EAT LOVE SAVOR had the opportunity and great pleasure to discuss at length with Dr Martina Olbertova about the subject of luxury and meaning. We are delighted to bring to you this in-depth interview as she offers great food for thought and insightful perspective.
What led you to create a company focused on reconnecting with ‘meaning’? What is your mission in business?
Over the last decade, working as a strategy consultant in branding and marketing, I started observing the fundamental disconnect between the value we intend to create and what we actually do. The difference is usually a vast one. There seem to be many gaps in business today as brands and organisations are still mostly managed in silos, which fragment their inner value and perceived meaning. This creates an overall market climate of meaninglessness — in brand communication, product development or customer experiences.
The second aspect is the complete lack of cultural and contextual thinking in business today. Cultural irrelevance and value fragmentation are the biggest reason why global brands now struggle to grow and retain their value. We cannot manage brands in detachment from the real world. Brands are not islands, they don’t exist in a vacuum; they derive their value from the cultural context in which they are embedded. Meaning is the connective tissue between brands and the world we live in. Only when brands are contextualised with culture and society can they be relevant, valuable and profitable.
My mission is to help businesses offset this ongoing crisis of meaning and help them in better adapting to the quickly changing context of the 21st century to create new value for the upcoming generation of consumers. With meaning and cultural relevance at the core, brands — and luxury brands especially — can become vibrant and profitable again.
Tell us about your vision for the future of brands, in luxury or otherwise?
My vision is to educate and guide business leaders on how to manage their brands as the dynamic ecosystems of cultural value that they really are. The measurement-obsessed, short-termism driven, left-brained business management paradigm took the life and soul out of brands. But when it comes to luxury, this soul — the essence — is the core asset of your brand. If you lose it or don’t keep it up to speed with how the society is evolving, your value as a brand will decrease.
We could see it recently with the likes of brands such as Barneys or Zac Posen’s House of Z. Even if you have the Hollywood A-listers clientele, it won’t save your brand if your business model doesn’t stand the test of time and you cannot adapt quickly enough to the changing tides in culture.
In this regard, LVMH is paving a brave new way forward with its strategy of global cultural diversification. We’ve seen Bernard Arnault invest in FENTY, MadHappy and most recently in the largest ever acquisition of the American icon Tiffany. LVMH is clearly on the path of owning, consolidating and leveraging new relationships with consumer audiences and venturing into new territories to grow their global empire.
How is meaning connected to luxury? What is their mutual relationship?
We now live in the age of abundance: we have plenty of things to desire, but not enough of what we truly need — not enough of what feeds our souls, makes us feel alive and makes our lives meaningful. We have an excess of data and information, but we are starved out for true meaning — for the kind of things that truly matter in life and increase their value in time.
This is what luxury needs to turn to next: to saturating our starved-out need for true meaning, for connection, for transcendence. Luxury needs to become more essential in our lives to saturate these deep human spiritual needs. True luxury transcends the limits of space and time. It increases in value, not decreases because we ascribe more meaning to things that last — those that have personal value and relevance to us, to the kind of things we identify with based on our own values. And it’s not just our own values, it’s the brand values, too. More meaning means more value.
People value meaning. We don’t consume brands for their logos, products or services, we consume them for what they mean to us — for what they represent in terms of our own desires, values, feelings and mental images we create about the world we live in. The more meaning you create as a brand, the more value you will have as a brand.
And how is this connected to your personal philosophies about luxury as a mindset and approach to living?
Luxury should help us transcend our immediate reality. It should help us connect back to our essence to feel truly alive. I am now contemplating a new luxury experiential business based on the principles of travel, exploration, seeking and cultural immersion where the transcendence of human spirit and connecting back to our soul should happen almost as a by-product of living truly and fully in the moment. When we are fully present, wonderful things can happen. Besides, there is no other time than now. The whole past-present-future continuum is just a series of nows, a series of moments that we tie together based on what meaning we choose to assign to them. We are in control of what kind of life we live. But luxury can amplify our lives by heightening our senses and making us more perceptive to beauty, more sensitive to what’s truly important.
What do you wish people knew about luxury as it relates to meaning?
Luxury is all about meaning: the very essence of luxury is based on the inflation of its symbolic value over the functional value of its goods and services. Luxury costs more simply because it means more.
We pay more for the symbolic excess: for the extra signs and symbols, images and projections we get to consume that signify an aura of exclusivity and luxuriousness around our beings, and this way help us more creatively express who we are, our personal preferences, our sense of style, our individual identity.
We pay more for the cultural construct of luxury — for what luxury represents in our society as a shared social concept. That’s why it’s so enjoyable for people to aspire to and emulate as a vehicle of upward social mobility, or now increasingly as a vehicle of our own unique self-expression.
