The New Black

June 18, 2013

As I was cruising down the highway, I passed the not-so-glamorous Newark Liberty Airport, and luxury came calling. Was it ironic that I was in a black, luxury crossover? Maybe. ​

But what struck me was actually a Budweiser billboard that proclaimed its “Black Crown” brew to be the drink of choice selected by and for “the finest in the nation”. See “Black”, read “Luxury”. Now where have I seen that before?

Rewind to New York Fashion Week—with throngs of fashion’s elite, many clad all in black, inundating Manhattan. In honor of the event, designer Reed Krakoff and famed French pâtisserie Ladurée collaborated to create a limited edition, matte-black macaron. That’s right, a luxury dessert in ever-fashionable black. ​

THE TRUTH IS, I’VE SEEN THE BLACK=LUXURY MESSAGE JUST ABOUT EVERYWHERE, AND SO HAVE YOU 

It all really started in 1999 with the American Express Centurion Card, an invitation-only credit card offered to clients who meet certain very high (yet provocatively undisclosed) net worth and annual spending criteria. The Centurion Card, which is black, has long been informally known as the Black Card.

American Express may have owned the “Black” branding space for a while, but over the past few years brands across virtually every category have attached “Black” to their name and rested comfortably in the knowledge that consumers understand this means Luxury with a capital “L”.

In some cases, like Ralph Lauren Black Label apparel, Gucci Black perfume, and Porsche Black Edition, brands do actually have luxury DNA and heritage to support the brand platform. In other cases, including Puma’s Black Label, which houses products done in collaboration with high-end designers, the luxury DNA is not as strong, but arguable. And then there are spirits, where black labeling has been the most prolific and has been adopted across mass, mid-tier, and luxury products. In addition to the aforementioned Budweiser Black Crown, there’s Jameson Black Barrel, Guinness Black Lager, Malibu Black Rum, Evan Williams Black Label, and Hennessy Black, among others.

All of this black labeling raises a big question: Will luxury brands continue to leverage black as a key brand attribute? I don’t think so, and history as well as best practices in brand strategy agree with me.

In the 1990s, everything had to be “Clear” – the American Express Clear Card, Pepsi Clear, Zima (the clear malt beverage – remember that one?), and the clear iMac (which was totally revolutionary at the time).

By the 2000s, “Clear” gave way to “Platinum”: the Sony PlayStation Platinum Range, platinum wedding bands rather than gold, Zino Platinum Crown Series cigars by Davidoff, Patron Platinum, and countless “Platinum Collections” by brands across categories from vacuum cleaners to cars.

Luxury brands establish and differentiate by positioning themselves above everyone else in their category. They do this in a variety of ways, including but in no way limited to naming. Before it caught on like wildfire, brands stood out for having a “black label” and were perceived as being a cut above the rest, or at the very least as being different. But now that so many brands have a black label, true luxury brands will doubtless push forward and find new means of distinguishing themselves.

There are a few directions beginning to take hold, all of which (thankfully) appear to be slightly less contrived than the ubiquitous application of the Black concept.

THE FIRST TREND AMONG GAINING SERIOUS MOMENTUM IN THE LUXURT SPACE IS CRAFTSMANSHIP 

This isn’t something new – trends don’t have to be – but in post-recession times, it certainly provides justification for bigger spending at higher price points. Whether it’s handmade, handcrafted, small batch or artisanal, now is the time to learn how to properly pronounce “terroir” once and for all. If there’s any doubt in your mind, look at the Luxury-ization of beer: Craft beers like Oskar Blues Dale’s Pale Ale and the whole line from Sixpoint Brewery in Brooklyn are reframing beer as upscale and gourmet.

Brands who pull back the curtain and communicate their tenets to consumers are utilizing the next big thing in Luxury: Straightforwardness and Transparency.

Take clothing company Everlane – they are open and upfront about their business model, profits, and manufacturing. Couple that with classic, timeless clothing, and they’ve primed the brand for consumers as a model of post-recession cool. Another player in the clothing space utilizing the same trend, Bonobos, works on the premise that guys need better pants and clothes that fit properly at a reasonable price. Simple enough, right? The fact that the brand recognized that men would seize upon the opportunity to buy that clothing in a comfortable, non-demeaning and straightforward way established Bonobos as a new kind of fashion leader.

LASTLY, WHAT’S OLD IS NEW AGAIN

The oldest trick in the book, Shared Brand Equity is here to stay. While celebrity endorsements and brand partnerships date back to the beginning of branded promotions, Social Media is redefining the way these relationships are conceived, executed and either accepted or scrutinized by the public. By thinking harder and creating more evocative and compelling brand partnerships, this trend seems ready to gain momentum and greater influence in the very near term. You only need to look to Diet Coke (which seems to view itself as a fashion brand as much as a cola) and Marc Jacobs with a sexy, on-brand buzz-generating campaign vs. Diet Pepsi and HGTV designer Vern Vip coming out with something that feels second-rate and purely decorative. ​

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