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The luxury conundrum

The luxury conundrum

Walk along some of Geneva’s most shopping streets and, if you’re a tech enthusiast in any case, you notice something odd. The shoppers prognosticating over the Patek Philippes and Piagets in the stores on the Rue du Rhone often share nothing more than their species with the more valueminded window-shoppers gawping outside. Yet almost everyone in sight—sales staff, buyers, gawkers,locals, tourists, Russian oligarchs, Arab sheikhs, even the hawkers and vendors—all use the same mix of iPhones, Samsungs, iPods, tablets and Kindles. Indeed the tech devices they use are the most obvious common social denominator.

And even when gadget makers decide to make high-end technology, why does it so often end up being unusable gold-anddiamond monstrosities that scream not so much “classy" as much as “Class A Felon"?

We asked some of India’s most widely-read technology writers and tweeters about this luxury tech conundrum, what luxury tech meant to them, and what tech brands should do to target the high networth individuals (HNIs).

Indulge: Does luxury tech even make sense?

GJ: Yes, it does, but not across all product lines. There are products where the luxe elements are merely product embellishments—to wit,diamond-encrusted cellphones, to products where the elements are add-on service—such as a concierge service (that said, iPhones might have Siri but Vertu has a real live human being as a concierge service). And there are those products where the luxury elements are core to the product and to the experience. Say, a Ferrari. I am of the opinion that luxury technology is really cutting-edge technology and the early adopters subsidize the cost of this technology for the mass market where adoption happens later on.

Indulge: Do you own a technology product that you would consider a luxury buy? Why so?

AC: I own a lot of tech products that others might consider luxury products, but they are essential either to my profession, or my personal life. For instance, anything more than a Nokia 1100 as a cellphone would be considered a luxury product, but I own an iPhone because it allows me to fulfill work obligations I would not be able to meet with a low-end phone.

Similarly, I use an iPad simply because what I can do on the iPad, I cannot do on any other tablet. Both products would technically be considered luxury products, but Ido not consider them so.

MP: Luxury in technology can be very ephemeral. When I bought a 42" Plasma TV many years back, it was a luxury purchase then. Today it is mainstream.

Indulge: Many products have clear demarcations, when it comes to price range. For instance, furniture, clothing and watches all have affordable, mid-range and luxury segments. Do you think there are parallels in technology?

AC: Of course, there are such segments in technology. However, the lines separating these segments are getting seriously blurry. For example, in the US, few people would be able to buy a $859 iPhone 4S/64GB, but everyone can afford $200 down and a 2-year contract. The $200 is cheaper than buying a mid-range Samsung phone cash down, so is the iPhone a luxury purchase, or a mid-range purchase?

MP: I think luxury technology has two clear and distinct aspects. One is about fashion and style, while the other is about functionality and performance. Exclusive and expensive technology caters to either one or both these aspects. When a product with mainstream functionality is turned into a luxury item by using diamonds or some such elements frivolous to its function, it becomes a joke. On the other hand, a car that automatically recognizes the owner and unlocks itself, remembers the preferred seating position, and turns on headlights on its own when it is dark delivers luxury through functionality and isn’t a joke.

Luxury in technology that only caters to fashion and style belongsto the world of ostentation, which offends the sensibilities of true geeks who are least concerned with such frivolous matters. Hence, I would say that the target market of these two different kinds of luxury tech products is vastly different.

RA: I don’t agree with the argument that the more sophisticated the technology, the more difficult it is to upscale it. I’d reckon, it is usually the opposite. Think about it, a Bose home theatre system that automatically tunes itself according to your room—that’s pretty sophisticated technology and has a perfect use case.

On the contrary, what more can you do with a luxury phone that you can’t with a high-end smartphone? Flaunt it, probably? Call a dedicated concierge service? It’s not because cellphone technology has reached a stage where nothing more can be added. It has more to do with the function of the gadget in question.

Also, considering the fact that how ubiquitous cellphones havebecome, we seldom see HNIs being the early-adopters in this space, unlike an Airfryer or a smarthome theatre system. Instead, it is power users that matter. So the only options left are to either create a luxury cellphone brand (Vertu), tie-up with an existing luxury brand (Porsche, Christian Dior) or take an iPhone, slap an unhealthy dosage of gold, stud it with diamonds and rubies, and send a ransom note to prospective clients.

Indulge: What would make you, personally, pay a premium for in a tech product?

GJ: Only if the experience demands it.

AC: Quality, flexibility, use within my peer-circle, longevity, design. MP: Functionality and performance, period. A basic level of aesthetic elegance is taken for granted in any high-end product. I would avoid any premium-priced tech product where aesthetics is the driver behind the premium and functionality is relegated to mainstream.

Indulge: If a brand wants to make tailor-made gadgets for a purely HNI client what advice would you give them?

RA: If you are talking about a tailormade gadget, ensure it is unique and not just using the guts of an existing usual product with a highend looking cover on the outside. Nothing is more insulting than there being no significant product difference between a normal product and what you are trying to peddle as an “exclusive" product and demand top dollars for it. And yeah, keep it exclusive!

GJ: Make the experience unique, personalized and valuable. You can clone products but not experiences.

Indulge: What is your favourite gadget that you own? And the favourite one you’d like to?

AC: My iPad/2012 and my iPhone 4S, and my 1980 Ibanez AR-50BK Electric Guitar. But what I absolutely desire is a mind blowing music system from Denon, super speakers, and an earthquake-proof room to use these in! Kidding! (But not much!)

What I desire the most, and simply cannot afford, is a Gibson Les Paul electric guitar, and a high-end Marshall amplifier to play it through.

GJ: I really don’t have a favourite gadget—they are all nice and utilitarian. Honestly, one that gives me the most pleasure to use is probably my Peugeot Pepper Mill.

MP: My favorite gadget purchase in the last few years is PlayOn HD, a universal media player, and I am presently exploring options for a high-end home theatre solution, which I expect to be my favourite gadget very soon. In my dreams, I would like to have a Sonos wireless audio set-up that lets me seamlessly connect to my media library or any music streaming service, control it from any tablet/smartphone, and listen to it anywhere at home.

RA: One gadget I’d like to own is a robot bartender. But don’t tell it I called it a gadget. That might just hurt its feelings.

sidin.v@livimint.com

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