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Semiotics of mass luxury: an indian perspective

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Date added: 17-06-26

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The word ‘luxury' derives from the Latin word ‘luxus' , which according to the Latin Oxford dictionary signifies ‘soft or extravagant living, indulgence' and ‘sumptuousness, luxuriousness, opulence' (Christodoulides, Michaelidou, & Li, 2008).


There are two aspects to consider when defining luxury, the psychological value and the value of the product/service itself. The psychological value of luxury comes from its function as a status symbol and from a highly involved consumption experience that is strongly congruent to a person's self-concept. From a product perspective, luxury brands are frequently defined in terms of their excellent quality, high transaction value, distinctiveness, exclusivity and craftsmanship (Fionda & Moore, 2008).

In his paper on International Retail Marketing, T.B. Jackson proposes the following as the core characteristics of a luxury product: ‘… exclusivity, premium prices, image and status which combine to make them more desirable for reasons other than function' (Jackson, 2004).

Dimitri Mortelmans, in his paper ‘The concept of luxury', says there are three main characteristics in [a narrow] definition of luxury: extra value, high quality and exclusivity. The fourth, derived, characteristic is high price.

* Extra value - Extra value here is loosely defined to include design, aesthetic value any innovation or attribute that makes the product unique.

* High quality - Superior quality is an essential component of luxury products. Luxury products have been typically been associated with fine craftsmanship, precision and skill.

* Exclusivity - Exclusivity in luxury products comes from two factors: (a) the goods are made in limited quantity and distribution is strictly controlled. Haute couture began when royal tailors custom made garments that were made only for one user. Till date, products belonging to the highest category of luxury are made in scant quantities. It is also crucial to decide where all these products will be available in order to make them rare. (b) Luxury goods are typically priced so high that they automatically exclude a majority of the population from their target group.

In the world of luxury, rarity value sells, because it is the rarity that the customer wants to own. Owning such a product makes the consumer feel privileged to be part of a select group of people.

High price - When a product or service is superior in quality has extra value and also has to be exclusive, then the price automatically becomes high.

(Mortelmans, 2005)

Traditionally, there were four principal categories of luxury goods: fashion (couture, ready-to-wear, and accessories), perfumes and cosmetics, wines and spirits and watches and jewellery. Today, luxury has expanded to include many more categories such as luxury automobiles, hospitality (hotels, tourism, airlines) private banking and home furnishings among others. Among these, the luxury fashion goods category accounts for the largest proportion of luxury goods sales (with a 42 per cent share in 2003) and also showed the strongest product category growth in 2007 (Fionda & Moore, 2008).


In their paper ‘The specificity of luxury management: Turning marketing upside down' Kapferer and Bastien express that for the outward oriented motivations, “Luxury converts the raw material that is money into a culturally sophisticated product that is social stratification”. Where the inward directed motivations are concerned, “luxury should have a very strong personal and hedonistic component; otherwise it is no longer luxury but simple snobbery”. (Kapferer & Bastien, 2008)

According to Wiedmann, Hennigs and Siebels, “luxury is a subjective and multidimensional construct”. When studying consumer motivations for consumption of luxury, both outward (conspicuousness, snobbery, status) and inward (hedonism, perfectionist) directed motivations need to be taken into account. Additionally, these must be placed the situational and cultural context of consumption. (Wiedmann, Hennigs, & Siebels, 2007)

Wiedmann, Hennigs and Siebels have proposed four dimensions that add value to luxury purchases in the consumers' mind:

* Financial Dimension of Luxury Value Perception - The financial dimension captures the monetary value that consumers are willing to put on the purchase. This will take into account aspects like price, return on investment, resale value and discount.

* Functional Dimension of Luxury Value Perception - This is the core benefit or utility derived from the luxury product or service purchased. This will take into account the attributes of the product such as its quality, durability, reliability, usability etc.

* Individual Dimension of Luxury Value Perception - The individual dimension addresses the inward oriented motivations or the personal value derived from luxury. This includes benefits like self - identity, materialism and hedonism.

* Social Dimension of Luxury Value Perception - This dimension has been the most researched and appears to be the largest contributor to the value derived from luxury. The social dimensions of luxury value include recognition or being identified as a part of a particular social group, conspicuousness and prestige value within a social group and a sense of power in a social context.

(Wiedmann, Hennigs, & Siebels, 2007)

In “A Review and a Conceptual Framework of Prestige-Seeking Consumer Behavior”, Vigneron and Johnson have suggested that the primary driver for the purchase of luxury is prestige-seeking behaviour. The prestige benefits derived out of luxury purchases are of two types: inter-personal (outward oriented) and personal (inward oriented). (Vigneron & Johnson, 1999)

Interpersonal effects:

· The Veblen effect - perceived conscious value

Veblenian consumers attach greater importance to price as an indicator of prestige. This comes from the fact that these consumers often use price as evidence to judge quality. They also tend to perceive higher quality products as granting higher prestige.

· The Snob effect - perceived unique value

‘Snobs' have a need to be unique and seek prestige through differentiation. The snob effect manifests itself in two forms: (a) when a new product/collection is launched, these consumers will want to be the first to buy (innovators) (b) they will choose not to use a product once the general masses have adopted it. Snobs see higher price as an indicator of uniqueness and exclusivity.

· The Bandwagon effect - perceived social value

This is the reverse of the snob effect. These consumers, the followers, seek prestige through group affiliation. In the words of Vigneron and Johnson, “bandwagon consumers attach less importance to price as an indicator of prestige, but will put a greater emphasis on the effect they make on others while consuming prestige brands”

Personal effects:

· The hedonic effect - perceived emotional value

Luxury purchases have emotional value attached to them beyond their functional utility. These emotions could be aesthetic appeal, sensory pleasure, excitement etc. The consumer here is more concerned about her own feelings than those of others around her. The luxury product could be fantasy or self rewarding behaviour.

· The perfectionist effect - perceived quality value

These consumers seek superior quality as an indicator of prestige. They rely on their own judgements about the quality of products and services. They may see higher price as an evidence of better quality.

(Vigneron & Johnson, 1999) (Husic & Cicic, 2009)


In her book ‘Let them eat Cake: Marketing to the masses - as well as the classes', Pamela N. Danzinger (Danziger, 2005) explains that consumers link luxury to fantasy fulfilment. They fantasize about how their life will change once they own a luxury product; “Luxury takes on a transcendent quality linked to the person's hopes, wishes and dreams”, she says. Once we have achieved this fantasy, bought that luxury product, after some time it becomes ordinary and then we wish for something else, something even more luxurious and unattainable which then becomes the new object of fantasy. As Danzinger puts it, “that which is unattainable is overwhelmingly attractive and desirable”; once we have attained something, it loses its mystique and charm and becomes ordinary. Thus, to consumers, luxury is ultimately the unattainable.


There was a time when “luxury” as a category was restricted in the hands of the affluent and was meant only for the crème de la crème of society. Today, however, the scenario has changed - more and more people can now afford a small piece of the pie with the democratisation of luxury. According to a study done by IBM Business Consulting Services (2004), today's consumers are demanding lower prices on basic goods but at the same time, they are willing to pay premiums for products that matter more to them. (Florin, Callen, Mullen, & Kropp, 2007)

Traditional luxury, now commonly known as ‘old' luxury, was all about conspicuous consumption and its appeal was derived from the status and prestige that came with the ownership of these products. The attributes and quality of the offering itself were of supreme importance as it was a cultural symbol of high taste. In the years after the Second World War, material wealth was highly sought after. The generation that witnessed World War II and subsequently the great depression had seen immense scarcity; this generation basked in the joy of material things and sought luxury as a symbol of wealth. (Danziger, 2005)

While old luxury was about the thing itself, new luxury is about the experience. The economy, worldwide, improved continuously in the 80s and 90s leading to increasing disposable incomes, lower unemployment rates and a growing wealthy class in emerging countries. Simultaneously, the democratisation of luxury meant that luxury has now become more accessible to a larger population.

