The “Luxury” of Heritage

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In studying consumer culture I spend a good amount of time attempting to understand the context of a lot of different niches and tiers of goods. Over the years and in some more recent work, the luxury space has been a focus.  In trying to decode the semiotics of luxury, I’ve had many conversations with “luxury consumers” around what makes the luxury brands they gravitate toward so “aspirational” and appealing.

There are a number of key signifiers, including (you guessed it) price,  which serves to make  a brand less accessible to others, or as a luxury buyer might say, more “exclusive”.  Then there are things like quality of materials, attention to detail, etc.  All of which have their implications and points to ponder. But there is one theme area that I find particularly fascinating:  heritage.

Rolex, Cartier, Chanel, Mercedes all have their heritage in common.  In particular, a heritage related to a longstanding tradition of quality and one rooted in the point of view of their craftsman and founders.  This enduring consistency over time seems to be an important call-out.  I find this interesting as it translates down to other premium goods that might not immediately be tagged as “luxury”: like Harley Davidson motorcycles and Levis Jeans.

Heritage is also present as a brand equity for everyday consumable brands and more accessible “considered purchases” : like Coca Cola, Johnny Walker, Smith and Wesson  and Ford Cars.  What it says to me is that the “self-actualization” tip of Maslow’s pyramid (a favorite framework of mine these days) is as relevant (if not more-so) to luxury consumers as it is to everyone else.  It means we all have that need in common regardless of our spending threshold.

It hardens to our inclination to make purchases based on nostalgia and eat comfort food. And I think it comes from a backlash against the manufacturing of culture through consumerism – which is Ironic.  We have becoming so weighed down by abundance of “stuff” that we are starting to seek more meaning in our purchases.  We want “things” that tell a story – have authenticity and connect to something more human. And I think it’s interesting and kind of sad that in reaching for proving value of the super-expensive items in our life we reach toward “heritage” as a first-and-foremost rationale for laying out the big cash.  Does it mean that heritage is something that we consider scarce?  Does it mean that it is a concept that is not necessarily valued by the mainstream?
I suppose I don’t propose a conclusion here but merely a series of observations.  But I will say that I believe heritage to be a pervading cultural concept that has value regardless of whether someone can afford expensive stuff or not – but that the reason why brands with heritage claim a beloved space in our hearts is because, as we careen into modern times with a focus on the future we feel like we are losing our backward-reflecting point of view and the connections to the heritage that makes us more human.  So, maybe for those who live in a world of “bigger, better, faster, more” and have devoted their energy and focus to earning cash and building business there has been this realization that perhaps they risk losing their humanity if they don’t look in that mirror.  I suppose it’s promising more than anything.

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Categories: Anthropology, Consumer Anthropology, Consumer Culture, Culture, Ethnography, Fashion, Marketing, sociology, Trends, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “The “Luxury” of Heritage

  1. You raise some interesting questions. I’m guessing that heritage plus exclusivity equals status.

    • you’re pretty spot on there with regard to status. Luxury also has some other qualifiers – including design aesthetic, craftsmanship, quality of materials, extraordinary service, etc….depending on the category and the customer. But Heritage is such a strong one I thought it worth discussion. 🙂

  2. JING WANG

    I really like your comment, and find it very thought-provoking. I’m from China and studying cultural anthropology in US. It’s interesting to notice that now more and more Asians are into luxury goods. Shall there also be a philosophical anthropology of luxury as well?

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