Walpole Editorial

Sex sells. But not necessarily in the way you might think.

In this piece by Walpole columnist Peter Howarth, a conversation with Matthew Syed sheds some interesting light on the challenges and opportunities for luxury brands as we emerge from the pandemic.
23rd Jul 2021
Share this article
Walpole Editorial Sex sells. But not necessarily in the way you might think.

A couple of years ago, fashion designer Katharine Hamnett, ever the controversialist, was asked by Dazed why there was so much sex in her old ads. ‘Somebody once said, “people buy jeans to get laid, people buy clothes to get laid”,’ she replied. ‘So in advertising I was aware that sex plays a role, so why not celebrate it?’

Of course, the old adage is that sex sells, but Hamnett’s point is more nuanced. ‘And happiness and aspiration – I thought, what do people want?’ she continues. ‘Happiness! Aristotle said the purpose of philosophy is happiness, you know, and that’s a fundamental desire of all human beings… and that often involves sexual attraction or games or play.’

The idea that sexual attraction is somehow at the root of purchasing decisions is something I was intrigued to hear from another source, Matthew Syed, columnist for The Sunday Times and author of Radio 4’s podcast Sideways, which investigates the motivations of human behaviour, and a whole slew of books on the subject.

Syed is a friend and we were having a conversation about luxury when I asked him why, did he think, people are motivated to spend money on things that are perceived to be rare or emblematic of a level of connoisseurship?

‘There’s a long tradition in economics of conspicuous consumption,’ he replied. ‘And one of the biggest drivers of biological evolution isn’t natural selection, it’s sexual selection: we want to convey our best attributes to potential mating partners so we can pass on our genes. If not, our particular genome is in danger of disappearing.’

Hang on minute. Was he seriously saying that the Bremont watch he wears – yes, this popular philosopher is a fan of the former Walpole Brand of Tomorrow! – is a way to attract the opposite sex?

‘Look, think of peacocks’ tails,’ he told me. ‘They are elaborate and beautiful. They’re not functional. At one level, what that nice bright tail says is – if I can create beauty this extravagant, I must have great genes. So, if you drive a beautiful car or, yes, wear a good-looking watch, you are signalling that you have the mettle, the wherewithal, the charisma and capacity to choose and afford this wonderful piece of design and engineering – you are signalling to people something about you as a person that suggests you are a good potential reproductive partner.’

A basic instinct then! ‘It’s deeply integrated into the human mind,’ said my friend. ‘Reproduction and survival are the strongest instincts of them all. And luxury brands are like those peacock feathers.’

I’d not thought about it in this way before, beyond the more basic ‘people buy clothes to get laid’ notion. But it kind of makes sense. Luxury is a signifier of many things, we know that – of wealth and taste and special knowledge – but now it seems we need to consider that it is also a flag of good genes.

So while we were on the subject, I asked Syed why he thought the luxury industry had grown so substantially over the past century. Was this a sign that we were understanding the value of this sort of peacockery more and more?

‘That’s partly to do with economic growth,’ he answered. ‘Most of the Western world is now living well beyond subsistence. For the two million years before the Industrial Revolution most parts of the planet were mainly concerned with finding enough food and warding off predators.’

What about culture? ‘Sure, you had art, technological progress and the idea of happiness – even among nomadic hunter-gatherers there is evidence that happiness was a concept. But since the Industrial Revolution large numbers of people have been buying things not just for their functional properties but for how they make us feel, and what they say about us.’

But beyond economics, the rise of the luxury industry also, says Syed, mirrors the rise of Western individualism. ‘For most of human history – and still you see this today in certain societies – peoples’ identity was tied up with a tribal clan network. Ask someone in a tribe in Yemen who they are, for example, and they will say, “I am so and so’s son and so and so’s cousin, and I am from such and such a region.” In the West you say, “I am a journalist, or the founder of a tech company.” We define ourselves by our attributes. And the more people think about themselves as individuals, the more they are looking for things that burnish their essence of self.’

For Syed, luxury brands play to this. ‘Luxury brands tap in to this need. They have more than a transactional relationship with their customers. You’re not buying a Rolex – or a Bremont for that matter! – to tell the time. You’re buying it to feel an association with that brand and for the properties of that brand you want to be associated with.’

And, interestingly, he points out that the brands operate in exactly the same way in terms of who they associate themselves with. ‘You’ll have noticed the way they advertise these brands – in the same way that we want to associate with the brands whose properties we hope will rub off on us, they have been very careful to associate themselves through advertising, sponsorship and PR with very prestigious people.’ The whole use of celebrities to market luxury is then not just about presenting role models that customers might aspire to emulate, but also about figuring that the brand values of a George Clooney or Beyoncé will stick to the brand that employs them.

Syed thinks that this type of Western individualism is beginning to make inroads into large parts of the world now, hence the growing demand for luxury goods in the so-called emerging markets. ‘Japan imported Western legal and marriage customs in the 19th century, and China did much the same in the ‘50s, though it is pushing back a bit now. In consumer psychology there has been a distinction between the behaviour of the Western world and other parts of the planet, but that is beginning to narrow.’