Luxury has earned a highly prominent position in our culture as a powerful catalyst saturating complex personal and social needs. It plays an instrumental role in our lives and serves many social functions: it signals a heightened social status, increases our perception of self-worth and cultivates high value in our relationships and so on.
Meaning is the real value of brands and the inner essence of luxury. It’s through meaning that brands gain and grow their value. This is the reason why ‘meaning’ as intrinsic value is far more important for luxury brands to create and retain than for any other market sector — it conserves value and serves as a catalyst for our social interaction.
The understanding of luxury and the perception of its definition have changed vastly over centuries, and especially in the recent past. Some would say, it has lost its luster and is now too accessible. What do you think of these changes? What are the bad parts and the good parts?
The essence of what luxury even means today is changing. We are seeing a shift from the excess, rarity and opulence — which were the signifiers of luxury in the past — more towards minimalism, essence and the new essentials that have become scarce in our increasingly complex and lonesome lives in the 21st-century: time, space, clean air, leisure, experiences, inner peace, mindfulness and a genuine human connection.
The accessibility is a problem only when luxury brands don’t know how to manage their core value properly and go full-on in the direction of pure efficiency. In this mindset, they are sometimes wrongly embracing the cultural fads of the now, effectively diluting their inner essence at the expense of generating short-term profits. But luxury brands aren’t in the game of short-term profits, they are in the game of long-term value creation. Their game is that of long-term cultural effectiveness, which has the opposite set of rules than a lean-operated process-driven corporation manufacturing consumer goods.
That’s why embracing the inner essence of brands while paying attention to the human essence of your customers and their newly scarce needs today is so important to luxury brands in crafting viable and relevant future strategies.
When it comes to meaning in luxury, how can luxury brands and consumers connect to ‘meaning’ in these evolutionary times and how luxury is conveyed and consumed?
Many years ago, when the CEO of Rolex was asked how the watch market was responding to changes and what that meant for Rolex, he responded: “Rolex is not in the wristwatch business. We are in the luxury goods business.” And he was completely right. Luxury brands are in the business of symbolic meaning, not physical goods and services. This is just one of the many ways to make this point more apparent to luxury consumers and the broader audience of marketers. You cannot optimise your way into creation. The job of luxury isn’t to cut costs and optimise, it is to create and inflate its symbolic value and make people feel better about themselves.
The job of luxury brands is to elevate their own symbolic value to create timeless emotional connections in people’s minds, not to focus on fighting market shares in the here and now. Because luxury elevates the human soul and spirit, its value span is arguably much longer and far surpasses the present moment. As Patek Philippe says, “you never simply own our watch. You are merely looking after it for future generations.” This doesn’t mean that ownership and emotional investment wouldn’t be important for Patek Philippe, but that the span of value and appreciation for this brand surpasses the individual’s lifetime. Its value is in itself transcendental. If you think about it, that is exactly right. You never really own anything anyway. You can use it; you can look after it and derive value and pleasure from things. But you never truly own anything, as even you are temporary. We’re really all just passing by…
When luxury meets soul, the human essence and deep wisdom, you get a recipe for something beautiful. And that is what luxury should be all about — about finding new ways to elevate human well-being and bring the spirit to life so that we can be more conscious, more appreciative, open up own senses and our minds and experience life with all that it has to offer: not as passive consumers of status and prestige, but as conscious creators — active parts of the creative process with our eyes, ears, hearts and minds open.
Inevitably, in this new age of transparency, openness and authenticity when we’re all collectively awakening, shedding past hurts, healing our wounds and waking up from the collective cultural hypnosis, embracing our Authentic Self is becoming the highest and most elevated form of luxury.
Luxury brands should tap into this new stream, not because it is a trend but because it will be the underlying shift of the world we are about to enter. Those who will be ready will be able to create more purposeful and relevant forms of luxury for people to awaken their minds. Those who will continue to look into the rear-view mirror longing after their long-gone by legacy will soon become obsolete. It’s up to the luxury brand managers themselves to make the decision: either create new forms of meaning or be forgotten. I’m sure they know which one to choose.
How important do you think it is to have more women working in higher positions in the field of luxury and why?
Very important. But in my case, the argument isn’t strictly about representation and equity, it is fundamentally about value. We see things differently as women because we look for different things in the things we look at. Women are wired for context, culture and empathy. Our brains function a bit differently than men’s brains, we are biologically wired for different things and therefore look for different things in terms of value and fulfilment in work and in life. Women bring in the important piece that’s been largely missing in business so far and it is all about contextual and cultural thinking. We see the connections between things that men don’t. This is of paramount value to brands — and especially luxury brands due to their superior symbolic value — as brands are really nothing else than complex cultural systems of meaning. When you start seeing things from this multidimensional perspective as they actually occur in real life and not in linear processes and excel spreadsheets, you realize what has been missing the whole time. It’s the role of emotions, desires and values of brands that we as people can identify with based on expressing our own individual identity and sense of personal uniqueness. And that is essentially the entire business of brands as brands are in the business of meaning exchange. Women have the sensitivity towards creating long-term value.