Goods that fall under the ‘new' luxury category are less expensive than traditional luxury goods yet, they have some confines in terms of their price as exclusivity. They are affordable, yet they enjoy a reasonable level of perceived prestige as compared to middle-range products. The prices of ‘new' luxury items are kept only slightly above those of middle ranges. This helps in targeting a much larger segment than the traditional luxury niches.

The consumers for this new luxury come from middle and upper middle classes for whom luxury purchase is a form of self reward and indulgence. Their focus is a desire for living the good life and private pleasure. As Twitchell says in his book ‘Living It Up: Our Love Affair With Luxury' - “These new customers for luxury are younger than clients of the old luxe used to be, they are far more numerous, they make their money far sooner, and they are far more flexible in financing and fickle in choice. They do not stay put. They now have money to burn. The competition for their attention is intense, and their consumption patterns - if you haven't noticed - are changing life for the rest of us.” (Truong, McColl, & Kitchen, 2009)

The term masstige was introduced by Michael Silverstein and Neil Fiske to refer to a new category which aims at providing luxury to the masses. The term is derived from the words mass + prestige - goods and services that occupy the space between mass and class (Silverstein & Fiske, 2003). These products are priced at a premium over the convention but are not always positioned at the top of their category in price. A recent survey by the Boston Consulting Group (2004) said that the top four categories for ‘trading up' are homes, cars, appliances and dining out (Florin, Callen, Mullen, & Kropp, 2007). Examples of new luxury goods are the urban BMW 1-series starting at $ 19 000, Ralph Lauren Polo shirts sold in outlets for $ 9 and Swarovski crystals with prices as low as $ 20. (Truong, McColl, & Kitchen, 2009)


Critics argue that brands which enjoy the tag of ‘masstige' today, could become the ‘mass' brand tomorrow. By definition, it is contradictory to sell prestige and exclusivity in mass (because when something is owned in mass, it would no longer be prestigious). These products may be successful at first, but their enchantment for the consumer would be inversely proportional to their success.

The critical success factor, then, for masstige brands would lie in maintaining the equilibrium between prestige differentiation and a reasonable price premium. “In order for a masstige product to be successful in the long term, it must have a noticeable differentiation in design and/or technology compared to the regular products in the category. This differentiation must be real and marked. Promises of “improvements” are not enough if they don't really exist or are imperceptible to the consumer” (Smith, 2007).


With the advent of masstige, top end luxury houses like Armani and LVMH are entering into the affordable luxury arena. Critics argue that as luxury becomes more and more affordable, the concept itself will die out. Here is where understanding the sign-value of luxury is important - the concept is not absolute but relative. Over the centuries, what constitutes luxury has changed, but the concept has endured. Brands that are at the top may not remain there, even objects that are considered to be part of luxury may change, but because of human social needs, the concept of luxury will persist.

(Mortelmans, 2005)


Motivations for consumption

When defining masstige, price is not the only criteria to differentiate between the realm of luxury and that of accessible luxury. An extremely important difference lies in the motivations for consumption.

While the reasons for consumption of luxury can be both internally as well as externally driven, consumption of masstige is in most cases externally driven. Conspicuous consumption, which formed the basis of luxury when the concept originated, now forms the basis for the masstige category. Hence, a Valentino gown does not have a logo printed on it but a Tommy Hilfiger product will always have a label, logo and some visible identification mark on it so that others can see it.

Global versus local

Luxury is global, it remains the same across the world - luxury brands target the elite who expect the same experience from their brands whether they are in the United States, Europe or in Asia. Although various brands have specific associations with the heritage of their countries of origin, a luxury brand is not modified to suit a particular geography. It is meant for people who are global, and hence the brand perception and delivery has to be ‘global' in approach and consistent in delivery everywhere.

Masstige on the other hand needs to be localised to an extent because the consumption of masstige is directed outwards. It has to adapt to the cultural ethos of the geography in order to remain relevant and in the process also gets absorbed into the culture of any society.



Luxury in India has its roots going back to the era of the Maharajas who, for centuries, splashed their enormous wealth and lived opulently. The Mughal dynasty's wealth and power was a legend but as it waned, the old Indian maharajas began to re-emerge, and new ones began to rise. With the arrival of the British Raj, western influences began to show in the collections at the royal courts. Then began the romance with brands like LVMH, Cartier, Gerrard and Asprey.

“Indian courts commissioned all sorts of fine art like jewellery, woodwork, painting, enamelling, inlaid weaponry and intricate floor coverings” (Gopinath, 2009). Jewellers like Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels, Louis Vuitton's bags and luggage and watches by Jaeger-Le Coultre, which were the icons of luxury in Europe, were frequently commissioned by kings. At the same time, western styles of dressing were being adopted. (Forster) The Maharajas, who were patrons of music, arts, poetry and craftsmen, began to patronise European and Indian artists and designers as well.

The Victoria and Albert Museum, London, has opened an exhibition ‘Maharaja: The Splendour of India's Royal Courts' in November, which will be on display till January 2010. The exhibition explores the lives of the Indian royals beginning from the 18th century till the end of the British rule. The exhibition showcases 250 items a number of which have been loaned from the private collections of the erstwhile royal families of India.

Some of the objects on display are the Maharaja of Indore's Modernist furniture, a Louis Vuitton travelling case, French designed sarees, a Rolls Royce Phantom and the studding diamond necklace of Maharaja Yadarendra Singh of Patiala. The necklace which was completed in 1928, originally contained 2930 diamonds, weighed almost 1000 carats and was part of the largest single commission that Paris jeweller Cartier has ever executed.

Though Western brands are now flocking to India after its new found affluents, India has clearly been consuming western luxury since way before.


The Indian luxury landscape is rapidly transforming owing to a combination of economic and social factors:

Rising Affluence

Merrill Lynch and Capgemini report that the number of high-net-worth individuals in India (at least US$1 million in financial assets) increased by 20.5% in 2006. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, consumers earning more than 1,000,000 rupees a year will total 24 million by 2025 - larger than China's comparable segment. Their share of private consumption is projected to increase from 7% to 20% in 2025.

However, it is the emergence and steady rise of ‘mass affluence' of the Indian middle class coupled with aspirational mindsets and lifestyles that is driving consumer demand. The scope for luxury today is larger than it has ever been in India before owing to the strength of the population that can now afford luxury goods.

According to sereval reports by McKinsey Global Institue, the Indian middle class (household disposable incomes from Rs. 200,000 to 1 million a year) will increase from approximately 5% to 41% of the population and will become the world's fifth largest consumer market by 2025.

(Foreign Policy)

Exposure to Media

Media explosion in the form of television, radio, internet and print has led to increased product knowledge and awareness of brands. Fashion and lifestyle media have established a strong following as mainstream media are taking greater interest in consumer lifestyles, fashion trends and luxury brands. A milestone here was the launch of the Indian edition of Vogue magazine in 2007.

Along with the platforms available for advertising, the spending on advertising is also rising. According to ZenithOptimedia, advertising expenditures in India increased from US$1.1 billion in 1996 to US$4.7 billion in 2006 and forecasts suggest that this number will exceed $7 billion in 2009.

Accessibility of luxury brands

A couple of decades ago, in order to purchase luxury brands such as Gucci, Cartier and Chanel, Indian consumers had to travel to Europe or the U.S. Today, the biggest names of the world like LVMH, Armani and Tommy Hilfiger are present in not only Delhi and Mumbai, but are also setting shop in the upcoming metros like Pune and Hyderabad.

