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Darryl A. Cobbin Headshot

Attention Luxury Brands: Paris Hilton is "Out"; Michelle Obama is "In"

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We've all seen the ads in the glossy magazines: beautiful woman steps off private plane, followed by a porter carrying stacks of Vuitton/Gucci/Bottega Veneta luggage; bikini-clad celebutant stretches out on deck of yacht, dripping in Cartier/Tiffany/DeBeers diamonds.

It's got nothing to do with most people's reality. But only a few shorts years ago that didn't matter. The latest "It" bag, coat, car or watch, and the lifestyle they represented, were attainable -- largely via credit debt -- to an ever growing group of people. If not, the beauty and exclusivity of these ads gave the aspiring consumer something to fantasize about. The upwardly mobile wanted a piece of that brand to feel like they attained a certain status in life, and they were willing to spend the extra dollars to send that message to the world.

But the U.S. recession and associated global economic meltdown has brought a sea change in the way we're interacting socially, and even those rare few who can splurge on a Burberry coat or a Chopard watch aren't immune. That kind of rarefied branding on a broad scale seems out of touch nowadays. Being fabulously exclusive and flaunting it in people's faces might fly in some local Palm Beach glossy, but it comes across to most consumers as a slap at worst, and insensitive at best. And, if you watched the Grammy's this year, you would have noticed that even hip hop stars are leaving their diamond chains back home in their safes. With so many people suffering, they know that being iced out is no longer cool.

I know my own spending habits have changed. I'm a designer junky from way back. Even when I couldn't exactly afford it, I coveted the designer labels and every so often I'd break down and scoop up a pair of Louis Vuitton sneakers. But nowadays it doesn't seem so important. As I'm making the transition from executive to entrepreneur, my family and I have made the conscious choice to scale back. I've popped all the nice tags I'll ever need. I'm not buying for myself for a long while to come because I will be shopping in my own closet, and when I do spend it's more likely to be during a massive store sale, or at Target. When we buy clothes for our kids, it's straight to the Gap sale rack, or to a discounter such as Marshall's. There's no shame in a bargain. Who needs a Ralph Lauren undershirt anyway? Hanes will do just fine. What counts is not the status, it's the experience.

The media's just beginning to really talk about the cultural implications of this shift. I saw it the other day when Oprah had a show on the social classes. She talked about how people who consider themselves middle class are losing their social status overnight. Mortgaged to the hilt with maxed out credit cards, these people were living the dream but they were one paycheck away from disaster. When they lost their jobs the finer things in life they'd strived for were a distant dream. One woman, a former executive, talked wistfully about the days she could afford designer shoes and manicures. Today she's facing foreclosure. Instead of going to the salon, she lines up at food banks to stretch a dollar and feed her children. And that's the reality of millions of people around the country right now.

Even the uppermost classes who haven't lost it all are feeling the change. Oprah touched on it, and other shows have been talking about how the very wealthy still shop for luxury brands, but they're doing it on the down low. Instead of something splashed with a monogram, they want items that are plain and discrete. The uber rich are confessing that they are embarrassed to be seen walking down the street with multiple luxury brand shopping bags, so they slip into lower-end stores like H&M, and stuff their designer purchases inside that store's more modest, white plastic shopping bags. Whether it is a matter of following their social conscience in the face of so much unemployment and hardship, or just a desire to be seen doing the right thing, clearly a switch has flicked inside the mind of the luxury brand consumer.

But I don't think the luxury brands themselves are getting it yet. They're either hunkering down, focusing more on their core wealthy and celebrity customers, or advertising less. One marketer of a leading luxury hotel brand, interviewed recently on a Web cast, was even defiant, saying, "F@*# the recession!" What planet is this guy on?!

Yes, I realize that it is textbook business and marketing strategy to focus on your core, particularly when sales are sluggish. However, the stewards of luxury brands who are not bold enough to truly redefine luxury in the new world economic order for fear of diminishing the value of their brands are making a big mistake. There has been a cataclysmic shift in values amongst ALL consumers, including those of considerable wealth. As a result, a new core consumer is emerging.

From car manufacturers to home developers to fashion labels and high end spirits, it's time for these companies to re-position themselves and lead consumers to a whole new definition of luxury that is more about the quality of the experience than the status symbol. In other words, don't show some fur-clad woman standing alone on the steps of a French palace, clutching her designer python bag. Show her having lunch with her girlfriends and having a blast! Forget the yacht. Show someone sipping that top flight tequila brand at a swanky yet accessible pool party. More people can relate to it, and they'll be able to see how the brand and the product are there to augment the wonderful time they're having.

Instead of offering an escape fantasy, with heiresses trotting around in Manolo Blahnik shoes, put that footwear to work in a context that's real. Take a leaf from the page of the reality shows. Focus more on the experiences consumers can and actually do have. The Louis Vuitton bag can still accompany that experience, but companies have to determine where to place products in terms of the quality of the experience instead of making the product the hero to be coveted exclusively by the rich and the famous. Of course, consideration to new products that enable consumers to experience a luxury brand at a more reasonable price is key. Brands could achieve this by reevaluating product size relative to price, for example.

I think Sean "Diddy" Combs' Ciroc vodka campaign is genius in the way it elegantly evokes the era of Sinatra. His overall brand and persona is about entertainment and celebration. I get what he's doing, and he does it well. But even Diddy going to have to change with the times. He's going to have to bring it down and make this brand attainable as well as aspirational. Click it down a few levels. You don't have to be in a multi-million dollar penthouse to show people having a damn good time.

There's a new zeitgeist for luxury brand consumers that's here to stay, and goes deeper than the inherent desirability and beauty of the product. Hip, young consumers especially are all about making intelligent choices. Sure, they still want to have status, but they're using their smarts and savvy by selecting brands that use recycled materials, provide an opportunity to help the community, or send a percentage of proceeds to charity. They don't want labels that scream at you. It's as much about what really matters as it is about art, design and fit. They're not letting the material possession define who they are. It's all about acuity, individuality and creativity.

Michelle Obama is the perfect embodiment of this new socially conscious consumerism. She's not the kind of First Lady who's going to be seen daily in head-to-toe Chanel or Givenchy. She mixes it up between Thakoon, J.Crew and Gap, and her way of interacting on the world stage in these clothes - enjoying her kids, working in soup kitchens, standing beside her husband and greeting world leaders - has done wonders for sales of the labels she wears. Why? Because she looks great, even when she's planting vegetables in the White House garden. It's all about the very real experiences she lives through with compassion, creativity, individuality and intellect. There's a special quality to the way she conducts herself in the public eye. She has grace and class, but she's not this elegant package you can't touch. Everything about her is approachable and relatable, yet very much something to aspire to.

So luxury marketers take note: Forget Paris Hilton. If you want to redefine luxury for this time and beyond, the First Lady is the new "It" girl to watch.

Darryl Cobbin is a veteran marketing executive, serving in senior positions at The Coca-Cola Company, Boost Mobile and Twentieth Century Fox Films. His self-published book on marriage and family is due for release later this year.