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Intimacy & exclusivity on a 2.32 billion users platform

Intimacy & exclusivity on a 2.32 billion users platform

Role – researcher

Research methods – 1:1 interviews, focus groups, expert interviews


Research rationale

As the smartphone penetration in rises Western Europe (258.1 millions users in 2017), so does the quantity of people that can be reached through mobile apps. A priceless opportunity for luxury companies since, whilst they aim to project exclusivity, a part of their value lies in general awareness of the brand.

By retaining an exceptionally high level of attention, involving the user through interactivity and globally not being perceived as disrupting the initial purpose of a mobile phone, notable studies have even shown mobile apps allow a positive persuasive influence on the consumer and augment their interest in the brand (Bellman et al., 2011).

However – mobile apps can enhance a luxury brand’s image as much as they can dilute it, depending on how it is tailored and used. For instance, Mahyari (2013) noted that failure to project exclusivity in a context where mobile apps are easily and widely accessible can lead to a degraded perception of the brand.

Reduced screen size on mobiles and the fact that there are used in multiple contexts during the day, also makes consumers’ perception of a brand in a mobile environment difficult to predict. The same uncertainty applies in determining consumers’ reaction to advertising on a device as personal as the mobile phone.

So, how exactly can luxury brands leverage mobile apps to elevate their brands?

Research goals

Identify how absolute and accessible luxury companies can convey an optimised brand image in a mobile app environment.

Understand why absolute and accessible create apps and what they expect from these apps.

Build an accurate and comprehensive insight into consumers’ behaviour and expectations in terms of in-app branding.

Outline targeted and implementable recommendations to optimise in-app branding for both brands and consumers.

Research methods

Subjectivist approach 

This research focused on understanding the motivations, interpretations, and behaviours of the stakeholders involved in in-app branding – implying multiple realities and perspectives.

Plus, the very observation of these realities and perspectives entailed a degree of interpretation on my part, as researcher.

The core of this research residing in an analysis of various human perceptions, opinions and behaviours, justified a subjectivist approach relying on qualitative data. In opposition, an objectivist procedure, relying on quantitative and extensive data, and operating the “control and simplification necessary for measurement” (Djebarni et al., 2014 p38), would limit the depth of the resulting understanding and recommendations.

Research strategy

Identifying the strategic motivations and objectives driving luxury brands’ to build mobile apps

I used two case studies – particularly relevant for new research topics for which only a few theories exist/are applicable (Eisenhardt, 1989; Rowley, 2002): one with a renowned hotel chain, the other with a private jets company.

The questions to both brands were semi-structured – to combine structure, richness of data and flexibility while allowing comparison. To avoid restricting the answers unnecessarily, I mostly used open-ended leading questions.

Customers’ usage and expectations towards luxury branded apps 

Focus groups, relying on the communication and interaction amongst participants to produce data (Kitzinger, 1995), seemed best suited to investigate this second question. Because individual participants don’t have to answer every question posed, they tend to be more spontaneous – generating more accurate, richer data.

Also, since individuals often have difficulties projecting themselves beyond what already exists, the opportunity for participants to build upon each other’s points limited this effect in a way that individual interviews couldn’t.

To increase the validity, credibility and reliability of the results, each luxury type – absolute (e.g. Prada) and accessible (e.g. Swarowski) – was represented by both an 18-34 years of age group and a 35-55 years of age group. This age-based segmentation was justified by the significant drop in smartphone penetration rate and mobile app usage between 18-34 and 35-55.

The sample was made of:

– one group of Absolute luxury consumers, aged 18-34

– one group of Absolute luxury consumers, aged 35-55

– one group of Accessible luxury consumers, aged 18-34

– one group of Accessible luxury consumers, aged 35-55

The participants have been selected in such a way to have a similar socio-economic background, a comparable level of confidence and trust each other (Stevens, 1996) – with regards to the validity and accuracy of the results, and to encourage openness and communication .


What do luxury brands hope to get from building mobile apps?