Inadequate retail space has also been a challenge to luxury brands operating in India which have been, until recently, hidden in lobbies of five star hotels. The retail boom is changing this scenario. Organised retailing, which currently comprises 6% of the market, is expected to rise to 15% in the next two years. Retail space has increased from 22 mn sq ft in 2002 to 101 mn sq ft (almost 5 times) in 2007 and is predicted to increase by a further 200% to 300 mn sq ft by 2012. (Jindal, 2008)

With the retail revolution, newer formats like luxury shopping malls are evolving. An example of these new avenues for luxury brands is the Delhi luxury-goods mall, Emporio which opened in March 2008 which houses over 70 international high-end brands.

In 2006, again, AT Kearney has ranked India at the top of its Retail Development Index as the world's most attractive market for mass international retail expansion. Brands like Marks & Spencer, McDonalds and Tommy Hilfiger have entered the market with franchisees due to market regulations which are in the process of loosening up further. (Euromonitor International, 2007)

Market Regulation

The further liberalisation of the Indian economy has made the market attractive to international players despite heavy import duties on luxury goods and foreign investors are looking to make long-term investments in the country.

(Atwal & Khan, 2008)


In an interview the Pitch magazine, Radha Chadha, author of the book ‘The Cult of the Luxury Brand' said that India currently is at an early stage of the luxury brand culture. “Typically, it starts when a country goes through a rapid economic growth and that has been happening in our country for the past few years. It puts money into people's hands, at some point they want to demonstrate that. The third stage is what I call the 'show-off' stage, where China is today and some of India is moving towards. Then comes the 'fit-in' stage where we see a large scale adoption of luxe fuelled by the need to conform. The last stage is 'way of life' where people are habituated to luxe products; they become confident and discerning buyers, like in emerged markets”. (Chadha, 2008)

The luxury market in India has traditionally been segmented according to two distinct customer groups - the 'affluents' and the 'non-affluents'. With the pace of economic development, rise of the middle class and the transition towards a consumer society, the profile of the luxury consumer has also evolved. Clustering luxury consumers into segments based simply on socio-economic classifications is erroneous. Today's luxury consumer is much more diverse and hence the old segmentation and classifications need to be reassessed. The regular classifications of customers based on income or SEC are not sufficient today to gauge clearly who are the consumers who are actually consuming luxury (Pant, 2009).

India has always had a small elite segment that has been shopping abroad and buying western brands for ages. This elite class consists of the descendants of the royal families, nawabs and small rulers and long standing industrial families like the Birlas, Tatas, Godrej, Bajaj, Mahindras, some tracing their roots back to pre - independence days. (Chadha & Husband, 2007). This was the select, privileged segment that was exposed to and could consume luxury.

In today's scenario, a typical BPO operator in Mumbai or Delhi is spending a substantial proportion of their monthly salary on international brands of clothes, accessories and cosmetics. “These are consumers are not affluent in the traditional sense of originating from wealthy family backgrounds, but are ambitious and successful in their chosen professions. Personal performance based on merit has got them to where they are today. Today's luxury shopper could be a broker, an entrepreneur, IT specialist or a student” (Atwal & Khan, 2008). They purchase luxury not simply to show off, but as a self-reward. As Atwal and Khan say in their paper ‘Luxury marketing in India: because I'm worth it', this generation consumes brands, goes shopping and purchases luxury as they firmly believe in the sentiment “because I'm worth it”.

The Indian Affluents

In her article in the Brand Reporter's special issue on luxury marketing, Vatsala Pant says that it is to try and understand these diverse consumers that one such measure, the Nielsen UMAR (Upper and Middle Rich) survey has redefined affluence using lifestyle and ownership of consumer durables factors (Pant, 2009). On the basis of these factors, Nielsen has estimated that there are 2.6 million affluent households across 35 cities (metros and upcoming metros) of India.

Affluent Households in India (Source: Nielsen UMAR survey)


Luxury is no longer reserved for the English-speaking elite. The survey reveals that 51% of these affluents have been educated in languages other than English and don't speak English as a primary language at home. The primary language spoken, then, becomes the preferred language for media consumption.


Ninety percent of these households live in nuclear families or nuclear families with elders living with them. The average size of the family is 4 members with the chief wage earner typically over 35 years of age.


While all the households have the basic durables like TV, refrigerator, washing machines and mobile phones, the Rich segment is seen to have more expensive double-door refrigerators, front loading washing machines and microwaves as well. 20% of the affluent households have two or more TV sets.


While the most popular medium is TV (watched in 98% of the HH), the next most popular is print where 70% HH read English dailies. However, only 10% read English business dailies. Popularity of watching cinema outside the home is more (67%) than radio listenership (54% of HH). 55% of the HH browse the internet while only 38% read magazines.

(Pant, 2009)

Changing Trends of the Affluent Indian Consumer

— Indian consumers are value conscious and highly value driven.

— Not just products, but the delivery and experience are becoming increasingly important.

— With the advent of international luxury brands with a bang into the country, consumers want world-class brands, and expect world-class quality, service and experience. They expect the latest designs and most modern technologies available.

— As the purchasing power has gone up, so have aspirations.

— The concept of wealth to be enjoyed rather than just display and badge value has emerged. Indulgence and self-rewarding behaviour are on the rise rather than simply the need to show-off.

(Raman, 2007)


In their paper ‘Luxury marketing in India: 'because I'm worth it'' Glyn Atwal and Shaziya Khan say that “the establishment of different levels of luxury ranging from ultra luxury to affordable luxury is a reflection of luxury's increasing mass appeal in India”.

The concept of masstige or new luxury is extremely relevant in the Indian context for two reasons - firstly, the market for masstige is huge is India owing to rising disposable incomes and a burgeoning middle class. Secondly, Indians are extremely value conscious and new luxury would, for many, be the first opportunity to experience luxury. This, then, could be the first step for a large population to move on to luxury.

Rising incomes and the recent retail boom in the country coupled with increasing awareness has sparked off consumption of new luxury brands in India. At the same time, the arrival of international brands and players on the scene has provided accessibility to global resources and efficient supply chains. “The Indian society is moving towards NUF (Nuclear Urban Family) where each individual has their own tastes and preferences” (Marketing Funda: Masstige, 2007). The consumer is becoming more demanding in terms of value, quality and service.

A Euromonitor report on India states that for the burgeoning middle class, the spending area is shopping for brand names. Consumerism is a significant aspect of the new, younger middle class which gives a lot of importance to lifestyle and branded goods. (Euromonitor International, 2007)

A look into the Indian consumers' luxury needs

In their qualitative research of the Indian consumers, Glyn Atwal and Shaziya Khan discovered that the Indian consumer associates luxury with perceptions of not just 'quality' and 'performance' but with 'comfort', 'beauty', 'pleasure' and 'style'. The product is no longer the sole criteria for choice, the service and experience of shopping are crucial to the decision making process.

When societies experience fast economic growth, the phenomenon of luxury usually gains popularity because the acquisition of luxury is a symbol of prestige and signifies how fast you have climbed up the ladder of social mobility. A similar phenomenon is being seen in India but the motivations to acquire luxury brands go beyond displaying social status. Consumers are moving on from an outward expression of luxury to an inward directed emotional experience. Luxury brands are helping people “define identities and express values”.

(Atwal & Khan, 2008)



William Mazzarella's ethnographic study of ‘globalizing consumerism' in the context of Indian advertising talks about how advertising is produced in metropolitan India and transformations in the Indian public culture along with the rise of mass consumerism. As Mazzarella puts it: “As an aesthetic interface of post colonial capitalism, the everyday practice of advertising constantly calls into question the conceptual alignments that ground business discourse: local and global, culture and capital, particular and universal, content and form” (Mazzarella, 2003)

Goods possess meaning of two kinds: 1. given and propagated by manufacturers and 2.that have been created by the users themselves because of the way they use them, symbolic meaning etc.

Material culture is not simply about objects but about the “intimate connection between the object and its users”. The value of any material is co-constructed by the manufacturer/seller, the user and the society/social norms/perceptions/evaluations.

