If marketers looked closer and listened harder, they would realize that something else is afoot: Frugality is not antithetical with luxury. Let me explain.
Marketing strategists ultimately define a luxury by its price tag. As a cognitive anthropologist, I've been out and about in this downturned economy talking with people, asking "What's life like, nowadays?" I don't ask what they buy or don't buy.
When you give people the time and leeway -- and respect -- to talk about their lives, not as a consumer but as a person, you hear the mundane eloquence and simple complexity of real life as it is lived by real human beings.
In this context, two types of narrative are encountered:
1. More Meaning-Seeking: "I must be more selective in what I buy and what I buy into. I want things now that will show me my heart."
2. More Authenticity: "I've wanted to buy a great fountain pen for as long as I can remember, but I never have, until now. Despite the economy, or maybe because of it, I thought I should buy one now. I did and I'm so happy. It feels so sensual, so luxurious in my hand. I think I do better writing with it. It helps me get down to my deepest thoughts and feelings. I find 'me' with this pen in my hand."
That's the real experience of luxury, no matter what a product costs. A luxury experience takes you beyond yourself. It makes you feel more of you. It provides a venue for you to recognize or elaborate something latent in you that has not yet been made manifest.
A luxury experience makes a novelty of familiarity. It's a paradox that provides a surprise and it "fits" you. That's the best experience of all!
In today's culture, time is speeded up, unpredictability has ascended, and competition for scarce resources is the name of the game. Life is hard. We are aging more rapidly, even as our lifespan is increasing.
America finds itself between mythologies. We are not what we once were. We do not yet know what we will become.
In this transitional phase, the American ethic of self-expansion and self-expression is still strong, but in some way "having" is being replaced by "being." Accumulation is being over-ridden by authenticity and the quest for meaning. The quest for more of "me" -- that is a necessary luxury.