I grew up in a middle class family, but we were very frugal. Creatively reusing things and figuring out how to save money was our way of life. Discovering that you overpaid for something was shameful, as was buying something you didn’t need. We would scoff at the idea of buying name-brand things. “Don’t they know that such-and-such is the same exact thing for half the price?” we’d say, shaking our heads at the thought of such foolishness.
I think I thought that wealth made you lazy, because you didn’t shop with the same rigor I was taught to use. And that being wealthy made you wasteful, which we detested. And enjoying your money? Well, that’s not what money is for.
Unsurprisingly with this upbringing, I’ve felt uneasy about targeting wealthy consumers for as long as I can remember. In design school, I remember flipping through a Design Within Reach catalog and wondering why it was that only wealthy people got to afford “good” design, because although this catalog supposedly put design within reach, it felt very out-of-reach to me. It just seemed unfair.
I always saw Po Campo as being a brand of the people, in that I wanted people to feel like it was “for them”. I want the bags to stand up to day-to-day life, I want them to be affordable, and I want them to be appealing. I believe that good design does not need to be expensive. I believe that good design comes from a thoughtful and conscientious and talented designer, which I am.
There is a person in my world who has been urging me to incorporate technology and finer materials into my bags and to jack up the price 2x or 3x. I’ve been resistant because I feel like I know my customer, and this would be a dealbreaker for her, and so I’d have to find a new customer, which seemed like a lot of work. Also, this new customer would probably be a wealthier customer, which makes me uneasy (see above).
This past week, he made the argument that the middle price tier (where I am) is shrinking, so you have to go more premium or more cheap. You never want to go more cheap, because then it’s just a race to the bottom, everybody copying everybody, and who wants that. But going more premium? The advantage with that is that you have higher margins to do more innovative things, which makes it harder for you to be knocked-off. It makes sense.
Yet I’m still having a hard time getting on board because I feel like I would be alienating my customers. Like Po Campo would become all fancy-pants and not seem “for the people” anymore. Or am I just letting my childhood baggage of growing up in an incredibly frugal home taint my worldview? I mean, an iPhone has a premium price, and while I wouldn’t call it “for the people”, everybody does seem to have one.
I was at a design conference early on in my career. All the projects being celebrated were cool and beautiful, but felt elitist, as if only for the Elon Musks of the world. Except for the social design projects, like water purifiers for Africa, of course. Anyway, I recall grumbling about this to someone at the happy hour, wondering why as a community we only celebrate the projects that normal people can’t afford. His response was, “What’s so bad with selling things to rich people?” It made me pause and think then, and it’s making me pause and think now.
What do you think? Is it possible to offer good design at an affordable price or are you just waiting to be knocked off? Is there anything wrong with targeting wealthier customers?