Thursday 3 September 2009

Luxury: the YouTube way

Luxury: the YouTube way is a column written by Alexander Gallé for Luxury Briefing's September 2009 edition.

Luxury the YouTube way
by Alexander Gallé

My last column (Ebay vs. Luxe) got quite a bit of response, and a few people seem to have taken to the argument's main point: Ebay is a free market and everyone benefits from keeping free markets free, including the luxury sector, which is itself a product of that free market.

However, quite a few responses were made along the lines of "yes, it may be a product of the free market, but now that it exists it should be protected from the free market where and when the latter is proven to be a threat to the sector".

This response assumes that today's luxury industry is the best it can possibly be, that no evolution in this sector is possible, that it is the final answer to the long evolutionary path that has taken it to this point. The outlook is akin to the one that argues human beings today are the be all and end all, the end point of the biological evolutionary path that has led to our current DNA structure. Are there that many people who believe today's luxury sector is providing the best possible version of anything a consumer might possibly want or need?

Let's illustrate how things could be improved, and how the digital mindset might be applied to such a goal.

Take the beer sector. Let's make a hypothetical assumption that we know who produces the best beer in the world: the Belgians.

So, now, let's look at how the Belgians got there.

Belgium produces an immense variety of beers. At last count, there were over 500 different brands of beer in Belgium. Nothing special, you may say, plenty of industries have over 500 different brands of the same product. But here's where Belgian beer is different to other industries: with those 500 brands of beer come 500 radically different beers! There are dark beers, light beers, white beers, double-fermented beers, triple-fermented beers, beers using different types of hops and different types of grain, beers using fruit juice before the second fermentation, beers adding fruit at the end of the fermentation process, beers sold with the yeast still in the bottle, cloudy beers, clear beers, beers produced by monks in a monastery, beers produced by chemists in a lab, etc.

In other words: Belgium is the YouTube of beer.

To explore the metaphor a little further: hundreds of independent producers make something they're happy with. Then, they look at what everyone else produces, and consider improving their product, or changing it somewhat to attract a different public. Then someone new comes along, and produces everything in a radically different way, it catches on and becomes a viral hit, and the story goes on. Just like on YouTube's comments pages, the feedback and counterfeedback among producers and consumers is the source of endless conversations. Sure, every now and then, a few producers might say: "That's not beer, that's something else". But others simply reply: "Who cares? It tastes nice and people seem to like it". Nobody will ever say "Here's a law that says you can't add cherries to your grains and hops". Freedom to do what you want with what you have in front of you is the essential driver behind the sector's evolution.

Looking at the overall effect of such a mindset, looking at the overall quality that this "Web-2.0-avant-la-lettre" model has brought to this particular sector, there can no doubt that, today, it is the free-market-led digital environment that contains within it the necessary culture of openness and freedom, that is the lifeblood of creation, adaptation, and just-do-it-ism, which produces the fertile ground of new ideas that will surely produce the next best thing, ensuring the only constant luxury should really be about: quality.