Garvin’s Eight Dimensions of Product Quality Applied to Luxury Items

Brand management is so important in luxury business that it’s commonplace to speak of “luxury brand management,” rather than simply “brand management.” In Luxury Brand Management, the authors write that “most consumers think and live luxury only in terms of brands,” so much so that it makes the two scholars wonder if luxury could be experienced outside of the brand world.8

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Craftsmanship, which is held in high regard in luxury brand management, isn’t very conducive to conformance, and the reason is the nature of a craftsman’s knowledge. Such knowledge is tacit, which means it is learned by repeated practice from a master craftsman during the process of apprenticeship. Now, conformance is defined by Garvin as the degree to which a product’s design and operating characteristics match preestablished standards. Technical drawings and specifications are examples of such preestablished standards; they assume explicit, as opposed to tacit, knowledge.

Reliability, per Garvin, reflects the probability of a product’s failing within a specified period of time. Luxury literature eschews the subject of reliability as it is understood by Garvin. It’s assumed, though, that luxury products, especially cars, should show above-average levels of safety. It must be noted, however, that luxury cars aren’t always the safest cars to drive. Take, for instance, Morgan Motor Co., a British manufacturer of hand-assembled luxury cars. The vehicles’ frames are made from ash wood, and the vintage designs are reminiscent of the 1950s or even 1930s. The company had problems in the past trying to export its vehicles to the United States. In the 1970s, the U.S. introduced safety and emission regulations that conflicted with Morgan’s classic designs. To Morgan’s credit, the company has “revitalized” its cars since then, improving safety, among other aspects like comfort and practicality; so it’s expected that Morgan will be returning to the U.S. market during the second half of 2023, ending its regulation-driven absence.

Conformance

Published: Monday, October 9, 2023 – 12:03

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Garvin’s example of PQ involves education, or more specifically, academic departments of U.S. universities, where the professors were asked to rate by quality the departments in their respective fields. Garvin observes that the rankings the professors produced were only partially explained by objective measures, such as the number of publications in reputable journals by faculty members. Of equal importance to the scholars was the reputation—the historical strength of the department and affiliation, i.e., “the quality of the university to which a department was attached.” This suggests that universities, too, have their own “brand names.”

When discussing conformance, Garvin uses a luxury brand: Steinway & Sons. Early on, during the 1870s, Steinway developed its craft-based technical core and established the firm’s identity. With the exception of ivory for keyboards, Steinway made all of its materials in-house. Nowadays, Steinway still completes most of the production process by hand. However, adherence to hand-crafting the product was precisely what made Steinway so vulnerable to competition from a Japanese rival, Yamaha.

Garvin was convinced that on this dimension of quality, it was impossible to please everyone. To Garvin, aesthetics is about how a product looks, feels, sounds, tastes, or smells, “clearly matters of personal judgement.”  Importantly, aesthetics is also about exercising one’s good taste. According to British philosopher Frank Sibley, someone with normal eyes, ears, and intelligence might not be able to see the aesthetic qualities of an object. It’s interesting to observe that scholars of marketing consider aesthetics as a separate dimension or facet of luxury, not as a dimension of quality.

Perceived quality

Features are the primary stuff of luxury products. Although Garvin regards features as the “bells and whistles” of products, “those secondary characteristics that supplement the product’s basic functioning,” luxury products are often all about features. Consider the fountain pen called “La Modernista Diamonds” by Caran D’Ache, which worked with rather ordinary ink cartridges but was decorated with 5,072 diamonds and 96 rubies. The owner of such a pen obviously derives its value from the gemstones rather than the ink cartridge; the basic function of the object as a writing instrument is rather peripheral.

Serviceability is generally understood as the ease and speed of corrective maintenance, i.e., returning a failed system to operating mode. Garvin regards serviceability as “the speed, courtesy, and competence of repair.” Like reliability, serviceability receives little, if any, attention in the luxury-brand management literature. A recent trend could change all that, at least in the luxury apparel and accessories industries. Regarded as a part of the sustainability movement, serviceability, which is also being referred to as repairability, is now embraced by such luxury fashion powerhouses as Hermes and Brunello Cucinelli. While these examples may be anecdotal evidence, they reflect the tendency of luxury product makers to offer repair services.

Aesthetics

Quality is a recurring theme in luxury brand literature. In a review by Eunju Ko and her co-authors, all of the eight definitions of luxury brands cited in the paper made mention of high quality.1 In another study, “Consumer Rapport to Luxury: Analyzing Complex and Ambivalent Attitudes,” the authors observe that the mental association between luxury and quality is very strong, and for some respondents in their study the two words were “almost synonymous.” Finally, in his article “The Seven Habits of Luxury Brands,” author Franck Vigneron believes that a commitment to quality is necessary to develop a luxury brand.2

Luxury products: You can have it all

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This article applies Garvin’s eight dimensions of quality to luxury products in order to understand how these dimensions support the perception of a product as luxurious.