While necessity is culturally associated with lower incomes and to an extent poverty, luxury stands at the other extreme being associated with wealth as well as taste. Comfort comes somewhere in between. Again, what we define as necessities or luxury comes from our cultural framework. In India, the cultural framework is defined largely by the middle class for whom, say, not just food, shelter and clothing but hygiene too may be necessity.

(Nayar, 2009)

The Indian culture has deeply embedded in it values of saving and economic prudence. This is why trade promotion deals like 25% extra on packs, free gifts etc. work so well in the market. This economic prudence is not just monetary, it also has a strong influence of moral economy i.e. economy that is good for the family as a whole. A married woman feels she has been a good mother and wife if she has saved money on her daily grocery shopping. The other fundamental values are those of safety and privacy of the family and to be aesthically and culturally presentable. (Nayar, 2009)

With the rise of globalization and proliferation of MNCs into the country post 1991, ironically, a new movement began that of the New Swadeshi. In the increasingly ‘global' scenario, Indians were searching for what is their own. The term swadeshi re-entered the vocabulary of India during 1996-97. Over the last decade, the swadeshi and the global have merged, adapted and evolved from the transnational media of the 1990s which were supposed to have an “Indian soul and international feel”. The formula here was to show stereotypical exotic imagery of the Indian “tradition” and place it in an international context.

It was believed that it was from the western thought that the unit of consumption in India is shifting away from the family into the individual.


Aspirational consumption

In the 1980s, there was more money around and ‘consumerism' was on a rise. Historically, there was a lot of guilt and immorality attached to spending more money. The rise of commercial television helped to change the attitude of the Indian audience towards spending. Advertising, through commercial television, made people want to spend on things that they thought would make life more comfortable and took Indians away from the habit of saving for the sake of it.

William Mazzarella says that the content of advertising reflects the consumer orientation of the times, public tastes and the cultural politics being proliferated.

Over the years, the discourse of aspiration in the country also changed. 1990s onwards, when consumerism was being sold to the audience, the advertisements started showing the consumer getting individual and collective fulfilment by means of pleasure rather than sacrifice, spending rather and saving. (Emphasis on saving going back to Gandhian philosophy and Nehruvian socialism).

With the help of advertising, this ‘aspirational' consumerism was able to link individual desires to the ongoing globalisation and universal progress which was seen to be both material and aesthetic. It also combined the ‘local' culture with the international feel using global images. Advertising attaches the word ‘aspirational' to objects and images, creating a “longing or desire for that which is above one's present reach” especially for that which is “noble, pure or spiritual”. A desire for such objects stems from an inner desire for personal transformation, for advancement on the generally accepted index of modernity or progress.

On the face of it, aspiration seems to be an inherent property existing within all of us. However, a closer examination reveals that discourses of aspiration are created through the circulation of multiple texts in advertising, movies, journeys, conversations etc. which go into constructing ‘aspiration' in a social context.

As Pramod Nayar says in his book Packaging Life, we use material objects to complete/reflect our identity. Objects from which we derive “comfort” actually provide some pleasure to the physical body along with emotional satisfaction. However, to make sense of these material objects, we need institutional structures; for e.g., fashion is the structure which helps us construct meaning of our costume and accessories. “Pop culture”, “coolness” are all social constructs under which consumers assess and take consumption decisions. (Nayar, 2009)

The Aesthetic image - creating a source of power

The association of the “aesthetic” with “fine art” has come from a modern European perspective. Our idea of superior aesthetics creates in our mind two distinctly separate categories of fine art versus everyday life, that of artistic ‘freedom' versus everyday ‘utility'. From here also stems what constitutes the idea of “good taste”. The idea of having cultivated ‘good taste' and having the capability to own possessions that qualify as high art brings in power equations and cultural superiority. (Mazzarella, 2003)

Thus, riding on the back of the aesthetic image is aspiration which stems from the need to possess more power in the social context and hence people want to possess more.

A simple example of this in our lives would be that a husband's salary simply must be more than his wife's (if she is earning at all that is). Because in a patriarchal society, it is important to maintain the power of a husband over his wife and one of the most important symbols of this power is his wealth. Situations where the wife earns more than her husband, therefore, come across as strange or incongruous to our minds which are so attuned to the power relations endorsed by the patriarchy we are living in.

According to Mazzarella, “aesthetic politics always involve a double claim”- that of the “natural” and that of “good taste”. Since aspiration is constructed as an inherent desire it is natural and the aesthetic appeal of the imagery adds the good taste.

(Mazzarella, 2003)



The term Orientalism refers to the depiction of certain aspects of the Eastern cultures of the world by designers, academicians, artists and writers of the West. Edward Said, in his book Orientalism, criticises the construction of the orient by the west as prejudiced outsider interpretations of the East - “Orientalism is a way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient's special place in European Western experience” (Said, 2001). According to him, the roots of this construction lie in the European imperialism of the 18th and 19th centuries and reflect the colonial attitudes. “The Orient was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences.” (Said, 2001)

According to Said, the ideas of “the West” and “the Orient” were not inert objects out there, ready to be captured. These were man-made and had a history and tradition of thought and imagery which gave them a “reality and presence” in the West. Said noted that the orient (east) had been constructed as a binary opposite of the occident (west) by Europeans as the “other” against its which its own identity was being built.

He wrote that the long tradition of romanticized, false images of Asia and the Middle East that had been circulated in Western culture had served as an implicit justification for the Europeans and Americans to fulfil their imperial ambitions and that the concept of Orientalism was used as an instrument of empire. “The relationship between Occident and Orient is that of power, of domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony”, he said. (Said, 2001)

“Othering” the East

According to Roland Barthes, “othering” means to marginalize someone else's identity - treat it as less important. An example of this would be the position of women in the patriarchal society. There is usually some sort of threat associated with the concept. Foucault said that our definition of what is normal is constructed by constantly reinforcing ‘exclusions'. In essence, there is a demarcation between ‘us' versus ‘them'. (Krasovska, 2006)

Jacques Derrida said on othering: “The very process by which one culture subordinates another begins in the act of naming and leaving unnamed, of marking on an unknown territory the lines of division and uniformity, of boundary and continuity... Writing produced by this confrontation always involves a ‘violence of the letter' imposed by one culture upon the other; a violence ‘of difference, of classification'.”

The entire idea of how the East is represented is not imaginary, rather it is a case of selective representation where only certain geographic, social, political, economic and cultural aspects of the east have been elaborated on and circulated through Western literature and tradition. These representations have further been distorted and with inaccuracy and generalisation have painted a traditional exotic, “other” worldly picture of the East and have been reinforced as stereotypes through circulation in the media, especially in this new technology age.

Through cultural stereotyping a demonised, mysterious view of the Orient has been created which especially gives a highly politicised version of Arabs and the Islamic world. The Oriental is seen as being culturally and technologically backward, linked with inscrutability and religious extremism. Filters of racism and religion cloud references to natives of the east, seeing them as “Oriental” before human beings.

Auto-orientalism in Indian advertising

Mazzarella observes the trend of auto-orientalism in advertising for product categories linked with luxury or indulgence such as body care, jewellery, premium apparel, hotels etc. These advertisements use the mythical past of India to legitimise and make more attractive the pleasure that they are offering through their products or services.

These aspirational branding techniques use the ancient Indian mythology, mystique, sensuality and other such concepts and combine them with the modern aesthetic sensibilities.

Two broad themes that emerge from an analysis of this advertising are:

* celebration of (East) Asian values and a projection of orientalist stereotypes

~ to reach out/connect with the audience

~ to further the consumption of the “Indian culture” - stemming from a pride in being Indian and the capability to compete with the West

· celebration of consumerism

~ consumerism was seen as anti-Asian/Indian values of denouncing pleasure

~ the aspirational form of consumerism combines sensual pleasures with historical progress (based on cultural symbols)

~ in fact, indulgence and sensual pleasures are being promoted as being the agent of historical progress



From a review of the current literature, it has been seen that not many studies have been undertaken on the cultural aspects concerning masstige in the Indian context. India being a volatile market, the concept of masstige is still evolving and has not been fully explored.