Enhancing Brand Image via Channel diversification

Both participants viewed their mobile app as an opportunity to grow and secure their consumer base. As an “additional lead source”, it could attract new customers. By providing an additional choice of platform, it could help retaining existing ones. Indeed, channel diversification allows brands to tailor the way their service is delivered based on the consumer’s situation (e.g. on-the-move, searching for immediate information versus at home, simply browsing the brand’s offer).  This versatility tends to promote enriched user experience of the brand, enhancing their perception of that brand.

Additionally, both brands planned to use diversification to optimise the service delivered by the app. In particular, this service optimisation aimed to improve the user’s decision-making and purchasing processes. For instance, brand A aimed for the app to easily and seamlessly provide accurate quotations for their services, and to “reduce friction in the quoting process” while brand B intended to give its “users a chance to personalize their experience”. 

Hence, a large part of the brands’ motivations to build a mobile app rooted in channel diversification.

Enhancing Brand Image via Brand differenciation

Both participants also aimed for a positive differentiation of their brand from their competitors, by projecting technological advancement and an ability to “move on with the times”. For instance, brand A mentioned that “being among the first players in the industry to build an app” was one of the main motivations to create their own.

In this vein, brand A also described their app as a “status symbol”. Indeed, mobile apps involve heavy costs, yet are not essential for a brand to thrive. Hence, companies that are able to afford these costs and are willing to invest in an app appear more established. The fact that only brand A saw their app as a symbol of status supports the idea that brand’s competitive environment shape their motivations and objectives for building an app. Indeed, an app is a differentiation factor for brand A as they still building their reputation, and their competitors are slowly adopting mobile apps. Brand B on the other hand has a worldwide reputation, and most of their direct competitors already have mobile apps. Hence, the participants’ respective competitive environments seem to be the origin of this divergence in motivations.

Additionally, brand B explained that their app aimed to unify their hotel chain’s brand image – until now, each geographic location had its own app -. This suggests that luxury brands may also create apps to help redefine their brand image and affirm it as a unique brand presence. Indeed, a unique and differentiated brand image is more memorable, more recognisable, and establishes a clear distinction between the brand’s offer and that of competitors. Hence, brand differentiation enhances brand image in that it allows to better capture and retain the audience’s interest.

Along with channel diversification, the brands studied hoped that brand differenciation would enhance their brand image in the eyes of their target audience, in turn attracting and retaining customers and driving sales.

How do luxury brands hope to benefit from luxury branded apps?​​​​​​​

What do users need and expect from these apps?

Purposeful Content

Both types of luxury consumers highlighted they would rather visit a brand’s physical store or website rather than their mobile app. The main reasons for this were: the reduced screen size (making in-app interaction seem more tedious); and the participants’ feeling that they didn’t have a sufficient level of intimacy with the brand to download its app on their personal phone. Consequently, all participants agreed that for them to download and use a luxury app, it had to offer a clear, relevant purpose that created value for them.

To understand what this purpose should rely upon, I investigated the contexts in which the participants used these apps.

The findings revealed that consumers of both luxury types are much more likely to use these apps when they are out of the house, with no access to a computer. The two main scenarios were: an urgency context – either before (e.g. looking for a price) or right after (e.g. searching for the shop’s address) making a purchase decision -, and simply seeking to pass time (e.g.browsing the products/services while waiting before an appointment).In both situations, information quality is crucial. In an urgent context, it has the potential of sealing the buying decision-making process with a purchase. When the user simply wants to pass time, it can trigger this process by pushing quality content towards the user. Plus, the frustration of finding insufficient or mediocre quality information on a luxury brand’s app would very likely transfer onto their perception of the brand.