Performance

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The problem with product longevity is that while the materials may be time-proof, the design might not be. Creators of Vertu, which is believed to be the world’s first luxury smartphone, decided early on in the brand history to use naturally durable materials, for instance, sapphire crystal for the screen, or carbon fiber and titanium for the body. However, as was astutely observed by Tim Moynihan in his 2014 product review of the Vertu Signature Touch mobile phone, unlike cars and watches and bags, a phone has a two- or three-year shelf life, “And while the Vertu is built to last, its components may seem outdated next month.”

Serviceability

Garvin admits that the line separating the primary product characteristic (performance) from the secondary (features) is difficult to draw. In the realm of luxury products, this line can even be used to separate a typical luxury brand from simply a prestigious brand, as was elegantly demonstrated by Jean-Noël Kapferer, who compared and contrasted two pairs of car brands: Jaguar and Rolls-Royce, and Ferrari and Porsche. According to Kapferer, with Jaguars and Rolls-Royces, every effort is made to downplay practical utility, instead focusing on features like leather interior and wood fascia. Thus, both Rolls-Royce and Jaguar are legitimate luxury brands. Conversely, both Ferrari and Porsche were designed by engineers to “embody above all the basic automobile function: mobility.” That’s why they qualify as prestigious sport brands rather than luxury.

Reliability

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Back in 1984, Harvard professor David A. Garvin published a paper in MIT Sloan Management Review titled “What Does ‘Product Quality’ Really Mean?”3 In it, he identified eight dimensions of quality, which he later elaborated on in his 1987 contribution to Harvard Business Review.4 The eight dimensions Garvin identified included performance, features, reliability, conformance, durability, serviceability, aesthetics, and perceived quality.

In their article “Beyond Rarity: The Paths of Luxury Desire,” the authors write that “even the notion of performance does not fully apply to luxury: Luxury redefines what quality means.”6 They provide three examples: 1) Patek Philippe watches are handmade, so they can’t be as precise as mass-marketed quartz watches, and thus, they’re not as accurate; 2) Baccarat crystal glasses are much more fragile than ordinary glasses; and 3) a Ferrari is much more unpredictable than a Toyota or Ford.

Features

Examining luxury products through the lens of Garvin’s dimensions of quality revealed a few specificities of the luxury sector.

Luxury products are strange beasts. They are a source of confusion to a scholar of economics (my first education is in economics, so I know a little bit about which I am talking).

First, the importance of features in the luxury industry is overwhelming by the standards of conventional quality management. Luxury downplays “bare-boned” utility and concentrates on the attractiveness of the product.


Objective quality indicators are often overshadowed by the brand name, history, and reputation. University blazons are like luxury brand symbols, and the cross of ermine fur on the University of Cambridge coat of arms is like the monogram pattern of interlocking LVs of Louis Vuitton.

In “The Making of a Steinway Grand,” Michael Lenehan observes that Steinway “to a remarkable extent” eschewed the assumption that piano pieces can be made to specifications. John Bogyos, a former employee who had worked in the engineering department of Steinway for more than 50 years, observed, “…everything was more or less verbal…. There was no such thing as specifications. There were some drawings, and where there weren’t drawings, they had patterns.”7

References
1. Ko, E.; Costello, J. P.; and Taylor, C. R. “What Is a Luxury Brand? A New Definition and Review of the Literature.” Journal of Business Research. Vol. 99, pp. 405–413.
2. Vigneron, F. “The Seven Habits of Luxury Brands.” Journal of International Marketing Strategy, Vol. 5, No. 1, 2017.
3. Garvin, D. A. “What Does ‘Product Quality’ Really Mean?” MIT Sloan Management Review. Pp. 25–43, Fall 1984.
4. Garvin, D. A. “Competing on the Eight Dimensions of Quality.” Harvard Business Review. Vol. 65, No. 6, pp. 101–109, Nov.-Dec., 1987.
5. Vigneron, F. and Johnson, L. W. “Measuring Perceptions of Brand Luxury.” Journal of Brand Management. Vol. 11, No. 6, pp. 484–506, 2004.
6. Kapferer, J.N. and Valette-Florence, P. “Beyond Rarity: The Paths of Luxury Desire. How Luxury Brands Grow Yet Remain Desirable.” Journal of Product & Brand Management. Vol. 25, issue 2, pp. 120–133, 2016.
7. Cattani, G.; Dunbar, R. L. M.; and Shapira, Z. “How Commitment to Craftsmanship Leads to Unique Value: Steinway & Sons’ Differentiation Strategy.” Strategy Science. Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 13–38, 2017.
8. Chevalier, M. and Mazzalovo, G. Luxury Brand Management in Digital and Sustainable Times, fourth edition. John Wiley & Sons, 2021.