To understand how Masstige brands are constructing luxury for the Indian consumers in order to sell the idea in the Indian context


* To formulate the construction of luxury presented by masstige brands for the Indian consumer today

* To identify the codes, conventions and myths of the of luxury through a communication analysis


1. While luxury is global, masstige is more culture specific

2. In order to sell mass luxury to Indian consumers Masstige brands are using auto-orientalism in their communication



Within the domain of luxury, we can classify products and services as:

* From the above, new luxury brands would be studied due to their relevance in the current Indian scenario.

* The branded jewellery category was chosen for analysis

METHODOLOGY for Semiotic reading of Advertising Communication

A structural semiotic framework was followed to study brand communication. The approach followed was an outside-in approach (adapted from the writings of Monty Alexander, Semiotic Solutions) beginning from the context - Global to National to Category - and finally to the core of Luxury.

Only print advertising has been analysed for the purpose of the study.

Synchronic Reading

A synchronic reading of texts was done - freezing the communication system at a particular moment in time to study its meanings rather than a diachronic analysis whereby the evolution of texts or language over a period of time is studied. (Chandler, 2005)



The word semiotics or (semiology) comes from the Greek word semeîon meaning 'sign'. The field of semiotics seeks to understand the nature of signs, the laws governing them and how meaning is created (Chandler, 2005). It posits the idea that meaning is created and communicated through sophisticated 'sign systems'. According to Charles Sanders Peirce (1991) a sign “is an object which stands for another to some mind”. The sign, as defined by Ferdinand de Saussure, is made of two parts - the signifier could be a colour, design, image and what it stands for is the signified which could be an emotion, an idea, or a part of nature (Arning & Gordon, 2006).

Saussure's structural theory, based in linguistics, suggested for the first time that a scientific study of signs and meaning is possible. He distinguished langue - the language system, from parole -the act of speaking, performed by the individual. Saussure emphasised that the meaning of signs was not an absolute but was dependent on the interplay of various signs perceived together and the context in which the sign was placed (the arbitrary nature of the sign). (Chandler, 2005)

Charles Sanders Peirce was an American philosopher and a logician who formulated a triadic model of the sign, as opposed to Saussure's dyadic model (signifier and signified). He said that a sign consisted of the representamen - the form the sign takes, the interpretant - the sense made of the sign and the object - reference to an idea, action or thought process that the sign triggers. The object in Peirce's model would lead to ad infinitum or unlimited semiosis as Umberto Eco noted. Peirce famously said “nothing is a sign unless it is interpreted as a sign”. (Chandler, 2005)


According to Tracy R. Harmon, semiotics takes on two forms: the first, general semiotics, is concerned with the nature of meaning; the second, more specific semiotics, asks “how does our reality - words, myths, gesture, assets and theories - acquire meaning” (Harmon, 2005). When seen in terms of marketing, brands and marketing research, the second approach is more applicable.

Brands use words, pictures, imagery, music etc. as symbols which are meant to be read and interpreted by consumers. Semiotics helps to interpret these signs and symbols in relation to the cultural context in which they are used. As Roderick White says in his article ‘Best Practice -Semiotics Deciphered' (White, 2005), semiotics “helps to understand what a brand is actually saying about itself, and how this relates to the (changing) culture in which it is being sold”.

Semiotics helps us identify the ‘codes' of a category - the rules and prevalent practices, the obvious as well as the unspoken conventions followed. These codes are dynamically changing along with the cultural influences around them. Thus, semiotics helps put the brand and marketing symbols in the cultural context in which they are operating and understand the meanings they are conveying, the associations and values they are building up around themselves.

The field of semiotics has been used successfully in the following aspects of marketing:

* product design - colour, material, symbolic qualities

* branding - logos, taglines, graphics and imagery

* packaging - functionality/utilitarian value, colour codes

* promotion - advertising messages, songs/jingles, latent connotations in advertising rooted in cultural myths (e.g. Marlboro man - the American cowboy who smokes)

* placement - service environment, retail research, signs selected for acquisition sites, how they have been arranged, space design

* consumption behaviour - experience, usage, disposition, how consumers interact with products (e.g. women's relation with their clothing)

(Harmon, 2005)



Among the early works on the concept of luxury is that of Thorstein Veblen in 1899. In his ‘Theory of the Leisure Class' Veblen described luxury as a status symbol used by the American upper class to show off. According to him, “In the nature of things, luxuries and the comforts of life belong to the leisure class”.

In history, luxury has had several negative connotations attached to it. In his Politeia, Plato described the Greek city state where everyone collectively tried to contribute to society so that the basic necessities of each person - food, shelter, and clothing - were fulfilled. However, when these demands began to go beyond the bare animal state necessities to fashionable clothes and fancy cooking, it was considered to be unhealthy. It was believed that the longing for extended needs breaks the perfect harmony in society because then the pursuit of joint satisfaction of needs would be replaced by a personal, unending struggle for wealth and luxury.

Here, essentially, are the origins of the needs-wants theory associated with luxury till date: luxury is not a need, it is a desire.

During the Renaissance, while Bernard Mandeville argued that luxury had a positive economic outcome for society, French philosopher Jacques Rousseau heavily criticised luxury in his ‘Le discours sur les sciences et les arts'. He linked luxury to human greed and held it responsible for poverty in society - while the wealthy organized copious meals, the poor starved to death and did not have medicines. Rousseau condemned an unequal society and lobbied for a society based on public desires.

Luxury was also seen as a waste of economic resources in a world where (before the twentieth century) mankind had to struggle with acute shortages even for supply of basic needs.

Thus, from the very beginning, luxury was condemned both morally and economically.

(Mortelmans, 2005)

Need for luxury

Despite all the criticisms, however, the concept of luxury endured. At its core, luxury helped to attain a certain position in society. Being rich is not enough until others recognise it; showing off what you have provides satisfaction and a certain power and prestige. King Louis XIV built a luxurious world for himself and his court, in order to increase the political power of the king - the more wealth the king had and could waste, the more power was ascribed to him.


From the beginning of the concept, luxury was always linked to power and prestige. What is important to understand here is the two-way relationship between luxury and power. While displaying luxury made you powerful in society, it also was an unspoken rule that only the powerful will buy and display it. Even if you could financially afford to buy luxury goods, you would not do so unless you were a part of the aristocracy who were in a position to flaunt them.

This changed after the French Revolution. The rise of capitalism and the petty bourgeois linked luxury too to consumerism. As Talcott Parsons said, “luxury loses its ascribed role and gets an achieved role”. Luxury goods could now be bought if you had the financial capability to do so. This doesn't mean that the link between power and luxury was severed, in fact it just became a one-way relationship now rather than two-way. Access to luxury was no longer restricted by position, so even if you were not part of the nobility you could flaunt your wealth because essentially, it still gave you a sense of prestige and power.


The needs-wants theory

On the needs and wants of human beings, there are two schools of thought - the naturalist and the idealist. The naturalist school of thought says that the fundamental needs of human beings are only those functions such as eating, breathing and sleeping that are needed for self preservation. This would then exclude our social needs of security, love etc. that Maslow hierarchy states. At the other extreme are the idealists who believe that the concept of needs and wants is purely cultural and created by producers in order to be able to keep selling. For example, after the advent of the washing machine, it became a need rather than a desire because of the convenience and time savings.

Without going into the arguments of each theory, what essentially emerges is that there are two types of needs. The biological ones are those that we need to physically survive, and then there is a ‘minimum consumption package' which is culturally defined. The latter component incorporates the social needs of man as a social animal. For example, we need to eat food in order to survive (biologically determined) but what food we eat is determined by which part of the world we live in (culturally determined). We thus have a set of basic needs consisting of biological ones and ones that are socio-culturally determined.