The participants also expressed clear preferences in terms of how this information should be displayed. They emphasized convenience and immediate access (especially relevant in an urgency context), and an ability to promote brand discovery while entertaining the dream factor (most needed in a browsing context). Finally, the findings showed that although the content and the way it is presented are the foundation of a luxury branded app’s purpose, of equal importance is the app’s ability to deliver this content in a way that cannot be achieved offline or on a website. Specifically, the research results suggest this “unique selling point” should root in enhanced simplicity and interactivity. For instance, J. stated that they would gladly use a luxury brand’s app if it allowed simpler access to quality information than the brand’s website or offline presence, where “information is often diluted”. Also, more than half of the participants spontaneously mentioned that they would like to receive instantaneous news alerts from a luxury mobile app, which isn’t possible in on a sole website or in a physical shop.

Efficient experience and luxury feel

Both luxury types expected ease of use, speed as well as an efficient, interactive, and personalised experience. All of these features share a characteristic: they facilitate the purpose of helping the user find the relevant information efficiently and interactively. Hence, it appears that both absolute and accessible luxury consumers expect a user experience that efficiently supports the purposeful content discussed above. These expectations particularly relate to the brands’ desire to project performance via channel diversification.

Both consumer groups also expected strong references to the brand’s identity, sensory effects and a relaxing experience. In their eyes, the combination of these factors promotes a luxury atmosphere within the app.

Absolute luxury consumer expectations

Besides from purposeful content and more than a simple luxury atmosphere, absolute luxury participants expected a superior luxury experience. The focus groups revealed this experience relies on three main elements: a sense of exclusivity; a feeling of intimacy with brand; and the highest grade of service, which implies personalisation, efficiency and information quality.

These criteria suggest that absolute luxury consumers’ expectations regarding an absolute luxury brand’s physical store or website remain almost unchanged in an in-app environment, maintaining very high standards. For instance, L. mentioned that they would expect having the possibility to request a call from a sales agent, just like they would offline.

Consequently, an absolute luxury branded app would be expected to push the boundaries of today’s mobile app design practices to overcome the shortcomings of mobile navigation and deliver a high-standard service.

Accessible luxury user expectations

Specific Content requirements

Most content-related expectations were shared by both consumer types. However, while both groups mentioned expecting a strong product-oriented focus ; accessible luxury consumers insisted on the utility of a customer feedback section. This example is particularly representative of the difference in the power of brand reputation between the two luxury types. Indeed, it suggests that for absolute luxury, this power is such that an additional guarantee of product quality is perceived as unnecessary.

It also suggests that more “mass” e-commerce practices, such as featuring customer reviews, are well accepted in an accessible luxury environment as long as they enhance the users’ experience – here, by facilitating the buying decision-making process.

« Smart » experience

The strong focus that absolute luxury participants placed on brand intimacy, exclusivity and high-standard service was not found with accessible luxury consumers. Instead, the prevailing factors for this group were:A “cool” feel, provided by a rich sensory experience as well as a “fun and playful way of accessing information”;Purposeful innovation that optimizes efficiency and usability, making all tasks as intuitive and effortless as possible for the userInterestingly, these factors reflect the brands’ desire to convey modernity, suggesting an industry-wide trend.
Prior to this analysis, the main motivations behind the use of luxury branded apps amongst consumers appear to be passing time by browsing, and urgently searching purchase-related information while the user is out of the house or the office. Both absolute and accessible luxury consumers expect to find purposeful content; but where absolute luxury consumers tended to attach importance to a very sophisticated in-app experience, accessible luxury consumers seemed to favor a “smart” experience.

Managerial Recommendations

Triggering download

Absolute and accessible luxury brands’ audience is initially not inclined to download a brand’s app, they would rather visit their website or physical store. Hence, the app should focus on existing customers and non-consumers with an interest in the brand. A clear, attractive and advertised incentive to download the app is also strongly recommended.

This incentive should rely on the app’s unique selling point: a purpose that is not fulfilled by the brand’s offline store or website (e.g. exclusive information or promotions on the app).

