing drawer slides, nifty pull-outs, glazed finishes, maple doors, elaborate moldings all quickly went from custom to semi-custom and even stock.
more is better

If luxe products are now readily available, then having more of them becomes a true luxury. Soon, kitchens with two dishwashers, two sinks and two refrigerators may well become commonplace.

Next (and it's already happening) comes more kitchens themselves. The so-called butler's pantry is morphing into a second kitchen, often with wine storage, beautiful china cabinets, marble countertops and dishwashers. I've seen "mud rooms" with built-in refrigerators and granite farmhouse sinks in upscale homes.

Then, there's the outdoor kitchen, moving from a rusty old Weber to a several-thousand-dollar grill, to a full kitchen with sink, refrigerator, heater and entertainment center.

And, don't forget the "morning kitchen" in the master bedroom, or kitchens in the home office and the guest cottage. One killer kitchen will no longer be enough.

The same is true for baths: more of them in each home. And, more stuff in them from multiple showerheads to his-and-hers vanities.

Where else will luxury move? Twitchell points to the "luxurification of the commonplace."

Today's laundry rooms are a prime example. Clients want nice wood, fancy appliances, drying units, built-in TVs all of it a far cry from a wringer washer and outdoor clothes line.

The once-humble mudroom is also being made over, as is the garage. No more pegboards, thank you. Now it's modular cabinetry, and even wine fridges sitting next to your Ferrarisor your Toyotas.

Male influence
The emergence of the garage and the outdoor kitchen as "designed rooms" is evidence of another opuluxe trend that Twitchell cites: the growing importance of the male as a consumer of luxury products.

Traditionally, the male bestowed most luxury items (clothes, furs, jewelry, even a kitchen) upon the female. She was the outward sign of the success he had earned, a "trophy," if you will. Now, however, the male is rewarding himself with extreme barbecues and custom garages and luxury wine units.

Another hallmark of the new luxury is the closet. "It has gone from storage to walk-in to live ina way not to contain your stuff, but to show it off," Twitchell notes.

Closets are meant to be toured these days. No wonder an interior designer in Manhattan recently showed me pictures of a "fur room" and a "luggage room" she designed.

Another high-end designer I know recently created a wine-tasting room for his clients. Separate from the wine cellar, this room is located between the kitchen and the dining room, and is meant as a gathering place where the owner plays host/bartender and showcases his collection of vintage wines, aperitifs and cordials.

Would wine units be so popular if they didn't have glass doors to show off collections? Similarly, glass doors on cabinets are meant to show off, to tell the world what you collect. For a certain clientele, glass-fronted refrigerators show off the "right" brands of food.

Can't spend enough on yourself? "Surrogate Conspicuous Consumption," says Twitchell, takes up the slack. That's spending money on luxuries for others, especially your kids.

Children's rooms are the most frequently redecorated room in the home, and kitchen/bath dealers should be showcasing cabinetry solutions for this space as a way to grow their businesses. Ditto, kids' baths. This past holiday season, toy kitchens were the hottest kids' gift. Can real kids' kitchens, or kids' "areas" in kitchens, be far behind?
What about appealing to Baby Boomers by redoing their aging parents' kitchens or baths? Depression-era folks probably won't spring for it, but their adult children will.

The power of the private indulgence of luxury is what's driving the trend toward deluxe bath designand the impact of hotel baths on residential space. Why do the new Las Vegas hotels spend so much on fancy baths in guest rooms?

"Splendor leads to an increase in self worth and confidence," Twitchell explains. His theory: Bolstered by the feelings that a luxurious bath transfers to guests, they feel confident enough to hit the casino. They feel like a winner.
And, that's the heart of the new luxury. It's all about the feelings that are delivered, not about the products, per se.

"You make yourself over by buying and displaying branded stuff," Twitchell explains.
A new kitchen or bath used to be a once-in-a-lifetime indulgence. Now, we remodel every few years and think nothing of it.

To be successful, anyone in the kitchen and bath industry needs to be able to ascertain the feeling behind the project: the dream. Is it the "we'll remodel the kitchen and make over our relationship" the pre-divorce kitchen? Is it the "now that we have kids, we're going to raise the perfect family in the perfect kitchen" project? Is it the "now that the kids are gone, I'm going to prove I'm someone with taste, not a has-been soccer Mom" kitchen? Is it the "I just made big bucks and deserve it" kitchen? Or, the "my friends are all doing their kitchens, so I will too" kitchen? No wonder it's called a dream kitchen.

"Going shopping is an adventure in self creation," Twitchell emphasizes. "You join a consumption community." And, it's defined by the brands you select. This constellation of brands defines your social place, your lifestyle.

All in the message
How is the dream conveyed? "People don't know what they want until they learn what others are consuming," Twitchell explains. That knowledge, the dream, the meaning, come from advertising a brand.

Incidentally, Twitchell found that luxury identification starts early. College kids recognized Miele dishwashers, Sub-Zero refrigerators and Jacuzzi J-Allure whirlpools long before they would be in the market to purchase them.

And, luxury no longer necessarily equates with quality. Rather, in an era where most manufactured products or services are no longer highly differentiated, it takes advertising to "make similar things different."

That's why, with today's new luxury, it's no longer enough for kitchen/bath dealers to rely on word of mouth. It cannot differentiate them. Marketing can.

"Marketing creates luxury by branding it with a story, a myth. To differentiate a product, I have to tell a story," Twitchell asserts. "And, the higher I go [in price], the more irrational my claim will become. After all, I am no longer selling the product, I am selling the concocted distinction, the story.

"With the new luxury, common sense is always held in abeyance. If we were using common sense, we would all be reading Consumer Reports and buying the same brands," Twitchell says. "The heart of luxury is the irrational acceptance of magical thinking."

It's no wonder that premium cabinet companies often gripe about consumers buying something less expensive: it's because many of them have failed to build a story, a myth, a dream to differentiate their product. Appliance companies have been smarter (or maybe just have deeper pockets), and so they're often the "starter brand" for the kitchenthe top-of-mind, must-have, object.

"Differentiation resides in imagery and language, not products,"explains Twitchell. One way to differentiate is through "borrowed value" that is, the product achieves value from associated products or people. Twitchell cites the example of an older ad campaign from Sub-Zero featuring Frank Lloyd Wright, assuming a connection between the esteemed architect and the appliance brand.

Twitchell believes magazines are the best place to tell the industry's kind of brand story not TV or the 'Net. "The role of print can't be overestimated in selling opuluxe. Modern luxury is the result of too much moneychasing too many similar things," he says. He likes magazines because they are slow-moving and "show us how to use" a product, "not just what to consume."

So, if Main Street is shopping on Rodeo Drive, where does that leave "real" luxury?

"Maybe the rich have only two genuine luxury items left," muses Twitchell. "Time and philanthropy."

Leslie Hart is executive v.p. of the Newport Beach, CA-based Fry Communications, an integrated marketing agency specializing in advertising, public relations and strategic branding for distinctive companies in the kitchen and bath industry. She is the former editor and publisher of Kitchen & Bath Business, and she has created custom books, magazines and marketing programs at Meredith Corp. She can be reached at 212-989-4629 or leslie@fry-comm.com.