Monday, 8 November 2010

Hard Wired For Luxury

What does this new ‘age of austerity’ spell for luxury purchases like champagne?

Will people stop buying it and switch to a cheaper tipple? The government and economists would have us think so, but they’re forgetting one thing.

The human brain is hard-wired for luxury.

Yes, pleasure seeking is a key motivator when it comes to human behaviour. And hedonism doesn’t give a toss about the state of the economy.

This was the topic of a talk I gave today at a wonderful Champagne Assembly organised by G.H. Mumm and Perrier Jouet. The reason we’ll always love a bit of luxury lies deep in the emotional part of our brain. Neuoscience has revealed the subconscious roots of consumer behaviour. It shows us that luxury brands excite the emotional, feeling part of the brain that ordinary brands simply leave cold.

Recently in Germany a couple of neuroscientists (Schaefer & Rotte, 2007) scanned people’s brains as they studied logos of brands of cars. When looking at everyday brands, there was activity in the thinking part of the brain – (the dorsolateral pre-frontal cortex) – but when they saw luxury brands there was frantic activity in the feeling part of the brain (the ventral striatum).

The researchers say this brain area is where our ‘hot buttons’ are located. It’s where we feel pleasure, desire, passion and happiness. There may be an evoluntionary imperative for this, since people who feel happy are more likely to find a mate. And happier people even live longer, according to Dutch psychologist Veenhoven.

So our thinking brain may be telling us to cut back. But, because we’re hard wired for luxury, those top brands will continue to press our hot buttons every time.


  1. Isn't it said that in hard times women spend more on shoes for themselves and less on shoes for their children? I have to admit that might not be an academic paper but an anecdote from shoes retailers in Hertfordshire. Luxury brands make us feel good and something like a bottle of Champagne can feel incredibly indulgent and even a little bit naughty but rationally, it's not half as sinful as a holiday booked on a credit card that costs thousands. Give me a Champagne dinner once a month and I'll gladly go without mediocre meals out the rest of the time. Choices, choices.

  2. We all have choices and I would rather, like Jessica, have fewer 'quality' treats and savour them .Although I'm delighted to share with my husband that my life-long love affair with designer clothes is hard-wired and totally outside of my control :-)

  3. Jessica, thanks for the shoes anecdote. I agree with you about having champagne dinners once a month. Perhaps we should have a 'b*ll*cks to the recession evening'? Sounds like Ceri would be up for something along those lines.
    I love her point about having fewer 'quality' treats and savouring them, that's certainly hits the right note with me.
    By the way Ocado told me that last year their champagne sales rocketed by 2,200% in the pre-Christmas week! I bet this year won't be very different.

  4. What a great post! It certainly explains why, although we all know that we need to cut back, retailers are still seeing good volumes of sales pre-Christmas, like the M&S results today. Like dieting, we all know what is good for us, but our brains think they know what makes us happy. One option is to have a "treat" account, so that indulgence is not damaging to your finances!
    Marianne Curphey

  5. Brilliant advice Marianne. While we all love treats, if they're bought on a credit card that never gets paid off they'll add up to financial disaster. Research on the psychological concept of 'mental accounting' also shows that if money is allocated for a specific purpose we're less likely to transgress. So a 'Bills' account won't be used for treats. but a 'Treats' account...well, that's perfect!


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