Luxury has typically been defined as that which goes beyond these basic needs. So what we see here is that we cannot define luxury in absolute terms. Since our socio-cultural needs are determined by the society we live in, therefore, how luxury is defined in culture will differ according what that society considers to be basic needs and wants. This ultimately leads us to conclude that luxury cannot be seen as a standalone economic concept, it has to be seen and understood placed in a socio-cultural context.

The sign-value

According to semiotic theory, signifiers get a certain meaning (signified) according to the values associated with them in a given context. Brands and products are also objects (signifiers) that get meaning from the context in which they exist. According to Baudrillard, there are four types of meanings to an object - 1. functional logic of use value, 2. economic logic of exchange value, 3. logic of symbolic exchange and 4. logic of sign value. While the functional or use value is the basic benefit of a product, the exchange value is what consumers are willing to pay for it. The symbolic value of any object is what it has come to represent, for example a gift or a child's toy; the exchange value of these objects will not just have a functional component but also the symbolic component of what the object means to the consumer.

The sign value or the polysemic value is what remains when we detach an object from its literal logic which is denoted by the object itself; for example, detach the value of a car as a means of transport and what is left behind - sign value - is actually a connotation of status. Marketing, especially advertising, play an important role in creating sign values for brands. As Dmitri Mortelmans puts it, “The sign-value of an object is a catchall in which several diverse significations can be brought together”. This is what contains the motivations behind buying a product which could be a pursuit of beauty, happiness, belonging, status seeking etc. Sign value is not inherent in the product; it is constructed by a society, its culture and context.

“The commodities we purchase are not objectives in themselves but a means to attain certain objectives”. The end objectives of purchase, then, will be influenced by what the sign value of object is. An important thing to note is that a seller can claim a product to be luxury but it will ultimately depend on consumers whether they accept that claim or not.

Stratification: Sign values of luxury

Luxury is typically a means of social stratification, as explained earlier. Hence, the sign value of luxury will help to identify the status or position of a person in society. Vertical stratification occurs when we are trying to distinguish ourselves from the strata below and above us. For this distinction to be possible, people in the lower strata must be aware of the significance of the product - if those in lower strata are not aware of what the product stands for and what the codes are, then the owner will not get the fulfilment desired. This means that the sign-value of luxury cannot exist in silence - as long as other people don't see the product and understand its significance, the purpose cannot be fulfilled.

While vertical stratification occurs between different layers, horizontal stratification is within a group. There are two purposes of this type of luxury - (a) certain type of objects are markers that define membership of the group; (b) sign-values of objects will also help to define the dynamics within a group. For example, within a family, all members belong to the same strata, but the teenage son cannot wear a watch more expensive than that of his father. There is one major difference between vertical and horizontal stratification - while the former concept will fail unless those outside the strata are aware of the codes, in horizontal stratification, the codes are exercised within the group and will not be understood easily by an outsider.



In his paper “Which comes first: the consumer chicken or the cultural egg?”, Monty Alexander says that all market research usually works on the assumption that the consumer is somehow holds the key to the problem and that consumers think either rationally, or emotionally as independent beings. Critical theory and sociology, however, tell us that every human being, including you and I, is a part of a larger cultural framework; that we are not independent of each other and of our surroundings, and that it is a complex intertwined web that links our associations, feelings, thoughts and actions. Thus, rather than just studying individuals, studying culture can give a larger picture of any phenomenon.

This culture is determined by our age, surroundings, sex, life-stage, the society we live in, our profession, the people around us, class and so on. While studying consumers gives us an idea of what consumers are thinking, studying this culture in a way gives us the root, the basis of where the consumers' thoughts and actions are coming from.

Construction of the Brand

While popular culture constructs the consumer, it also constructs the brand. “Brand communications themselves: advertising, packaging, corporate identity, etc (all elements of that same popular culture) also play their part in helping to construct that consumer.” (Alexander, 1999)

Individual texts - like a car, a bottle - do not have a singular intrinsic meaning as isolated entities. All these entities derive their meanings and significance from a number of associations with other objects, which are in turn related to numerous other associations and so on. This in semiotic theory is called infinite semiosis. To give an example, a simple deodorant bottle gets its identity from a host of other associations - the shape, colour, size of the bottle tell us who are the kind of users of this product (whether it is macho or feminine), the design can convey the socio-cultural dynamic of the period (what is it that appeals to a particular generation) and other references to celebrities, music etc. Such associations may not be perceived by consumers at the surface level but do leave an impact at the sub-conscious level. (Gordon, 2004)

Similarly, brands too are texts composed of inter-textual constructs. A brand not only relies on other texts to create meaning, but also produces new meanings and all these in totality craft a brands identity. Through a semiotic analysis, we study the framework in which both the brand and the consumer are operating.

Brand communication - in the form of advertising, packaging, promotions - can tell us what the brand thinks the consumer looks like, what is the cultural basis for this and also how the brand sees itself in relation to its consumers.

Semiotic analysis of Brand Communications

Semiotics helps to study the language of advertising. It helps to understand what are the cultural elements used to connect with consumers and how they are being manipulated to persuade viewers. It helps to analyse the subconscious messages relayed by advertising and what they truly mean.

Semiotics achieves this by reading the codes and patterns of the signs used, the non-verbal cues to the tonality of communication. Signs usually operate on multiple levels and can act as symbols, icons and indices simultaneously to create multilayered meaning in communication. In the words of Umberto Eco, "what is commonly called a 'message' is in fact a text whose content is a multi-levelled discourse”.

Thus, a semiotic analysis of brand communications can help identify patterns of meaning construction, and in this case, specifically the construction of luxury for the Indian consumer by brands.

(Biswal, 2008)


Advertising uses a combination of images, text and visual elements such as camera angles, lighting and typefaces for emphasizing tone and meaning. Elements such as animation, cartoons, animals or celebrities are employed to create communication that is persuasive for the segment being targeted. Viewers then use these visual elements for judging the aesthetic value of the advertised product.

Visual representation

Images are culturally bound, symbolic and subject to the viewer's interpretation. Visuals can be extremely complex as they are capable of simultaneously representing concepts, actions, abstracts, metaphors, symbols etc. A single image may contain numerous interrelated signs and multiple levels of meanings that address several viewers at the same time. Advertisers create complex messages by using in their advertisements such images that refer to pre-existing knowledge about products, consumption habits, cultural myths, traditions or historical events/facts to generate associations and create impressions.

The simultaneous use of multiple devices such as satire, puns, metaphors, hyperbole etc. add layers and potential depth to advertisements that sometimes even the creators of the ad would not be aware of all the meanings that can be contained in a single advertisement.

In a visual, it is not just the objects that provide meaning; details such as facial expressions, colours, depiction of motion also act as signifiers that sharpen the message conveyed to the viewer.

(Bulmer & Buchanan-Oliver, 2006)

Linguistic messages

As Roland Barthes says in “Image, Text and Music”, every image is ‘polysemous' or has multiple meanings. There are several signifiers in the image from which the observer can select some and ignore the rest. Which signifiers we choose from an image is a process that is dependent on the observer - his/her experiences, personality, interests etc. Linguistic messages in advertising help provide a direction to the mind on which signifiers to choose and how to interpret them. Linguistic messages can perform the functions of anchoring or relaying. In anchoring, the message is used for tying up the meanings present in the images and making it clearer while in relaying, the text introduces new meaning to the advertisement which was not already being conveyed by the images.

(Barthes, 1985)

Meaning Making

Consumers make meaning of the advertising they view under the framework of the socio-cultural influences around them and their personal experiences. How an individual reads an advertisement depends on the uses the person has for the interpreted meaning and on their unique life experiences and plans. Viewers are not passive receptors of advertising. They produce unique interpretations of meaning, often interpreting advertisements in substantially different ways to those intended.

