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What makes a premium brand premium?

I was thinking the other day about the DNA of premium brands.

One thing is certain -- it's a relative idea. For example, Hyatt is not a premium brand if you're used to staying at a W or a Ritz Carlton. But if your vacations to date have been holed up in a Holiday Inn, then by all means a stay in a Hyatt is a premium experience.

Another thing is certain -- a brand is considered premium only when we believe it is worth the price. And that's where we can dig deeper. Why are we willing to pay more for a product when there are others that provide the same service or function at a lesser price?

I have spent a good part of my marketing career developing strategies and ideas for a wide range of  premium brands, including American Express, Sony, Callaway Golf, Hilton, Jaguar, Land Rover – even the Toyota Prius.  Through these experiences I have come to believe that a premium brand is built upon specific tangible and intangible attributes that give it a sense worth:
  • Sensual – It arouses our senses and feels indulgent.  It is an experience.  We want to touch it; we enjoy looking at it.  (Think about Steve Jobs' obsession on how a iPhone should feel in your hand, or how Jet Blue orchestrates a total sensory experience – from snacks to entertainment – to set itself above the fray in a fiercely competitive category.) 
  • Mysterious – It draws us in deeper and reveals more to us over time.  We are intrigued to learn its back story.  (Witness how Land Rover cultivates its image as a global trekker to set it apart from the herd of grocery-hauling SUVs.
  • Rare – It represents a discerning choice, intriguing because it is uncommon.  (Audi has cultivated this particularly well – the thinking person's alternative to BMW and Mercedes.)
  • Confident – It projects a feeling of intrinsic worth.  (Burberry didn't ask permission to transcend its classic trench coat.  It confidently asserted its plaid on to a wide portfolio of products and dared us to question its right to do so.)
  • Authentic – It knows its "true north" and remains committed to this ideal.  (Ritz Carlton's premium experience is a direct result of its mission statement – "ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen. " With this simple ethic, the hotel's employees know exactly the business they are in and how they should serve customers. )
  • Quality – It is consistent and shows obsessive attention to detail.  (Tiffany understands the premium cues conveyed by a detail as simple as a white bow on a blue box.)
Managing a premium brand is one of the most difficult challenges in marketing. Like any business, premium brands must pursue growth strategies. However, unlike many mainstream businesses, premium brands must do so in a way that doesn't dilute the brand's image or the user's sense of exclusivity and pride. Certain strategies are off-limits. Brand managers for premium brands must know when it is best to pass on short-term growth opportunities that could tarnish the brand's long-term health.

Marketing a premium brand demands that we think through every facet of the brand experience.  Packaging matters.  The choice of materials and lighting in the lobby matters.  Attentive customer service matters.  And within the company itself, culture matters.  Culture is often the alpha and omega of successful brands – particularly in the case of premium brands.

NOTE:  This is updated from an earlier post.