Most of us think of a lobster dinner as a luxury, but not that long ago, serving the dish to a guest in New England would have been considered an insult.
Until the mid-19th century, New England had an over-abundance of lobsters. They washed up in piles on beaches. Usually, they were eaten only by prisoners and the poor.
Lobster meat didn't suddenly get tastier starting 200 years ago. The way our culture views cooking and eating it did. Suddenly, lobster went from being barely edible to an expensive delicacy.
Luxury, like status, is a malleable concept. The recession is reshaping how we view both.
Now that the Joneses have had their fancy cars repossessed and McMansions foreclosed upon, keeping up with them has lost its appeal.
A growing number of consumers are changing their ideas about upward mobility and how they want to achieve status, says Klaus Busse, Chrysler's head of interior design and component commonization at the recent Ward's Auto Interiors conference.
“Status is just an agreement” where members of a society agree on certain ideas and values, and those ideas are changing, Busse says. Movie stars now show off by driving hybrid- and battery-electric vehicles, instead of Rolls-Royces and Ferraris.
And many regular folks consider wearing chintzy footwear from Toms Shoes as a status symbol. The retailer gives shoes to a needy child for every pair it sells. Others consider not being in debt the biggest luxury of all, Busse says.
How does that translate into the automotive world? It means many consumers are eying an '11 Chrysler 300 instead of a big sedan from a “true” luxury brand. It means affluent shoppers are considering a Hyundai Elantra or Sonata instead of a Lexus. It means affluent parents are choosing a feature-laden Honda Odyssey minivan instead of a less-practical SUV.
But buyers are not gravitating to these vehicles just because they are more practical and affordable. Popularly priced vehicles such as these are selling to more sophisticated buyers because auto makers are making an unprecedented effort to imbue them with elements of luxury: elaborate interior styling, bold colors, fine craftsman-like details.
Suddenly, discriminating consumers are finding they don't have to spend so much to get the refinement, elegance and features they require.
The new luminescent gauges on the '11 Chrysler 300 are mesmerizing. The gorgeous flowing interior lines of the Elantra are a feast for the eyes. And the interior opulence of the top-line Odyssey Touring Elite minivan has led one critic to call it “the Bentley of minivans.”
Strong design builds an emotional connection with a brand and generates desire for a product, no matter its price, says Chris Zarlenga, design manager, Hyundai. Innovative design was the key force in creating powerful brands such as Apple, Nike shoes and Oakley eyewear, he says.
When shoppers are hesitant about buying a minivan instead of an SUV, the Odyssey Touring Elite's eye-catching design and luxury features are what gets them off the fence, says Rudy Mayne, lead interior engineer, Honda R&D Americas.
In other words, focusing on good design is making “sensible” vehicles palatable to almost everyone. Yum, pass the bib and melted butter.
Drew Winter is editor-in-chief of Ward's AutoWorld.