Culture impacts on advertising meaning production - advertising brings together the product and a representation of it in the surrounding culture. The success of advertising depends not only the rational benefits of the product conveyed but also on how well images, styles and cultural icons have been captured and how they interact with each other in an advertisement.

The interpretation of advertising is shaped by the symbolic meanings of words and rituals which need to be understood in the context of the stories and myths of a particular culture. As Bulmer and Buchanan-Oliver put it “Knowledge of the characteristic structures of traditional stories and familiarity with genres of advertising affect the comprehension of complex advertising stories. The depth of product category, brand knowledge and familiarity with previous advertising and advertising techniques in general aids the viewer in drawing meaning from the ‘situation' as much as from the ‘message' itself.”

Into this cultural understanding of products, advertisements and brands, consumers project their own fantasies and receive fantasies back from them. A consumer's personal experiences thus flow into his/her positioning concept of a brand.

Thus, the effectiveness of an ad is impacted by various factors including how it is conceived and executed, how culturally relevant it is, and how it is personally interpreted by individual viewers according to their present and past states of mind which in turn affect the cognition and emotions generated with respect to an advertisement.

(Bulmer & Buchanan-Oliver, 2006)



Product categories can be roughly divided into the following in on the basis of price:

The top two among these are targeted to the population loosely known as the affluents of society

Luxury and premium products:

Traditionally, there were four principal categories of luxury goods: fashion (couture, ready-to-wear, and accessories), perfumes and cosmetics, wines and spirits and watches and jewellery. Today, luxury has expanded to include many more categories such as luxury automobiles, hospitality (hotels, tourism, airlines) private banking and home furnishings among others. Among these, the luxury fashion goods category accounts for the largest proportion of luxury goods sales (with a 42 per cent share in 2003) and also showed the strongest product category growth in 2007 (Fionda & Moore, 2008).

An interesting trend to note is that several products that do not fall under the luxury category (by price) are marketed as premium and aspirational. A few brands that offer mass products and yet have ‘premium' imagery in their advertising are Anchor white toothpaste - Kajol as brand ambassador, and Reliance telecom - the latest campaign with Hrithik Roshan. An extreme case here is the brand Manikchand with products like paan masala, gutka and jarda, the brand's tag line is “oonche log, oonchi pasand”.



Accounts of association of luxury with precious metals and jewellery can be found as far as Egyptian history where King Tutankhamen owned a gold face mask in the 12th century. From solid gold to branded jewellery, luxury has come a long way today.

Jewellery in the luxury and masstige segments consists of gold, diamonds, precious stones, silver, platinum and crystals.


Gold has always been considered a symbol of status and wealth. Not just is it a way to flaunt, it is also an equivalent for liquid cash. Gold is highly liquid and portable as a Security or an Asset. It can be converted to cash anytime when an emergency arises and is considered a friend in times need. It is a great investment as gold prices are always on a rise and it can be passed on from one generation to the next. Owning gold is perceived to be an achievement and hence the association of gold with major milestones or achievements in life like golden jubilee, gold medal (as a symbol for success) and gold credit cards for privileged members.

At its core, gold in ancient times was seen to be a symbol of the Sun God, who was worshipped as a giver of life. Hence gold has extremely varied and mystic associations in different cultures.


The word "diamond" comes from the Greek word "Adams," meaning unconquerable. Diamonds are the hardest known substance on earth, which is how they earned their name. Through centuries diamond has been a symbol of love, excellence and purification. Diamond, because of its remarkable hardness and clarity, also strongly resonates with symbolism of power, strength, brilliance and beauty. In mythology, the Greeks believed they were tears of the gods and the Romans believed they were splinters of fallen stars. In India, diamonds were believed to have magical powers and used in rituals

Today, diamonds are used to symbolize eternal love, everlasting commitment and romance. The first diamond engagement ring can be traced to the XV century, when the Archduke Maximilian of Austria gave the first diamond ring engagement to Mary of Burgundy in 1477.

(Russell, 2006)


Hindu mythology and Traditions

Gold has always had a sweet spot in India. It is a special adornment for married women and is also considered an investment, because its value appreciates much more than gemstones or pearls. According to the Hindu mythology, gold has a heating effect and it is also considered to be metal possessing maximum potency. Hindu mythology associates different types of gems and stones with various gods like pearls with the moon god (Chandra) and a number of mythological animals like snake, elephant and hog. Hindu God Brahma is referred to as Hiranyagarbha which means born of gold as he is born from the cosmic egg of gold. In Hindu mythology, some of the gods and goddesses are described as golden hued with reference to their beauty. Gold is also a symbol of Goddess Lakshmi and hence is bought on festivals like Dhanteras and Akshaya Tritiya. It is interesting to note that among all ornaments, toe rings are never made of gold as it represents the goddess of wealth and should not be soiled by touching a human's feet; they are made of silver instead. (Anamika, 2008)

Hence, gold is a symbol of not just wealth and status but also sexuality, beauty and potency in women. It is customary in India for women to wear gold as they grow to a marriageable age. In some communities, the girl is gifted her first gold ornaments when she turns 18. This is to signal that she is now a potential bride. At Indian weddings, kilos of gold are given away to the bride.

In a flipside, gems, crystals, pearls and precious stones are said to be the work of goddess Maya (illusion) who is also an avatar of Lakshmi. So also, in gold, Mahakala, the destroyer is said to reside. So while precious metals and gems are supposed to bring good luck, they are also surrounded by myths cautioning of ‘evil' in the greed to own riches.


Typically in Asian countries, the association with gold is very strong while diamonds are considered to be a western concept. Hence, brands have been adding “Indianness” to diamond jewellery by use of mystic imagery and even in choosing brand names such as from the names of the brands - Nakshatra and Asmi which have roots in Hindi or Sanskrit. Branded jewellery as such faces the task of winning over customers in a category that is still dominated by unorganised local players. Jewellery is bought based on trust and relationships with merchants who have known generations of members in the family. In such a scenario, it is difficult for branded jewellery to persuade people to leave these year old personal relationships and spend so much money on a brand which the hardly know. To resolve such issues, brands try to convey the high quality of their products. To connect better with consumers, collections are inspired by the Indian traditions and try to reflect occasions and events that are important in the Indian culture.

Connotations derived from Mythology

References to Hindu mythology can be seen frequently in the Indian brands. The images in Nakshatra advertising consistently try to evoke mystic imagery using the jewellery to connote moon and the stars. Their advertising also has references to Goddess Lakshmi, the Hindu Goddess of wealth and the lotus which is the flower that she sits on.

At a deeper level, this is suggesting that the woman wearing the diamond jewellery is actually an avatar of the goddess Lakshmi herself. The brand is thus quietly saying that Nakshatra is a symbol of wealth.

Discourse of Beauty

Most advertising here explores the notion of Beauty. There is a very clever transition here from external beauty - the adornment that the jewels will provide the woman to the inner beauty which is conveyed through various roles of a woman - a wife, working woman, the Goddess of love, luck, wealth and beauty itself. Beauty is constructed using multiple other discourses - a combination of feminity, sexuality, inherent strength and the astitva of a woman.

Depiction of Gender

Diamond as a signifier of the woman - All brands talk somewhere about the inner strength of the woman, her independence and the fire within her. The brands are shown to be assisting her to achieve success in various roles that she has to play in life - a bride (Tanishq), companion (Sangini), working woman (Asmi). The diamond itself is a physical symbol of the woman - it is the hardest natural substance on earth (signifier for the woman's inner strength), undergoes harsh treatment (difficulties of her life) and ultimately comes out brilliantly beautiful after all the trials it undergoes (signifying her beauty).

Roles - Even though there is a transition here in the roles of the woman over the years (for example from a wife to a companion), through the different narratives it can be seen that even an independent woman has to play the role of a ‘traditional' wife and that working or not she is expected to be successful in all that she does.

