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An Unlikely Union: Sotheby’s and eBay

An Unlikely Union: Sotheby’s and eBay
07/15/14
by Nissa Ostroff
When I hear the word, “Sotheby’s,” I immediately conjure up an image of gallery girls who exclusively wear black Theory dresses and actively tout the expressions “negative space” and “lyrical abstraction.” There are art dealers “just drooling” over a “fabulous Rothko” and oil heirs whose housekeeper discovered Modigliani’s earliest nudes in the attic during a casual spring cleaning. I don’t know what canapés are, but they definitely play a leading role in my Sotheby’s fantasy world. In sum, Sotheby’s exudes exclusivity, a realm to which a select few belong.

So when this Monday’s New York Times announced that Sotheby’s is partnering up with eBay, my archetypal view of Sotheby’s was turned on its head. “Has The New York Times has been hacked?” I wondered. eBay is where my cousin scours for deals on designer wares, or where pack rats get rid of their excess purchases. The proverbial classy heiress (Sotheby’s) falls for the middle-class capitalist hero (eBay). I’ve heard this one before, and it may or may not have been a Lifetime movie.

But the Sotheby’s-eBay marriage is no joke. While this type of romantic tale flourishes when Nicholas Sparks puts pen to paper, in the branding world these types of unions are far less straightforward. Our study shows that in some instances, luxury brands that expand too much too soon put themselves at risk of “diluting” their image, and consequently the value and price premium that their brand name commands for its products.

Last week our very own Geetu Bedi wrote about how our data shows that luxury users want luxury brands to be, “High quality, Stylish, Prestigious, Glamorous, and Upper class,” all attributes that ring a bell when I think of the Sotheby’s brand. In contrast, according to BAV’s data on All Adults for 2013, Ebay’s percentile rank is below fifty percent for Glamorous, Upper Class, High Quality and Stylish. That means that over half the brands in our Brandscape score more highly on all four of those attributes than Ebay. In partnering with eBay, Sotheby’s will be at risk of losing its luxe image.

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However, the eBay partnership offers some intriguing upsides as well. Our data indicates that 47% of our sample is familiar with eBay has used the website “Occasionally” or “Regularly,” which puts eBay in the top fifth of our brand usage metric. Sotheby’s is tapping into an endless supply of consumers who would never before have been able to get into its ivory tower; while Sotheby’s online audience is a meager 100,000, eBay boasts an online reach to as many as 145 million consumers. Therefore, this collaboration both allows for Sotheby’s to reach an affluent global audience while simultaneously democratizing its spoils and making it more accessible to the masses.

The question remains as to whether this seemingly paradoxical partnership will persevere this time, unlike the failed attempt back in 2002. Are we ready to make the high-brow available to the middle class or will that forever lessen the sanctity of the hoity-toity Sotheby’s brand?

Will this prove to be a discordant partnership model or an affirmation of opposites attracting? Either way, this is one for the books.

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