South Africa’s Luxury Consumers Buck International Trends


Marina Cozzika | April 25, 2012

Marina Cozzika of Added Value explains how South Africa’s luxury consumers are bucking global trends when it comes to the values driving product & brand choices

Marina Cozzika of Added Value explains how South Africa’s luxury consumers are bucking global trends when it comes to the values driving product & brand choices.

This was the message from Added Value’s cultural insight and semiotics specialist, Dr Inka Crosswaite, to delegates at the South African Luxury Association’s Wealth Conference held in Johannesburg on the 8th of March. The South African based Dr Crosswaite has a Doctorate in Social Anthropology from the University of Cape Town and was a lecturer at Stellenbosch University. She now applies her specialist skills to clients’ commercial brand challenges.

The Meaning of Luxury in South Africa

Cultural insight, rooted in ethnographic tools and semiotic analysis, looks at how the world is changing, picks up on emergent shifts and then suggests to brands how they could adapt their positioning or creative execution to either remain relevant in existing markets, or seamlessly enter new ones.

In her presentation headed ‘The Meaning of Luxury in South Africa’, Dr Crosswaite identified the typologies and attitudes of the luxury consumer, and showed how they were changing on the global front. She then discussed the concept of luxury and the luxury consumer in South Africa, and pointed out where and why they differ from their counterparts in Europe and North America.

“Luxury has many meanings – it is a social construct, rare and unique. It has dream value, and offers a specific sensory world of refined aesthetics, sensuality and indulgence. It often builds its identity around a creator and has its roots in history,” Dr Crosswaite defined.

“Luxury also means you don’t consume, and you don’t even own. Instead, you build a relationship with the luxury object; it becomes part of your identity. The challenge for the luxury brand is about fuelling this relationship in a changing and progressive world. As the ‘Zeitgeist’ changes, so must the ‘Brandgeist’ – in other words, the brand must retain its cultural relevance.”

“ The rapidly-emerging code for luxury is edging into the philanthropic space; being discreetly astute, experience-led & offering cutting-edge design ”

The Changing Face of Luxury

On the international stage, Dr Crosswaite pointed out that the concept of luxury has evolved. In the past, luxury brands asserted their superiority through their history, heritage and iconicity. The more dominant expression of luxury today plays out in brands telling beautiful stories to inspire dreams and desire. This is very evident in the communication around luxury brands – it is all about depicting playful opulence, elitism, status display and a sense of discernment and knowing.

But, the rapidly emerging code for luxury is edging into the lifestyle and philanthropic space. Here, drivers include defying bold display, being discreetly astute, experience-led and offering cutting-edge design, simplicity and understatement.

“In Europe, the stark reality of the recession has focused people’s attention on the value of other things; like health, family and freedom. Even luxury brands are showing restraint; at Hermes, when it’s time to leave with your purchase, you’ll be asked if you’d like a branded shopping bag or a plain brown paper packet. Careful frugality and a focus on value have replaced ‘bling’ as an expression of luxury. Even BMW is no longer about the flashiest, fastest car – it’s now about joy and creativity, about simply being,” she said.

“ Status display is part of South African culture, and this is reflected in our relationship with luxury goods. Proper attire and display of wealth are perceived as honourable ”

Emblematic society

In South Africa, however, the emphasis is still very much on exhibiting status, and this has its roots in the very essence of who South Africans are. “South African society is emblematic,” explained Dr Crosswaite. “Traditionally, black culture marked social categories of age, gender, kinship, and rank in their attire and etiquette. For example, a woman’s clothing indicated whether she was married or not.

“Similarly, aristocratic chiefs symbolised their authority by wearing special animal-skin clothing, ornaments, and other paraphernalia of power. They were entitled by custom to display, mobilise, and increase their wealth through the acquisition of wives and large herds of cattle.

“Status display is part of South African culture, and this is reflected in our relationship with luxury goods and services. Proper attire and display of wealth are perceived as honourable, expressing the wearer’s dignity and setting codes of behaviour. Therefore, possessing and flaunting status symbols like luxury brands is an expression of pride, and not excessiveness.

