Is Digital Killing the Luxury Brand?

The democratizing power of the Web means figuring out how to go online without going downscale

But the question of how brands that pride themselves on exclusivity—indeed, that depend on it—can keep their brand image from taking a turn for the tawdry in a digital universe is one luxury designers can’t afford to ignore. The watering down of a brand can do real damage, as Christian Louboutin is finding out with its red-sole shoes, which have lost their “it” status thanks to countless down-market imitators. (Worse, Louboutin is currently in danger of losing its trademark for that distinctive red color.) Anytime a brand’s “personality” is perceived to have changed for the worse, it’s quickly reflected in sales. This category, almost more than any other, targets a specific audience. When sales clerk Susie in Iowa saves every penny to buy a designer bag, and her friends follow suit, Hollywood stylists begin to think twice about outfitting the star of the moment with it, and a bit of the designer’s image falls away.

“We see brands fight over the number of friends on Facebook and judge their initiatives based on number of ‘likes,’ but who are those friends?” asks Ferdinando Verderi, creative director at WPP’s Johannes Leonardo, an agency whose clients include Chanel. “Are those people luxury brands ever wanted to talk to?”

The reality, of course, is that brands are being watered down whether they like it or not. In some cases, they’re even speeding things along, as bottom-line concerns push them into big-box collaborations and less expensive line extensions. Image still counts, and some companies aren’t navigating their dive into digital as carefully as they should be.

Fabien Baron, the renowned art director and founder of brand strategy firm Baron & Baron—clients include Calvin Klein, Burberry, Balenciaga, and Hugo Boss—notes that “a lot of brands say, ‘We need a film [to put online]—something quick, [like] a behind-the-scenes.’ And they do it over-the-shoulder, poorly produced, and the quality of the job is not as high as the print ad. So what starts to happen is that they have a message that is diluted, even from the brands themselves.”

The solution, he says, is to make brands live the same luxe life digitally that they do in print or on billboards. (The Baron way: a meticulously edited aesthetic featuring clean and minimal art direction and productions.)

Some brands that claimed they were late to the digital game because the technology didn’t allow for the kind of refined presentation they wanted no longer have that excuse, especially with the rise of tablets with their brighter, sharper, and more attractive displays. And digital houses have gotten better at what they do, and thus more flexible, so that many high-end brands are able to get truly customized online content.

And there are some luxe fashion companies approaching the Internet with real care.

Take Bottega Veneta. Much of its allure is the actual feel of, say, its $3,800 handcrafted bags, so the challenge is to recreate that feeling online. “Because so much of Bottega is made by hand, there’s this artisanal sensibility,” explains Trey Laird, chief executive and creative officer of agency Laird+Partners, “so we started documenting the process.” The result are films called “The Art of the Collaboration” that are conversations between Bottega creative director Tomas Maier, Tina Barney, and Annie Leibovitz that ran on the Bottega site and then rolled out to Facebook.

LVMH, the owner of brands like Louis Vuitton, Givenchy, and Fendi, has built on its brands’ strengths. Its online publication, Nowness, is an elite look at luxury fashion and art, featuring lots of people you don’t know and will never run into, since you don’t have access to V.I.P. lounges in velvet-roped clubs.
Last year, Chanel pulled off a sensational runway show for the jet set in Saint-Tropez, which it streamed online at French social media fashion site Ykone. Exclusive? Absolutely. Most watching online could only dream of arriving at a French beach town (or anywhere else, really) in a speedboat while dressed head to toe in expensive ready-to-wear clothes, as the models did. It’s the rarefied world of Chanel, brought to you by the rarefied world of Chanel.

Over at Burberry, its online project Art of the Trench—a photo-sharing website launched in late 2009 that features people wearing Burberry trench coats and is still going strong—is a brilliant way to invite consumer engagement while retaining control over the brand image. Although it showcases specially commissioned professional photography, it allows for at least a little bit of that digital democracy, as users are able to submit their own pictures. 

Art of the Trench “was a turning point for the industry,” says Dee Salomon, a senior partner at advisory firm MediaLink who’s a veteran of, and former head of marketing for Donna Karan and Anne Klein. “[Companies] realized you could do things that reached a lot of people, but still had an elegance and were still on brand.”

One tactic, says James Gardner, CEO of CreateTheGroup, is giving consumers special privileges. Burberry, he points out (a client), does this by giving inside access like its own live stream of its fashion show on Sept. 19 that will let consumers “sit” in the front row.

Other brands are also realizing the Web can actually help them maintain control over discounting and the dissemination of their product and look, which is why an increasing number of luxury fashion websites are pumping up their e-commerce and mobile offerings. Oscar de la Renta, for one, built exclusivity right into its website with its Backstage Pass, a members-only shopping destination that offers one-off items, private sales, and a boutique “curated” by guest editors.

“The luxury consumer really yearns to have this privileged access,” says Gardner. “They want to be there first, get it first, get …something different than the masses. It’s a combination of being invited and rewarding customers, which I think is important.”

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