Triggering a buying decision-making process

Post download, the brand still needs to peak the user’s interest enough that they are willing to discover its products or services. In that aim, purposeful content and brand-image consistency are crucial. Offering a clear, relevant and useful purpose with a unique selling point will help keep the user from navigating away from the app. Coupled with strong and consistent references to the brand’s identity, this purpose will a build a differentiated, recognizable and memorable in-app environment around the user.

At this point, the user will be more receptive to the brand’s message and offer. The app must then promote brand and product/service discovery in such way that the user’s interest is efficiently captured. Adopting a personalised and proactive approach (e.g. tailored suggestions) appears to be particularly effective to that end. To further secure the user’s interest, discovery should also aim to promote the dream factor around the brand’s offer (e.g. via sensory effects).

Additionally, initiating a two-way and tailored communication between the brand and the consumer creates a relationship between them. This both enforces a positive perception of the brand on the consumer’s part, and is a powerful way of driving purchase intentions. Hence, a high level of interactivity should be maintained on the app, especially at the interest-building stage.

In order to efficiently capture the user’s interest, particular attention should be paid to tailoring the app to the targeted audience.

Absolute luxury apps best generate interest by capitalizing on exclusivity, using access limitations (e.g. differentiating users who have already made a purchase or frequent buyers from the rest of users). While users with full access will feel privileged and motivated to explore the brand’s offer; the interest of users with restricted access will be peaked, most likely making them want to see “more”.

Accessible luxury apps on the other hand best drive interest by sustaining a “cool” dimension with a “smart” in-app experience. For instance, showing creativity by providing innovative ways of interacting with the app and accessing its information is particularly efficient. Making any promotions apparent and easily accessible is also a potent purchase incentive for this consumer type.

Shifting from intention to action

To transform purchase intention into action, efficiently guiding the customer, dismissing their potential hesitations, and comforting them in their choice are key.Providing the user with all the information they need to base their decision-making process upon, (i.e. detailed pictures with multiple angles and zooming options, price, availability, etc.) will minimise pre-purchase hesitation by reassuring the user about the conformity of the item to its in-app description. Although the reputation of absolute luxury brands is often a sufficient guarantee of quality in the consumers’ eyes; accessible luxury apps should strive to suppress potential hesitations (e.g. displaying consumer reviews).

Providing the user with all the information they need to base their decision-making process upon, (i.e. detailed pictures with multiple angles and zooming options, price, availability, etc.) will minimize pre-purchase hesitation by reassuring the user about the conformity of the item to its in-app description. Although the reputation of absolute luxury brands is often a sufficient guarantee of quality in the consumers’ eyes; accessible luxury apps should strive to suppress potential hesitations (e.g. displaying consumer reviews).

A failure to make information accessible enough to curate an urgent informational need would augment the risk of termination of the buying decision-making process. For this reason, information should be sensibly located to be accessible with minimal efforts on the user’s part.

In the case of absolute luxury apps, this issue is particularly critical. Because the products/services on offer are extremely costly, customers are prone to more hesitation. Hence, a proactive, efficient and personalized service should be made available to help them affirm their choice.

Finally, for luxury branded apps to drive sales, user frustration must be avoided at all costs. Speed, purposeful innovation in line with the brand’s identity, information quality as well as a relaxing experience must be assured at all times to promote a satisfying user experience.

However, driving sales also relies on the apps’ ability to accurately respond to the overall requirements of their target audience. Hence, absolute luxury apps should promote a feeling of intimacy between the brand and the consumer by coupling this relaxing experience with a high level of customization. On the other hand, accessible luxury apps should put a particular focus on making the app as effortless and intuitive as possible by strategically leveraging innovation.

Further research recommendations

This research outlined the design implications of absolute and accessible luxury brands’ and consumers’ expectations regarding in-app branding. Further research investigating these implications with a technical, in-depth outlook may empower luxury brands by improving their ability to make informed design decisions.
Additionally, research focusing on prioritising absolute and accessible luxury consumers’ expectations regarding in-app branding may help luxury brands decide which features they should give priority to when designing the app within time or financial constraints.