How consumers feel about luxury products may depend on how they feel. That is, whether they perceive something to be hot or cold.
As we have been reporting recently in New Luxury, there’s a great deal of room for travel marketers to explore how sensations can, in nonconscious ways, influence behavior and decision-making.
According to Rhonda Hadi, associate professor of marketing at Oxford University, the power of the senses is underexploited by marketers. That’s why she and a fellow researcher from Musashi University in Japan decided to explore what role temperature may play in selling luxury.
Shivering for Status: When Cold Temperatures Increase Product Evaluation examines the link between high‐status consumer goods and temperature. The researchers set out to “propose and demonstrate that physical cold can indeed increase consumers’ perceptions of a product’s status signaling and luxuriousness.”
To demonstrate this thesis, they focused on two ways of manipulating physical products and temperature. One was tactile; the other visual. In the first set of studies, various luxury objects were served up to consumers both below and at room temperature. In the second set of studies, luxury items were placed into two mock ads. One had a background scene depicting winter; the other spring.
In the visual tests, the subjects viewed objects set in a winter backdrop as more luxurious than those in a warmer setting. In the tactile tests, objects that were cold to the touch were perceived as more desirable and opulent than their room temperature cohorts.
“Anecdotally, we have long created links between something feeling something cold and luxury,” noted Hadi. “Just look at the way it permeates language. We say cold hard cash or icy bling.”
Why has that association developed? “From the time we are born, warmth is associated with closeness next to a mother’s skin,” said Hadi. “We have strong associations with warm, interpersonal relationships and warmth in affection.” But cool temperatures are linked to distance, both psychological and social. Unlike warmth, which is associated with community, cool implies being apart. Status seekers, after all, are “not striving for communality. Distance is perceived as a good thing, as in luxury distancing you from the masses.”
That said, the study found that while cold is good when a marketer is trying to convey status, if the goal is to promote product utility or convenience, throwing an object on ice isn’t going to impact decision-making.
To test this theory, researchers came with baggage. They brought in two groups of consumers. One group was interested in luggage designed to showcase status, while the other desired functionality. The groups were shown luggage advertising with backdrops of both spring and winter. The results revealed that the status seekers were drawn to the winter scene, but there was no significant difference in the perception of the ads among the group that favored functionality.
Does Luxury Travel Run Hot or Cold?
While these findings are useful for physical luxury goods, do they offer practical implications for travel marketing?
After all, when you think about travel advertising, it’s usually warmth — beaches, sunny skies — that is depicted. Travel “is almost defined by warmth,” according to Piers Schmidt, founder of consultancy Luxury Branding. And perhaps that fact that travel may emotionally be the antithesis to hard luxury goods is why the experience economy is having its moment in the sun.
“Desire is an emotional state. It’s something we breed in our minds,” said Schmidt. “However, (an) item is entirely non-emotive. It’s hard and inanimate. The ring, onto (which) we have spent so long projecting so much hope and sentimental attachment, is in reality just an object that can only fail to live up to the hype precisely because it doesn’t live. It’s cold. It doesn’t do anything or go anywhere. It either sits in its blue box or in the safe or rests impassively on your ring finger where, ironically, it sucks body temperature out of you to keep itself warm.”
That’s why Schmidt said the relationship with “these so-called hard luxury goods is somewhat dysfunctional. Literally, we are being drained of our energy in order to fuel our satisfaction” for luxury objects. On the other hand, he said, “Travel and all things in the experiential luxury domain are an antidote to this cool psychological phenomenon.” It’s the experience, the journey, and the interaction with the local culture that make travel a warm luxury experience.
The Warmth of Hospitality plus a cool aesthetic
The power of human connection defines hospitality, whether it be a friendly greeting or a thoughtful gesture at turndown. Combine the warmth of personal interaction with the backdrop of a cooly chic design aesthetic, and luxury travel has a winning formula.
“Travel is about people. As I teach luxury hoteliers every week, great hotel memories are made from experiences. Who ever tells folks back home about the crystal chandelier in the lobby, even if it was commissioned from Baccarat? Sure, it creates a first impression and sense of expectation, but that’s very far from the core ingredient in the experiential dish. It’s just the garnish. Whereas the daily interaction with a great member of the housekeeping team can make or break your stay.”
Schmidt said that it’s not surprising that consumers tend to move away from their focus on luxury goods as their consumption matures. “This is because they realize how unsatisfying or ‘cold’ their relationship with platinum, gold, and leather ultimately is. Although they may continue to purchase these physical symbols of wealth and status, increasingly they look toward the experiential to reward them in a deeper, more meaningful, and much more sustainable way.”
Even if one deems travel as a warm phenomenon, Oxford’s Hadi said there are a few ways her study’s findings may apply to tourism. The first, she said, is that travel marketers should be appealing to all the senses, as the study shows that even “a small (sensory) lever can have an effect on decision-making.” For example, the duck-filled lobby fountain at the Peabody property in Memphis or the over-the-top water features at the Burj Al Arab Jumeirah in Dubai give these hotels a leg up on the competition.
Hotel architects may take something from the study as well. The idea of sleekness and the use of white space, she said, conveys coldness. Therefore, austere design, highlighted with cool elements like steel, marble, and glass, may be a way to subliminally increase perceived status among high-end guests. Industrial chic, currently en vogue in boutique properties being built in former warehouse districts, along with ultra-modern minimalism, are both design aesthetics that can be perceived to run cold.
Photo credit: With its use of marble, glass, and metal, the Academia of Athens, part of Marriott's Autograph Collection, might be perceived as a cool environment, which telegraphs luxury. Autograph Collection Hotels