222-300x225.jpg

The American Express "black card" makes its debut in Canada.

The American Express Centurion card, known casually as “the black card,” has arrived in Canada for the first time. The black card is only available to the top squillionth percentile of the population based on income, and there have been a lot of very fancy parties over the last few months to celebrate the launch of this American brand north of the 49th parallel.

To prepare for this foray into the Canadian marketplace, the good folks at American Express did a lot of research. And they have released their findings in a report called "Changing Expectations of the Affluent: a conversation in Canada." Canadian businesses would do well to pay attention to what they found out about us. Let the navel-gazing and crystal-ball predictions begin!

The report talks about the way the über-wealthy in Canada have changed their habits and expectations in response to the recession. Excess is out. Value is in. Flash is out. Quality is in. It's not about luxury brands anymore per se: it's about hard-to-find, unknown items, preferably made by hand in small quantities.

Without further ado, some off-the-cuff observations:

Idea #1: I hope the craft community in BC is paying attention and is responding to this trend by upping its game. Combined with the trend towards buying local, this is a golden opportunity to turn a craft operation (pottery, furniture making, glassblowing, tailoring, etc.) into a more stable going concern.
 
Idea #2: If Canada's most affluent are running the opposite direction from anything that is an obvious symbol of wealth and luxury, I wonder how the adoption of the American Express Centurion Card will be affected? If they believe their own study, they should pack up and leave town on the next train.

Alternatively, they could come up with a distinctly Canadian twist to an exclusive card brand: the American Express I'm Sorry I'm Affluent card. It’s made of clear recycled pop bottles, and it’s totally see-through, so it doesn't really ever get noticed. In return we'd promise to always leave home without it.

Opportunity #1: Part of the report focuses on how this increasing demand for uniqueness translates into the consumption of experiences. Every experience is unique to you, the thinking goes, which is what the rich want. This includes customized customer service experiences, where the rich are in the mood for a little hand-holding and intimate whispered conversations in the corner. This will trickle down to the rest of us, and service levels, everywhere, will have to be reconsidered. We will not wait on hold for an hour to talk to someone. We will not be satisfied when emails to a company go unanswered for days. We will not put up with indifferent salespeople or receptionists. Is your business ready for this?
 
Opportunity #2: There is a niche here for a host of service-oriented businesses. In addition to the search for the unique and the demand for personal service, the report talks about how "time is titanium": that is, the wealthy want more time for family, friends and themselves. Therefore someone needs to find a way to make a virtual concierge service into a large and profitable venture on a mass scale. Housekeepers, errand services, dog walkers – anyone who can offer a way to buy back some time will become more mainstream than ever before.

Prediction #1: There will be a luxurification of many industry sectors. With some smart thinking and promotion, one brand in each category can rise to a new level and solidify a position based on the new luxury consumer searching for time, personal service, uniqueness, and quality. What does a new-luxury dry cleaner look like? A new-luxury phone company? A new-luxury travel agent? A new-luxury grocery store? What do we call these things now that we can’t use the word luxury anymore?
 
Prediction #2: It's going to be very entertaining to watch companies rush to try their hand at this new market space – and get it wrong. Even without this report being released by Amex, the buzz in the business world since we all admitted to a recession has been about how to refocus on serving the people who still have money and are still willing to spend. So I predict a lot of ham-fisted botch jobs that involve red carpets, black ties and chandeliers. I predict a rash of companies registering with names like Royal this and Platinum that.

This could be fun to watch.