What’s really interesting here is that far from being a simple case of the West exporting Capitalism, what Syed is arguing is that it is the spread of the cult of the individual that is driving the purchase of luxury goods. And in some cases, the way in which luxury consumers behave does not conform to traditional ideas of Capitalism. ‘If you simply define Capitalism as the capacity of private institutions to sell in free markets, you see the market as defined by price. But through different psychological experiments you can see that different people react differently to economic incentives. In a small village in Peru, for example, people will go to a company that sells a higher-priced product if they happen to be related to the people there. Prices are not a driver in kin-based societies.’ There is surely an analogy here to the fact that those who have forged a relationship with a luxury brand will be willing to pay more for a product that has the brand value they have bought into.

We then turned to the future. Sayed said that he believes the phenomenon of individualism and the desire to broadcast this will increase. But he also said he sees a really fascinating new development that could prove very problematic for those brands that, in the way that brands have for many years, want to appeal to as many people as possible.

‘The thing that really interests me is that until relatively recently the thing for brands to do – and that means luxury brands too – was to stay out of political controversy. The logic is obvious – they don’t want to alienate people who take a different political view. So they have focused on transcendental values of good taste, looking good and feeling good, and associating themselves with non-controversial role models. But it seems now that if brands want to appeal to the younger generation, it may prove difficult for them not to take a stand. And if they do, this might prove divisive when trying to attract certain customers.’

He tells the story of how years ago Michael Jordan was asked to endorse a campaign for a Democrat senator while he was an ambassador for Nike, which at the time, he says, was seen as more of an aspirational, expensive luxury brand than it is perhaps now. ‘The story goes that when Jordan was asked to do this he turned it down and said something like, “Republicans buy sneakers too.”’

By contrast, says Syed, today things have changed. You only have to look at the England football team to see how. ‘Today almost all the big stars are taking very strong stances in the value space. I wonder what luxury brands are going to do about this?’

It’s an important question, because there is a risk in not understanding what is going on. ‘There could be a penalty in not in taking a stance. There are of course some marketeers who say stay well out of it. But at some point someone on Twitter will ask a question. And then what do you do?’

It is, says Syed an ‘extremely ticklish issue’. ‘Some brands have been cancelled by the right for not advertising with GB News – and look at what happened when Colin Kaepernick appeared in that ad for Nike.’

Kaepernick is the American football player who in 2016 caused controversy by sitting during the US national anthem at a game; he then took to kneeling while “The Star-Spangled Banner” played. It was a protest he described in these terms: ‘I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour.’ Nike’s 2018 ad featuring a black-and-white portrait of the former quarterback, who had not had a place in a team since leaving the San Francisco 49ers in 2017, ran the caption: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” Though supported by many, it caused its own protest – some burnt Nike trainers.

According to Syed, not only did the ad polarise customers, it also resulted in Nike even getting challenged for its own record: ‘On issues of race, Nike was getting called out for it – did the advert match its own internal values?’

The politicisation of the younger generation poses a fascinating dilemma for brands, says Syed, and that goes for luxury brands too: ‘These brands win on perception, intangibles – things like beauty and aspiration. If they then have to take a strong stance on morality and if they have to do this in a way that does not seem inauthentic – well that is an extremely difficult thing to do well. The winners will be those that navigate these difficult waters well.’

The mention of authenticity – or rather inauthenticity – seems to me to be critical here. We all know the prevailing theory that authenticity is the key to engaging with the up-coming generation. And I am an advocate of the idea that this actually has nothing to do – necessarily – with heritage. You can be an authentic legacy brand and an authentic start-up, just as you can be an inauthentic firm, new or old. But if authenticity gets tied up with what you stand for as a brand in moral as much as aesthetic terms, then brands may have to make a very difficult decision. They may have to understand that they cannot be all things to all people. They may have to draw a line in the sand as to where they stand on issues like race, climate change, gender politics and the like. In doing so, they may well cement their relationship with those who agree with their position, while at the same time having to say goodbye to those who don’t.

The problem will be if customers demand to know these things as part of the contract of endorsing one brand rather than another through their loyalty. Then brand owners will have no choice but to grasp this nettle. It is already happening in the area of climate change, which is now seen as much less of a divisive issue than it was. You won’t find a luxury brand that has not signed up to the notion that we all need to minimise our impact on the environment and behave in a more sustainable fashion; and that includes how they make and sell goods and how they run their businesses.

This focus on values also introduces another issue, says Syed. ‘The requirement that brands have some sort of foundation in ethical values might also mean that the brands that are purely ostentatious might lose appeal for younger people – if they don’t have an authentic set of values beneath them, I can imagine them running into difficulty; I can imagine young people turning against ostentation for ostentation’s sake.’

And how do brands signal their values in an authentic way? ‘For what it’s worth,’ says Syed, ‘authenticity resides in storytelling. We measure people’s authenticity by the stories they tell us that connect with the values they endorse. Storytelling will become more and more important.’ And he adds: ‘Of course, authenticity itself has got to be true. More and more, people see through a façade. The stories you tell about your brand have to connect form bottom to top of an organisation; they have to be part of the culture. Consumers are sophisticated and are able to see inauthenticity.’