“What this means for luxury brands is that the understatement and overt simplicity driving the European and American luxury goods markets only applies to the minority of luxury consumers in South Africa. Instead, expressions of flamboyance and bold display tap into the dominant and most wide spread attitude of this country’s luxury consumers, satisfying their need to display and share success.”

Dr Crosswaite conceded that there is suggestion that these drivers could change in the long-term. “There is a low-key trend which Added Value has termed ‘Afro Luxe’, which marries the very modern world with Africa’s very traditional one,” she said. “It is not international expression with an African spin; instead it is modern African luxury. The trend regards luxury as authenticity, vibrancy and dynamism, and taps into a growing desire of South Africans to do things their way and express who they are in the lifestyle choices.

“This means that ethical and sustainability issues effecting luxury globally are emerging, especially in terms of philanthropy with is closely related to the spirit of ubuntu. But for the medium term, the beauty and power, glitz and glamour of a wealthy and conspicuous life style will fuel the luxury goods market.”

“ For the medium term, the beauty and power, glitz and glamour of a wealthy and conspicuous life style will fuel the luxury goods market ”

Four Typographies

There are four types of luxury consumers in South Africa, and ‘status’ informs their behaviour in varying degrees. So, there are the extremely status-driven, materialistic, demanding, extroverts who see luxury as one of the principle mechanisms by which they can benchmark their success on one end of the scale, and the experts who love luxury for luxury’s sake and who appear to have a genuine appreciation of beautiful things, with no preoccupation with what other people think, on the other.

• The ‘money aristocracy’ for example are familiar with luxury and are confident navigating it. They are aware of their status and being part of the establishment, have an interest in classic brands but are not ostentatious in their consumption and may even be frugal spenders.

• The ‘established business magnate’ experiences luxury as a way of life and values uniqueness and limited-edition objects, which are expensive and highly collectible. He or she is status conscious but displays this through connoisseurship and distinction, not flamboyant consumption.

• The ‘self-made’ or ‘new money’ has a very different upbringing, lifestyle, education to that of ‘old money’. For them, luxury goods are perceived to offer higher quality that is worth paying for but they are constantly educating themselves in the concept of luxury. They have a strong drive to learn what it means to be truly affluent and what it means to be associated with money. Brands help them to attain the desired sense of self, of individualism, as well as accomplishment and ‘having made it’. Their status, therefore, is displayed outwardly via luxury goods and services.

• The ‘deluxe aspirer’, someone from the growing population of wealthy upper-middle class individuals en route to enter the world of luxury. These are often South African politicians or self-made people with limited education but with enormous drive, a high need for distinction and a ‘go-getter’ mentality. They buy luxury premium goods to show off their success. In fact, if their peers don’t recognise the value of their possessions, their money has been wasted. For them status skills are less important, as it is all about ‘show-time’.

“ Experiences have become the new currency. Today consumers have more disposable income, more goods, more stress and ultimately less time ”

Two Consumer Trends

Rewarding yourself for the demands that life places on you by indulging in bite-sized ‘treats’. Most often manifests itself in the purchase of treats such as luxury chocolates or luxurious bath products. However, luxury brands are being made more accessible by broadening their product ranges allowing consumers entry into the world of luxury, which they may previously not have been able to afford when they buy a Louis Vuitton purse or key ring, as opposed to a Louis Vuitton bag, for example.

Experiences have become the new currency. Today consumers have more disposable income, more goods, more stress and ultimately less time. Seeking to make the most of life, consumers have an increased interest in new and different experiences to set themselves apart. The purchasing of luxury goods is an experience in itself.

According to the World Wealth Report produced by Merrill Lynch and Capgemini, South Africa has close on fifty thousand people who are worth over R8 million (dollar millionaires), and the year on year increase is set at some 13.3%.

The profile of South African luxury consumer is diverse but the policy of Black Economic Empowerment has created a new elite, which rose from poverty to affluence in less than a decade, creating a comparatively small but highly visible group of new luxury consumers.

Overall, the economic growth of South Africa adds to the number of people with disposable income who are willing to buy premium/luxury goods and enjoy treating themselves.

South Africa | UHNW