Cracking the luxury code in America

The leading global market for luxury goods, the US represents a rich opportunity for high-end "Made in the USA" products, writes director of McCann Truth Central

When it comes to the luxury category, America remains one of the gems, even during this period of uncertainty in the global economy. And while the US is already the largest luxury market in the world, it’s still rich in opportunities, at least for those marketers who can crack the luxury code, how to combine a "Made in the USA" buying preference with core American values.

Currently, it’s the well-known French and Italian luxury brands that are benefitting from the continued growth in American wealth. US spending on personal luxury goods rose a steady 5% last year to about $73 billion, according to the consulting firm Bain & Company. With luxury brands like Hermès, Saint Laurent and Chanel rapidly expanding in response to this demand, the US accounts for a sizeable proportion of the overall annual sales of these and other European luxury icons.

But US consumer attitudes point to a major marketing opportunity. A 2014 global study conducted by McCann Truth Central, McCann Worldgroup’s thought leadership unit, uncovered that Americans most associate "high quality" brands with "Made in the USA," far ahead of Made in France or Italy. This doesn’t currently translate to support of homegrown luxury, but it does raise some important questions. What defines American luxury as compared to its European counterparts? And how can American luxury brands tap into their own essential character and become a force in their own right?

We’ve found that these characteristics are defined by both constant disruption, and a melting pot society that draws from myriad cultural references. Taken together, this brand of American luxury could ultimately be leveraged in much the same way as Made in France or Made in Italy.  

Defining the flavor
If Made in France evokes the country’s savoir faire and sensuality, and Made in Italy reflects Italy’s ideal of sprezzatura, what are the elements that American producers can own and translate to their own culture’s version of luxury? The answer lies in how the US at its best is perceived. Ask people around the globe how they would generally define American values, and they might summarize them as freedom and individuality. The ability truly to own these elements can be considered the foundation of true American luxury.

America’s ever-evolving sense of self as a young country allows it to continuously think progressively, never to be tied down to "the way we’ve always done it." And the profound sense of inclusivity — the melting pot society and the ideal of the American Dream — allows the nation to borrow references from around the globe, repurpose them, and ultimately create something entirely new.

These core elements are the foundation of any American brand, and homegrown luxury brands can tap into these forces to create their own point of view.

The freedom to disrupt
While Made in Italy or France are regarded as trusted luxury heritage sites, America has an intangible benefit that these countries do not: a freedom from the mores of history and tradition. Because America is not weighed down by long-standing heritage, it is free to experiment, disrupt and re-invent categories that are typically preserved in other cultures. The opportunity for American luxury brands is thus to take cues from traditional luxury and create something entirely new.

The style of America is to innovate and disrupt: take a category — be it technology, food or fashion — and smash up its conventions. In a way, Americans are skilled at "Uber-izing" categories and creating the most disruptive version of what it could be.

As examples, take American fashion designer Thom Browne’s iconic suiting, inspired by Japanese geisha culture, or organic food revolutionary Alice Waters’ noteworthy embellishments on traditional French gastronomy. Both Browne and Waters are undeniably American in their vision, but couldn’t have fully realized their dreams without having both a traditional reference point and a freedom from heritage.

A blend of cultural references
The other piece of the American brand of luxury is related to the ideal of the American Dream: allowing anyone who works hard enough, no matter where they come from, to build on their vision. In so doing, the country becomes a fusion of many cultures, building creativity and global perspectives into the very fabric of its ever-evolving identity.

As a land of immigrants, American has built itself on the entrepreneurship of people from all corners of the world, from Oscar de la Renta, a Dominican-American, who will arguably go down in history as the grand master of American couture, to young designers such as Prabal Gurung, a Nepalese-American, and Alexander Wang, a Taiwanese-American. These visionaries have profoundly affected not just luxury fashion, but also on the essence of American culture as a whole.

Regardless of where the influence comes from, they all ladder up to the positive perception of America known the world over. In the future, American luxury brands should continue to nurture up-and-coming visionaries to innovate, disrupt and evoke all that is aspirational about American life. In this way, America will continue to reinvent itself, providing inspiration and delight to the rest of world through a distinctive, truly ownable, luxury — one that transforms what "Made in the USA" actually means and that seasons quality with luxury to deliver a distinctively American flavor.

Nadia Tuma-Weldon is Senior Vice President, Director of McCann Truth Central.

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