But if this all sounds like we are entering a complex landscape, then Syed also points out that in many ways he sees the outlook for luxury to be positive. ‘If I look at Walpole,’ he says, ‘I see a huge number of legacy brands there, and I do think by and large heritage is a massive and growing asset.’ But of course, when it comes to British brands there is risk and reward here.

‘As a 50-year-old who grew up here, I’d say that a lot of people have a high regard for Britain and what we stand for,’ says Syed. ‘This is the home of the Industrial Revolution and of the Scottish Enlightenment; the Rule of Law originated in the UK, as did the Separation of Powers, which is the basis of the US Constitution. Many of the great innovations originated here, and we produced Newton, Churchill, Boadicea. We can forget, unless we travel, how deep and rich and influential the idea of Britain and Britishness is. That is definitely a factor that can drive sales for luxury brands that can convey their Britishness in an effective way. However, we are now seeing another side to the notion of our position as a world power in the 19th century, which is the difficult debate about the nature of Empire. The role and legitimacy of Empire is becoming more contested, and so legacy and heritage is being questioned.’

So what should British luxury brands do in these circumstances? ‘Well, it was never a good idea to let your brand get dusty and dwell in the past. So the best idea is to do what successful brands – heritage or not – have always done: remain relevant and contemporary.’ Heritage can be useful, but it is not what defines that all important authenticity. ‘Look at the people who made my watch – Bremont. They don’t have a long history, but they tap into some of that Britishness with their association with aviation and the military. But with their new watchmaking facility in Henley, as I understand it, the first of its kind for decades, they’ve connected that nostalgia with an open and outward-looking Britain. A new factory, new tech… Obviously for heritage to work it has to be living and future-looking. It can’t be too crusty.’

Any tips on how to stay “future-looking”? ‘One thing companies staying relevant for a long time seem to do is listen to their younger employees. There’s good evidence for this – there was a Harvard Business Review on the subject. Those companies that give young people in organisations access to decision makers tend to do better. The leaders in businesses tend to be middle-aged, and if the world is changing, the paradigms they grew up with become less and less relevant.’

So how do you “listen” to this generation. ‘One thing business do is create shadow boards of younger employees. They deliberate on the big strategic decisions facing the organisation, just like the main board, and they get the opportunity to present their ideas. Suddenly executives are introduced to the issues that this generation is concerned about – they are invited to think about things like the importance of authenticity.’

This is, says Syed, also a way for a business to foster a culture of inclusivity where people feel valued. ‘Luxury businesses need to do what all successful businesses do,’ he says. ‘They need to have the capacity to adapt to changing circumstances and create a culture that has an underlying purpose that people in the organisation buy into.’

We end by, perhaps inevitably, discussing the pandemic. Syed says the economics look good for luxury: ‘I’m looking now at an estimated two trillion pounds that has been consolidated over the course of the pandemic, waiting to be spent. This will be a deal-led recovery, with new businesses reinvigorating the way we work and how we live. For those luxury brands that can work out how to tackle the new world we are entering into, they will soar.’

I asked him whether he thought that the pandemic has also shone a light on the meaning of luxury itself? Did he subscribe to the view that it had accelerated a trend that some identified before it struck for people to regard experiences as more of a luxury than transactions? His answer surprised me.

‘I’ve actually never believed that there is a hard and fast line between consumer durables and experiences,’ he said. ‘We buy these things for the experiences. If I spend money on a beautiful sofa or chair, for example, I do so for the way it makes me feel, the conversations I will have in it, the thoughts I imagine I will formulate in it. The conceptual distinction between things and experiences is an extremely tenuous one. Great luxury brands make experiential products. And they only fly when they sell themselves as that.’

He acknowledges that there are companies now that will take you to the North Pole for a money-can’t-buy-experience (‘except you can buy it!’) and talks too of the ‘space stuff that is being done by Bezos and Branson’ as further examples of the selling of experience, but returns resolutely to his theme: ‘Great products produce great experiences.’

So there you have it. One of our widely read popular thinkers believes that the new world is in some ways like the old one. You need a great product that makes an emotional connection with a customer; you need to adapt to survive; and you need to understand that the reason people buy Bremont watches has little to do with telling the time.

Matthew Syed competed for Great Britain in table tennis at the Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1992 and Sydney in 2000. Now a journalist, broadcaster and author, he is also a consultant with clients including ITV, Microsoft and Vodafone. A popular philosopher, he presents the Sideways podcast for Radio 4 and writes a weekly column for The Sunday Times. His books include: Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice; Black Box Thinking: Marginal Gains and the Secrets of High Performance; The Greatest: What Sport Teaches Us About Achieving Success; You Are Awesome: Find Your Confidence and Dare to be Brilliant at (Almost) Anything; Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking; and Dare to Be You: Defy Self-Doubt, Fearlessly Follow Your Own Path and Be Confidently You!. You can contact Matthew Syed Consulting at: matthewsyed.co.uk.