The Poetry of Perceived Value
Colour. Carat. Clarity. Cut. The four dictators of a diamond’s value; what dealers devour and buyers covet. But before diamonds were pedestalled by the West’s upper echelons thanks to newly established trade routes in the tenth century, they were prized as divine objects by Indian rulers.
In a time before anyone had mastered the cutting and polishing processes that make diamonds what they are today, the stones retained their rough outer shell. They were tactile and textural, used as talismans for their believed medicinal and mystical properties. There are even tales of diamonds being created by lightning; bolts that scorch the earth and leave behind healing relics.
Whatever they believed in earlier ages, we know reverence for diamonds then wasn’t founded in capital or quality of craft. To my knowledge, there was no ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ campaign in the Middle Ages, nor were the gems procured for proposals as there are now. It stands to reason that the true allure lay in the story surrounding them; in their procurement, properties and the people they’re attached to.
It’s a similar case with art.
Beyond the brushstrokes and visually arresting imagery, some of our world’s finest works of art are just so due to the stories and sentiment behind them. A Starry Night becomes even more vivid with the knowledge that the reverse view is a painter gazing from the window of a mental institution. Picasso’s Guernica is ever more agonising when its purpose as a plea for peace in an era of violence and conflict is made public.
The absence of story is just as alluring. Who was The Girl With The Pearl Earring? Or Caspar David Friedrich’s Traveller? The Mona Lisa’s identity is contested to this day yet ten million people flock to see her smile every year. Sometimes the best stories are found in the secrets lost to time.
To create this kind of myth as a brand is a herculean task. But luckily, like brands themselves, value is built in the mind as well as markets. And there are plenty of psychological levers to push and pull perceptions of value.
CONTRIBUTORS TO PERCEPTIONS OF VALUE
IN LUXURY PURCHASES
Today, the only concrete at-a-glance measurable of luxury is price. A thing’s monetary value, whether that’s a pair of New Balance 550s, a Soho House membership or a riverboat cruise up the Nile, is a significant and overt contributor to a product’s perceived value. Luxury is united only by the number of figures – frequently lots of zeros – and that’s nothing new. What has changed since the luxury dialogues of yesteryear is the who.
Not the band, though they are, perhaps in part, to blame for the shift from the siloed and snobby strains of wealth (painfully posh one of our creatives calls it) to a flexible domain full of personas and subcultures more diverse than the ‘male, pale and stale’ category luxury knows so well.
An enduring barometer of not only luxury but taste too, a high standard of quality is an absolute baseline of value. Products built-to-break (unless it’s a well-timed iPhone software slowdown) aren’t going to be seen as valuable in comparison to products built to last. They don’t have to be incredible feats of engineering either, though that’s pure value to the right target, but there’s only one thing worse than cheap tat: expensive tat.
Quality also denotes a selection of adjacent contributors to perceived value. Craftmanship, because quality is where art and science meet. Durability, because we can derive pleasure from the product for prolonged periods of time. Reliability, because something well-made is stable and stability provides a level of subliminal comfort. Quality also implies excellence, the pursuit of which is a key contributor to happiness according to Eric Grietens, author of Resilience. Though the things we buy are made by another, to own something crafted with excellence, skill and expertise, is still to be in pursuit of it. And joy, in turn.
The way in which each of us view the world is entirely subjective, built from bias and personal association. Because of that fact, brands must work harder to understand their audiences as people rather than as a demographic. Each of us lives in an internet of one; where the world’s preferences organise themselves around the individual’s, making the challenge of seeing the world through the unique lens of the person we’re dealing with significantly more taxing.
It seems blindingly obvious but brand-people are regularly guilty of presuming their consistent brand image is perceived identically by every spectator. As though all people interpret codes, signals and gestures in the same way. However carefully marketers and strategists carve out a brand, those seemingly finite edges are no match for a single person’s point of view. Frustrating upon initial realisation, but, once the inkblot test dries, dynamic brands will see the opportunity for play in subjective perceptions.
To come full circle, value flows from the tales we tell ourselves. The pages and chapters may come from brands, passed through product, service and experience but the stories are woven by the individual.
Stories are priceless forms of social capital. And they become important in a world where everything is driven by comfort and convenience – the traditional tenets of luxury. Even scarcity – a seemingly concrete classification – can be created with story. Limited availability, exclusive access or even the perception of rarity is a well-established draw in luxury, employed often with a steady rate of return. Rationally we know there’s more where whatever it is came from. Irrationally, we want it anyway.
Because human psychology isn’t linear and perception is an entirely unique vantage point, brands must learn to play in the paradox of creating for public consumption. It’s about exercising perceptual fluency. Instead of being storytellers, strategists and marketers must be architects of story. The masons who bring together the pieces for an individual to pull together. Weaving their own way through a narrative, or experience as we call it.
We call those pieces touchpoints. And the framework we map them within falls under Brand Interactions™. Because we know brands and value are built in the mind. The sum of all their parts – of every interaction from initial awareness through to engagement, conversion and loyalty.
When brands craft each piece well, they become a luxury. Because we covet story and context. In a noisy world, those are scarcities. It’s why Bernard Arnault of LVMH who creates perceived value is worth more than Zuckerberg who creates utility.
Matter Of Form are in the business of the former, with a deep pragmatic understanding of the latter’s importance. It’s why we meticulously balance brand and conversion, because, as beautiful as a brand story may be, it’s boring coming up with ideas that don’t work.