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The Lost Sense of Touch

AI, ads, chatbots, 4G and 4K, handheld and flat screen, images, and more images. The future will be dematerialized and the whole world at the tip of your finger, they said. But do we want really to reduce our fifth sense of touch to the mere sense of swipe? Strangely enough, luxury brands are the ones that can lead the rebellion.

Today, mastering digital communications is the absolute quest for luxury brands. For many of them, projecting a contemporary image while keeping their tradition alive and simultaneously engaging new customers is a demanding challenge. In this ‘all-for–digital’ luxury environment, it is interesting to point out diverging approaches to our sense of touch. On one hand, Net-à-Porter has begun to sell high-end jewelry in an online space called The Suite, where you can buy 43,000€ earrings without feeling their weight, touch, size, or shine. On the other hand, Chanel has chosen not to have an online store: every digital experience must lead to the physical apprehension of the product in a boutique.

So, the question remains, could you tell the difference in quality between a product displayed on Gucci’s website and one on Zara’s without touching it? Additionally, the vast majority of luxury brands followers can’t even buy the products. Luxury brands have proven better than any other sector that a brand can thrive on the emotional attraction of people without them being customers. There lies the first paradox: you can’t touch what you can’t buy.

Of course, every brand has to exist and behave online today. But blindly embracing the digital trend and following the pack could be the worst mistake luxury brands can make. Even more, behaving wisely, they could lead an alternative take on contemporary branding, championing concepts such as slow consumption (after all, isn’t the definition of luxury based on the rareness of its products), fighting planned obsolescence (not only because of the intrinsic quality of luxury goods make them high value investments, but because they are simply good products that will last longer), promoting recycling (yes, recycling) and, finally, making us recovering our lost sense of touch.

The Mirror of Accessibility

For decades, leading luxury brands kept a magic aura — , a ‘distance’ with the audience. Their stores were temples where, apparently, only some happy few –ladies with their rich husbands– could get in. There was a mystery surrounding these brands and their creators, and the legend was carefully kept alive and perpetuated in each city in the house they were born (in Paris, in Milan, or New York). But with the rise of globalization and new strategies in major groups, our perception of luxury changed: it became approachable and affordable. Luxury advertising was all over the city, seducing us. You could get products everywhere because the same stores multiplied everywhere. It’s not that it was not expensive anymore (it still was), but, somehow, we all got the impression that now it was for us too. Most of the luxury goods became merchandising by focusing on the juicy accessories business: if you couldn’t get a Prada dress (and you couldn’t), you could at least get a little Prada wallet and feel part of the game. Mass hysteria hit, people rushed to the stores and browsed online, sweeping away the taste and sometimes reaching absolute peaks of vulgarity: you now could exhibit your little Louis Vuitton logo on a key ring. Hurray. Luxury was finally for everyone.

Social networks and digitalization furthered the transformation of luxury perception. They act as an infinite shop window, letting you see the content, but not touch it. But aren’t we mistaking the feeling of accessibility with accessibility itself? And if so, isn’t the feeling of touch the ultimate reward of the shopping experience?

Making a Difference

The very essence of branding is differentiation. That’s no news: if you look like your competitors, tell similar stories, or advertise the same way, you simply don’t exist. Luxury brands ought not to ignore that obvious statement: the more they rush to mimic other brands, trying to ‘stay in the race’ by embracing every new digital gimmick, the more common they will become.

Luxury brands managers shouldn’t forget that the companies they lead have a unique relationship to their customers and to time in their DNA. Whether it’s through their tradition, family values, customer relationship rituals, their craftsmanship, handmade processes, or care for quality fabrics, true luxury brands make a statement: their products are here to last.

In a time where millennials are showing new consumption patterns, willing to rent or collectively buy luxury goods –“I don’t need to own it, I just need to wear it, or be seen with it.” (the vintage luxury market is totally booming, see Farfetch)– and where programmed obsolescence, mass consumption, and waste are becoming such crucial matters, most luxury manufacturers lead by example, perhaps without even knowing it.

Most of them produce locally with local craftsmen and talents, they transmit their savoir-faire to younger apprentices as it is essential to their survival. Their customers will guard their products for years (shoes, bags, watches), and, sometimes offer them to the next generation. The best luxury goods manufacturers will fix their products for you when they break, putting repair and recycling at the center of their customer relationship (look at Heschung or Rimowa engagements on that matter). Put simply: they care.

There is the second paradox: except for the international dinosaurs (the Vuitton’s, Tiffany’s, Gucci’s, and the like), most of smaller luxury manufacturers are in fact already the local, human-centered, slow consumption brands we all want to interact with. They were here the whole time.

Touched by Touch

In an unpredictable world where everything goes faster, the usual standards of luxury are currently changing. Possession and instant gratification will soon be over as cultural trends in the Western society. And that’s good. Valuable time and living space, choice, genuine human relationships and … no-wifi zones are already true markers of luxury living. The digital world helps us communicate and do tasks faster and more efficiently. But it doesn’t replace the tactile enjoyment of objects. Spend an hour in an Apple store, and you’ll see how important the tactile feel of a new laptop or an iPhone is for people. Even in these times when communication is only dedicated to our eyes and ears, the sense of touch — beyond a simple swipe — is increasing in importance and will probably make a comeback. It imparts a sense of memory, capable of evoking joy and human connection.

Who better than luxury houses to remind us of the value and art of touch? Craftsmanship, fabrics, fine materials, and long-lasting products are at the core of their DNA. As such, every physical experience with luxury objects should capture those feelings, from retail design and experience, to packaging, sales knowledge, and manners. These are not just legacy marks of the brand. They are cultural and social mores that set the tone for how we engage with objects, even outside of the luxury world. The “Métiers d’Art” show in Paris and Hamburg, which may be the most beautiful show of the Chanel brand, showcased the policy of the luxury house to buy and safeguard expert craftspeople such as Lesage, Desrues, Michel, and Lemarié, among other talents. Chanel didn’t need to buy those. They bought them to reconnect with their own history of excellence in the art of touch.

Another lesson we can learn from luxury brands is something that they inherently understand about human behavior: our tactile love of their brand is not contained to the final purchase. It continues to the packaging. The quality, care, and values that they evoke for everyone is why they remain in our lives: storing beloved objects or becoming the objects themselves. Their beautiful packaging and shopping bags are strong brand ambassadors, much nicer and warmer than any digital post or banner we will forget in an instant. We will keep them close to us for years.

Now is the time for these houses to lead the charge on branding issues across the spectrum, reminding us what we value and what image we project — how we value touch. Time, care, craft, reuse, recycle, personal, human, and local are their keywords. The digital experience is vital, but human connection is the real power they hold. They can both teach us and influence other brands to touch us again the right way.

Written by Base partner Thierry Brunfaut.