Owning the Experience

Are possessions losing out to experiences as we redefine luxury?

There’s a theory that today’s affluent consumers want experiences, not possessions. Rather than buy some status symbol they haven’t got the time to use or enjoy, today’s entrepreneurs are out there exploring the Arctic, venturing deep into the tropical rainforest, swimming with sharks or putting their names down for a Virgin Galactic space flight.

Times are good for companies that offer experiences you’ll be able to tell your grandchildren about. ‘I went ice diving in Antarctica’ sounds a lot more impressive than ‘I got tanned sitting by the pool’ even if at the time you might have had second thoughts about lowering yourself through a small ice hole into inky blue, ice cold polar waters.

With these bespoke adventure holidays the emphasis is on pushing yourself to the limits rather than cocooning yourself in sybaritic luxury. From swimming with manta rays in Indonesia and abseiling into geothermic fissures in Iceland to dune buggy racing through the wilds of Baja California, the world is your adventure playground.

So do the makers of luxury goods need to worry? Will ‘owning lots of stuff’ seem uncool to a new generation of experience-seekers? Probably not, but maybe we need to think anew about how we market luxury products to today’s affluent consumers.

Human beings are acquisitive. Our eyes are caught by new, shiny, interesting things. We like novelty. A bespoke Brioni suit or a case of Chateau Petrus or a 200mph Aventador S remind us of what we’ve achieved, and the  moment when we take delivery is a special one.

But as the theory of the hedonic treadmill shows (if our own life experiences haven’t already) the thrill of the new soon fades. According to the theory, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, with no permanent gain in happiness. The treadmill keeps us yearning for the next new thing.
The best way to create lasting appreciation for a luxury brand, be it a Swiss chronometer or an Italian supercar, is to give owners something to do with it. That’s why Breitling offers its customers the chance to fly with its jet aerobatic team, or meet a NASA astronaut. Pinnacle automotive brands like Lamborghini and Bentley run a full calendar of driving events, from ice driving on Arctic lakes to race driver training at F1 circuits. Taking a cue from this approach Genesis, Korea’s new premium automotive contender, recently hosted a gastronomic Napa Valley grand tour for its customers. In each case the product becomes a key to an experience that would otherwise be inaccessible.

Back in the late 1980s, classic cars went through the roof in value. For the most part, the people buying them saw them as an investment in uncertain times. Inevitably, the market crashed in 1990, bankrupting many.

Today, classic car values are soaring again. But this time, experts are confident the values will hold. What’s the difference? Own a classic car in 2017 and you’re also buying access to a world of experiences. Concours d’elegance. Classic rallies. Regularity runs. Supercar breakfast meets. Race series. You get to use your classic, as gently or as competitively as you wish. You get to meet like-minded people. You get a ‘season’; Amelia Island, Mille Miglia, Le Mans Classic, Goodwood Revival, Pebble Beach. You can rally from Peking to Paris or from Lands End to John o’Groats.
That’s what happens when the possession and the experience become two sides of the same coin. It’s the key to creating lasting satisfaction with a luxury brand. And it’s a lot more fun than buying a 250 GTO just to park it in an air conditioned garage.