Perhaps there is no more contentious issue in the luxury market today than what makes a brand “real” luxury? The industry establishment frequently claims that this brand or that one simply doesn’t measure up to their inbred standard, thus negating it as a competitive threat. But all that is changing, as the very definition of “luxury” is undergoing a paradigm shift in the consumer market.

In a recent survey conducted by Unity Marketing with over 600 luxury retailers and marketers, industry insiders identified that the very definition of luxury changing is the No. 1 threat to disrupting the business of luxury. Increasingly, luxury is becoming irrelevant with the result, as this insider said, “Luxury retailers and brands have lost their way.”

Another insider expressed the quandary facing the luxury industry today: “The change in how consumers define luxury and the new path to purchase is dramatically redefining the marketing strategy. Luxury brands must be very agile and innovative in order to gain the favors of the new luxury consumer.”

Identity Crisis

The luxury industry has an identity crisis. “The idea that luxury matters less and less to young people is a concern, as they will define what luxury means versus brands defining it via marketing efforts,” said another.

The marketers’ challenge is to translate their brand messages into values that are truly meaningful and relevant to today’s customers’ lifestyles and their increasingly sophisticated and informed mindset. But luxury marketers can’t dictate anymore. They must follow the customers’ lead, an idea foreign to the powers that be in the industry.

In research for my book, Putting the Luxe Back in Luxury: How new consumer values are redefining the way we market luxury, I discovered 10 essential values that a luxury brand must reflect to earn the title of “luxury.” These values still hold in the face of the changing affluent consumer demographics, purchase behavior and their new thinking about what luxury means. But each value has to be interpreted for today’s customers.

Many of the heritage luxury brands we know, like Louis Vuitton, Prada, Gucci and Hermès, meet these criteria. But so too do many new-age brands, like Shinola, the manufacturing and retailing company founded by Tom Kartsotis.

There are many in the luxury industry that would argue heartedly that Shinola may be many things, but it isn’t a luxury brand. I’d argue just as strongly that it is indeed luxury, and I am confident many consumers would as well.

Here’s why I believe that Shinola measures up to the key qualities that define a luxury brand and how Shinola interprets these values to connect with today’s evolving luxury consumer.

Ten Values That Define A Luxury Brand

Let’s examine each value more closely:

1. Superior Performance

A luxury brand connects with their customers by being at the top of its class, the best in its field. It must deliver in some meaningful, measurable way better performance.

Shinola’s US-built Runwell watch is the watch of presidents. President Bill Clinton has worn one for years and is said to have collected dozens of them. And President Obama is a huge fan, so much so that he commissioned the company to create a custom-made watch to gift to British Prime Minister David Cameron. It is as close as we come to the “British Royal Warrant” granted to tradespeople serving the Queen.

2. Craftsmanship

Luxury brands connect with customers by presenting the highest quality and craftsmanship. The connection is intimate and personal, like the touch of a hand.

Shinola’s Built-in-Detroit roots link to the craftsmanship and engineering embodied by the city as the country’s automotive capital. In a watch factory located in a historic Detroit landmark building, once the home of GM’s automotive research lab, the company hand-assembles every Shinola watch.

3. Exclusivity

Luxury brands connect with customers by making them feel special and unique through the presentation of a special, unique experience. Exclusivity today is less about excluding people from enjoying the brand or limiting access; rather, it is about making customers and brand loyalists feel a member of an exclusive community linked by shared values and ideals.

Adweek proclaimed Shinola “the coolest brand in the world.” Who wouldn’t want to belong to that tribe? And its story of revitalizing American manufacturing resonates deeply with the zeitgeist of today’s consumer culture.

4. Innovation

Luxury brands connect with customers by presenting new visions and new ideas, all in keeping with the core values of the brand.

Shinola’s entire brand myth is based on the idea of innovation, rebirth and creative ingenuity.  It is reflected in its products and processes, as well as in its design of retail locations. With built-in-Detroit its core value, the company has paid tribute to the city’s musical roots by creating a line of audiophile equipment of turntables, headphones and speakers.