What do you enjoy most about the work you do?
How diverse, deep and meaningful it really is. I am helping people see things they would not normally see and that would remain invisible to them. Culture is the missing piece of knowledge in business. It’s what ties your customers and brands together and creates the environment for the value to be created and to be consumed. By discovering new connections between things that remain hidden to the naked eye, identifying patterns and seeing the world in context, I can help people expand their minds and see things from a new perspective. And that is invaluable. As when you see things, you cannot unsee them. New knowledge and insight permanently stay with you and reshape who you are and how you act in the world. That is the epitome of growth. It’s tremendously satisfying for me to see people grow and helping them to reach their full potential.
My work is about understanding what things mean in a deeper context of the world we live in to help people unlock new value and find solutions they didn’t know were there. It’s like being a magician or an alchemist: I am manifesting the intangible and making it tangible. There are very few things that are more enjoyable than this. I do many things: I think, write, speak, consult, strategise, meet with new people all the time, travel to new places, and learn new things… The work I do mirrors the dynamic flow of life and I love it.
What was the best advice you received, in business or in life?
Always follow the value and never forgo your own integrity for a temporary benefit. It is not worth it, I promise you. This is why I am so vocal about the importance of creating long-term value over short-term profit, which has brought me all the way to luxury. Luxury brands are in the business of crafting superior value that is, by definition, long-term. If you have more to lose than to gain, extract yourself from the situation immediately. If you have a lot to gain and not much to lose then go full speed ahead. It can only surprise you. The worst-case scenario is you learn something new about yourself and others that you didn’t know before that you could use to capitalise on in your next experience or venture. Having a clear perspective like this allows me to quickly sort my priorities, assess potential risks and make better decisions in business and in life.
What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on a new book on the future of luxury in the age of personal identity, which I am looking to get published in 2020/2021. The book is inspired by the learnings in The Luxury Report but it will dive deeper into how the luxury, heritage and legacy brands can craft authentic meaning to stay engaging to their audiences, culturally relevant and profitable in the 21st century.
Also starting 2020, I am offering a series of new talks for the luxury brand managers, hospitality, leisure and retail sectors on four different topics: The New Meaning Of Luxury and the rise of the authentic self, The New Luxury Consumer and the future of consumer behaviour in the shifting global marketplace, Where To Next? on how the cultural shifts impact brands and their value, and lastly Luxury Redefined on how to create authentic meaning and cultural relevance in the new world.
My speaking schedule for 2020 is starting to book up very quickly, which makes me happy. I am glad to see that my intention with publishing The Luxury Report last year was fulfilled. I wanted to stimulate an industry debate on where the future of luxury is headed and how the luxury brands can use the new meaning of luxury to create more connected, engaging and authentic experiences. This is especially true for the new upcoming generation of luxury consumers, who behave very differently and value different things than their parents did.
It is clear that new insight, knowledge and the big-picture perspective are in great demand by the luxury industry, which also makes me optimistic about its future. I am looking forward to what this year holds for all of us. It’s supposed to be an abundant year, so I am waiting to see how it unfolds.
You can download The Luxury Report here.
This article originally appeared in Eat Love Savor International Luxury Magazine in January 2020.
Dr. Martina Olbertova is a leading expert on brand meaning and cultural relevance. She is a global brand consultant, cultural strategist, semiotician and social scientist on a mission to redefine the role of meaning in business. She helps brands and organisations become more culturally savvy and lead with meaning at the core.
Martina is the Founder and CEO of Meaning.Global, a global strategy & cultural intelligence consultancy helping brands and businesses adapt to the quickly changing cultural context of the 21st century to profit from culture change and create new value and relevance. Her ultimate goal is to bridge the gap in business between brands and humanity to restore real value creation, meaning, integrity and long-term growth.
She’s a contributor to Branding Strategy Insider, a commentator for Forbes, Luxury Daily and Luxury Society, the author of The Luxury Report on Redefining The Future Meaning Of Luxury, and the creator and host of The Luxury Renaissance Show.
Martina holds a BSc., MSc. and a doctorate in Media Studies from Charles University in Prague. She is passionate about tapping into the hidden cultural layers of reality to unlock new value, business humanisation, innovation, social progress, anthropology, human behaviour and all things culture. She is based in Europe and consults, teaches and speaks at conferences around the world.