I was speaking with a vice president for a well-known luxury hotel brand when I introduced the word "luxury" into the conversation.

"Oh, the L-word," the vice president said, with a roll of his eyes.

I asked if his reaction to the word suggested that he thought it was no longer an appropriate label for his hotels.

"It's just personal," he replied. "The word luxury has become so overused and misrepresented."

Is "upscale" any better?

"Upscale is somewhat weak and doesn't really mean luxury. In fact, I don't want an upscale anything. I want a luxury car. I want a luxury watch."

But a lot can be read into that roll of the eyes. If you're a guardian of a legacy luxury brand, it must be more than a little annoying that the word has proved to be more elastic than traditionally assumed. Thousands of companies have discovered that positioning oneself as "luxury" is a great marketing strategy. As the hotel exec said, upscale won't do. If you want to add luster to your brand, label it luxury.

Not only does everyone want luxury, everyone gets luxury. They may not live in the same neighborhoods, but both the hoity-toity and the hoi polloi are likely to be carrying similar Louis Vuitton bags and, on occasion, checking into the same hotels.

Is this a bad thing? Certainly not for luxury hotels. At the highest reaches -- the money-is-no-object reaches -- hoteliers can always command a price that will keep the upwardly mobile riff-raff out. And as economic systems abhor a vacuum, the trickle-up effect on rates and amenities has benefits for hoteliers and consumers throughout the luxury chain.

That there is now a "luxury chain" is nothing short of a revolution. At the dawn of 2007, luxury has become broadly inclusive. Can such an oxymoronic circumstance be sustainable?

Ultimately, a replacement word for luxury may have to be invented, but for now, marketers across a wide spectrum can use and abuse the label with extreme prejudice.

The appearance of luxury deflation taps into something very basic in human nature: the aspiration to be wealthy. The only real question is, what took marketers so long to discover it could be applied on a broad scale?

The answer is that it's only obvious now because it's now obvious. I once heard a speech by Michael Harrington that underscored how it was not obvious to him. In the early 1960s, Harrington wrote "The Other America," a book that was widely credited with inspiring the Johnson-era War on Poverty.

In his speech, Harrington told how, during George McGovern's run for the presidency in 1972, he helped craft a policy to increase inheritance taxes. The campaign decided to unveil the policy during a speech in a church in Harlem, where it was assumed it would be well received.

During the Q&A period after the speech, a woman asked the candidate if the new tax meant that if she won the lottery, her kids wouldn't be able to inherit her fortune. McGovern acknowledged it would be taxed at a higher rate. The crowd, which had microscopic odds of ever being in such a position and would have likely benefited from McGovern's plan, turned against him.

The moral? Well, the moral doesn't seem an appropriate closer for the holiday season, but it may be appropriate for both an emerging political season and, for many, a brand new fiscal year: It can never hurt to appeal to materialistic urges, to the desire for status, to our appetite for pampering or our aspirations to wealth.

Even so, and even though I believe the "L-word" still has plenty of potency, if I were putting together a marketing plan I'd likely hedge my bet with the "G-word," as well. We're in the dead of winter, but the marketplace, it seems, is getting greener every day.


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