5. Sense Of Place And Time

Luxury brands connect by being both timely, grounded in the here and now, and timeless, transcending time from the past to the future.

Shinola’s ‘Built in Detroit’ tagline says it all. It hearkens back to the past century’s industrial revolution and looks forward to the future with 21st-century engineering and manufacturing prowess. But its sense of place and time extends to its dozen retail outlets, each individually designed to be grounded in its local community, like its Brooklyn flagship store housed on the Dumbo waterfront in a former coffee warehouse.

6. Sophistication And Design Aesthetic

Luxury brands connect with an appreciation of the customers’ sophistication celebrated through the brand’s unique design aesthetic.

From its watches to its bicycles, leather goods, writing journals and other products, Shinola prides itself on a distinctive and unique design aesthetic that is both classic and contemporary. Its flagship stores also showcase the brand’s unique vision, which its creative director Daniel Caudill describes as the “intersection of clean minimalism and 1930s industrialism.”

7. Creative Expression

Luxury brands connect through the spark of artistic creativity as interpreted through the eyes of a designer or visionary.

Shinola calls out the creativity of its “makers” in an online journal that features stories about its designers. Shinola’s makers celebrate the hard work and creative expression of the everyday journeyman, masters of their trade and craft, much like Messrs. Vuitton, Prada, Gucci and Hermès did in their day.

8. Relevant

Luxury brands connect by being relevant to their customers’ lives and lifestyle. Relevancy makes the brand special and bespoke for the individual.

With aims to become a true lifestyle brand, Shinola continues to tap its creative team and manufacturing expertise in creating new and unexpected products across a whole range of lifestyle endeavors. Besides its core watch, bicycle and leather goods offerings, the company has dog leashes and other pet accessories, eyewear, apparel, travel guides, and a line of Shinola jewelry.

9. Heritage

Luxury brands connect with their customer through the story of its lineage and provenance.

Though it was only founded in 2011, Shinola takes its name from a 1907 shoe polish company that became part of the American cultural myth when a disgruntled World War II soldier polished his commander’s boots with poop, proclaiming that he “wouldn’t know shit from Shinola.” Late-night show host Jimmy Kimmel refreshed his older viewer’s memories, or introduced it for the first time to others, in a mock game show skit “Can You Tell S#*t from Shinola.”

10. Responsibility

Luxury brands connect with their customers on a platform of social responsibility and giving back and doing good.

Shinola’s interpretation of corporate responsibility is nothing less that bringing manufacturing jobs and investment dollars back to Detroit. Many of its philanthropic endeavors are focused on rebuilding Detroit, with projects creating a dog park and green alleys near its company headquarters. And in partnership with the FEED Project, it designed a line of canvas and leather FEED bags, with the proceeds donated to Detroit’s only food rescue organization, Forgotten Harvest.

Luxury Is More Than A Marketer’s Label

The title of “luxury brand” must be earned. A brand can’t claim the label for itself. While brands that aspire to the designation of luxury share these 10 core values, each brand must interpret and express its luxury distinctly and in such a way that is authentic unto itself and that resonates in the minds of the customers.

Whether a heritage luxury, like Louis Vuitton, Prada, Gucci and Hermès, or new luxury, like Shinola, the real luxury of the brand isn’t only or mostly about its products, its manufacturing processes, its design and style or its service. It’s about a commitment to each of these values, from those working on the shop floor to the corner office and into the store where it connects with the customers.

For luxury, ultimately, isn’t a product or a price point, but a mindset. The core values expressed by the brand must link the company and its staff’s dedication to quality with the customers’ values and aspirations. It’s these people, not the product, that make a luxury brand.

Or as another luxury insider said, “The name of the luxury game needs to change – It’s not about the brands, it’s about the people and how you make them feel – status over others is so passe!”

The American Marketing Group can conduct a brand audit to ensure you have all ten essential luxury brand values working for you. Contact us to learn more.