A clear example of this is Asmi - where the brand talks about the success of a woman, who believes in herself, ultimately now shows Kajol which is for “women in a relationship”;

Kajol today is an embodiment in the country of a successful woman who has ‘balanced' career and family and at the peak of her fame chose to take a break and give priority to her marriage.


Jewellery is depicted in several instances as being sensuous or at the very least complementing the sensuality of a woman's body. Subtle undertones of sexuality are added with the help of body language, clothing which is suggestive yet not vulgar and the voyeuristic camera angles.

The messages are reinforced using taglines - for example in the Tanishq ad below which says ‘Mesmerise the world', Aishwarya Rai holding a Rose and the moon in the background combine to clearly indicate what would be the object (in Peircean terms). Similarly, in the Gili ad with Bipasha Basu, the tagline for the ‘After Dark Collection' strategically says “Beautifully Nocturnal” with a dimly lit candle in the background; Bipasha is wearing a modestly revealing dress and the placement of the pendant around her neck draws attention to the hint of a cleavage.

FIRE as a signifier

Fire has been used in interesting ways in jewellery ads. For Asmi, the logo itself is shaped as flames from a fire. In the Nakshatra ad with Aishwarya Rai wearing a turquoise flowing own, there is a flame like pattern with white on her dress and her dance in the corresponding television ad is as though movement of blades of fire.

Fire here is a signifier that can have several meanings. At a denotation level, fire is strongly associated with jewellery itself because gold, diamonds and gems are treated and moulded with fire to give them the form they have.

Going deeper, fire can connote the spirit of a woman, passion, and the desire to be free. It is depicted as an internal fire, not an external one - it is kept burning from within. While the fire is fierce, it is not threatening; its purpose is not to destroy, rather it is to create and liberate.


Space and foreground-background relationship

Advertisements typically have clean backgrounds, with emphasis on the object or the celebrity. The backgrounds don't divert attention away from the main object/product. The ads are clean and uncluttered creating an illusion of larger space. This ‘spaciousness' reinforces the idea of luxury and abundance.

Use of text

There is minimal use of text as a descriptor; there is not even too much information given out, even in technology products like high end digital watches. The taglines used are either the brand taglines, or even otherwise are kept short.

There is not too much happening in the ads at the same time. There are one or at most two objects that command attention from viewers which are usually either the product or the celebrity/model endorsing it. The spacious look and feel combined with minimum use of text ensures that the focus doesn't deviate from this central object around which the ad is framed. Though there might be other themes running in the background adding detail to the narrative but they work more to add layers of meaning and are to be perceived and interpreted almost subconsciously.


The prestige attributed to luxury brands comes not just from the products themselves but in a lot of cases from the people associated with these brands. So users of these brands (the consumers) are actually aspiring to be like these people from whom the heritage and charm of the brand originates.

Brands, first and foremost, have a narrative or story. This story gets circulated through consumers and becomes embedded in the brand fibre. Over time, however, brands acquire new meanings through association with the people who are using them. This happens through a process of associative learning whereby humans and animals associate the events occurring in the environment around them. Marketers use classical conditioning extensively to generate associations between certain celebrities and their brands. In the process, some of the brand aura starts rubbing off on the person and vice versa. (Till, Stanley, & Priluck, 2008) (Nayar, 2009)

Summary of the Jewellery category

The category has strong messaging to with connotations of eternal, everlasting, forever etc. This association is from the longevity of the product itself and might also from the point of view of jewellery as an investment.

The theme of celebrating the self and specifically the woman is strong and present in all brands across the category. The strength, independence and spirit of the woman are highlighted.

There also a lot of mysticism, aura of mystery surrounding the brands and unsaid things which add a certain charm.



Self branding - constructing the ‘self' for the outside world

Luxury is hierarchic; the ability to afford luxury was always restricted to the wealthy few in history, it is a matter of freedom to be able to choose and buy certain things.

“Self branding is a marker of ability - economic, social, taste” (cultural).

“Luxury is the process of displacement - from the object/brand to the individual” - inter-textuality - one representing the other and vice versa - aspirational - being someone/something - projecting through luxury

Luxury is indulgence. Satisfaction-seeking is for needs, pleasure seeking behaviour is for wants. Luxury is the search for pleasure - emotional needs beyond comfort.

With the impact of globalisation, in India too luxury has become “de-moralised”. It is not seen as a socially inacceptable act or a sin. One need no longer be ashamed of consuming luxury; in fact it is now desired by more and more people.

The parole of luxury - indulgence, pamper, sin, craft/craftsmanship, heritage, rare, ancient times, antiquitarian, royal (india)

Indulgence is packaged as a self-reward for success. Historically, luxury was a matter of privilege - you had to be born into royalty/nobility to be able to show it off; today, however, luxury has to be earned. It is a both a reward for the self and a signal to the outside world of a person having arrived in life. This lifestyle promotes a celebration of this lavishness, wealth and success. This outward display is the signifier for the signified which is the economic ability and freedom of the person, her sense of worth and self pride.

“Central to the theme of luxury is the dominance of form and style over function”

Owning luxury is pointless unless noticed hence making its display an integral part of the luxury phenomenon. This ownership also provides an entry into the “elite” club of society and reflects personal “taste”.

Luxury = completion + excess, customisation + individualisation

dream, fantasy fulfilment , magic, irrational world - in the fantasies to be fulfilled as well as the economic worth - creation of an illusion, a parallel fantasy world - it is an inaccessible world - world of astronomical wealth, fashion

cosmetics - forever young fantasy, JEWLLERY - FANTASY OF BEING IMMORTAL,

Sacrilisation - converting luxury objects into something sacred, brands become religions -

luxury enables a person to re-invent themselves through the use of expensive products

also, luxury itself is global, not local

Indian context

mystique, myths, ancient royalty - period films like Mughal-e-azam, jodha akbar; e.g. Ritu Kumar - opulent designs, old palaces being turned into hotels and resorts - desire to “live like a king”

several brands have logos as crowns - Rolex, Louis Philippe, Pepe Jeans, Victoria Beckham

Luxury was once the privilege of the royalty, now of the affluent - luxury as a marker of the new royalty - old world luxury culture - elements seen in architecture and decor

Luxury is timeless

nostalgia, recreate old world luxury, preservation, yet contemporary

rituals of luxury - partying, fashion, lifestyle

separation from the masses - in taste, space, fashion, habits - community based on lavish spending rather than beliefs

wealth, power


From the analysis of the advertisements, auto-orientalism is clearly being used to help


* the dynamics of globalisation were making the realisation of the universal community dependent on the rearticulation of the cultural identity

o eroticised images of women in advertising - encouraging female consumers to become at once the subjects and objects of a desiring gaze - commodity feminism (Robert Goldman)

o woman as the sacrosanct lotus of Indianness

o while it would seem at first glance that the independent woman is being celebrated, she is actually being subject to a strict regime of controls

* “consumers of auto-orientalist commodity images are at once the subjects and objects of the cultural community that is being sold”

o manifestation of - now we have begun to rediscover our culture and respect our heritage - emphasis on being Indian

§ marketers saying - this is from your past , so believe it

o reconciliation between the self-identity (the Indian one) and modernisation (earlier ‘Indian' was not modern, now the two can be coexistent)

o this had to be endorsed by the cosmopolitan elite in order to be accepted - “Indian” traditional modernity - there is a gap between the modern Indian and his roots - you trying to say consume this and the gap will be filled


Due to constraints of time, the present study has been conducted only on print ads. An analysis of other communication modes such as television and outdoor can also be conducted

While the present study analyses the jewellery category, the phenomenon of auto-orientalism in masstige brands can be studied in other categories as well. For example, one of the many categories can that can be explored is the watches category:

Example - advertisements for the Manish Arora Swatch Collection:


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