I.3.1. The Definition of Luxury Products
Although the term "luxury products" is broadly defined and therefore basically comprehensible (see previous section), it still needs to be operationalized because it is not yet clear which products are actually "more than necessary and ordinary compared to the other products of their category." As shown in several studies, consumers perceive that luxury products have six major characteristics including price, quality, aesthetics, rarity, extraordinariness and symbolism. These constitutive characteristics and their typical sub-categories are explained in detail in one of the following chapters. In that way, the operationalization helps to decide for most products if they are part of what is meant by the term "luxury product" (see also Kromrey 2009, p. 110).
The Major Characteristics of Luxury Products
The definition of luxury products can be summarized as follows:
Luxury products have more than necessary and ordinary characteristics compared to other products of their category, which include their relatively high level of price, quality, aesthetics, rarity, extraordinariness, and symbolic meaning.
Comparative terms such as luxury rely on continuous characteristics (as explained in the paper). Therefore, the major characteristics of luxury products can be considered as dimensions ranging from a minimum level that is also necessary for non-luxury products to a maximum level that corresponds to the highest form of luxury. As these major characteristics must apply to virtually all luxury products at least to some degree, they are therefore referred to as constitutive characteristics. Although luxury products require a relatively high rating for all of the major characteristics, there still exists a wide range of possible ratings within the luxury segment. According to the principles of the prototype theory, luxury products therefore differ in the degree to which they are qualified as representatives of their category. The luxuriousness of a product increases when the level of at least one of these characteristics increases. Not surprisingly, the luxury level therefore is one of the major means of differentiation for luxury products and brands (Esteve and Hieu-Dess 2005).
The characteristics of luxury products are not independent of each other. This means that if one dimension is at a high level, it also induces high levels of other dimensions, offering additional support to the argument that these six characteristics are constitutive of luxury products. For instance, their relatively small production volumes (high rarity), their superior level of quality and the relatively high effort made for aesthetics, extraordinariness and a good story behind the product inevitably lead to a relatively high price (see also Dubois et al. 2001, p. 8 et seqq.; Mortelmans 2005, p. 507). Products that are more than necessary and ordinary obviously need to be scarce and cannot be owned by everyone, which is not possible as they are too expensive anyway (see also Wiedmann et al. 2007, p. 7). Moreover, consumers use price as an indicator of product quality (Trommsdorff 2009, p. 96 et seqq.) and the study demonstrated that many are also willing to pay more for products which are different and not owned by everyone.
The definition, by its constitutive characteristics, refers to the prototype of luxury products. The idea of the prototype becomes clearer by complementing these constitutive characteristics with typical sub-characteristics, which are not necessarily relevant for all luxury products (see one of the following chapters). Moreover, the characterization of luxury products becomes even clearer by describing both the prototype and relevant exemplars. Therefore, some typical exemplars are presented in one of the following chapters such as the Guerlain "Kiss Kiss Or & Diamants" lipstick.
A Typical Luxury Product: The Guerlain "Kiss Kiss Or & Diamants" Lipstick
Consumers' judgements about quality and the other product characteristics depend on the comparison between product expectations and perceived product attributes, and this comparison influences their (expected) product benefits and thereby their purchase decision (Belz 1994, p. 649; Kisabaka 2001, p. 89 et seqq.; Kotler et al. 2007, p. 633). This has two major implications. First of all, different consumer target groups differ in their expectations for their ideal luxury product, which usually do not require all characteristics to be at a maximum level. Therefore, luxury companies adjust the luxury level of the major characteristics to a specific combination depending on the preferences of their target groups. Consequently, the six dimensions offer basic means of differentiation for luxury products and brands (see following sections).
Secondly, this demonstrates that objectively existing product attributes are not as important as consumers` subjective perceptions about the product’s characteristics. Consequently, luxury companies compete for the best possible perception of the luxury product’s characteristics on the basis of their target groups (Catry 2003, p. 17; Mortelmans 2005, p. 505; Phau and Prendergast 2000, p. 123), which is realized by adequate marketing and especially by communication measures (Kisabaka 2001, p. 102 & 119; Vigneron and Johnson 2004, p. 490). Because of their strong relevance, one of the following chapters gives a short overview of the luxury marketing-mix strategies that allow companies to influence consumer perceptions regarding major luxury characteristics.