... an exploration of mobile trends in luxury retail

brand authenticity is the new black

In digital luxury, luxury mobile on October 21, 2010 at 3:31 pm

Since the dawn of commerce in the bazaars of Istanbul, consumer word of mouth has always been the most powerful form of retail advertising. There has been much buzz stemming from the October 16th Wall Street Journal article, “Luxe Lowdown: Tony Sites Begin to Invite Buyer Reviews,” concerning the long-standing debate of whether consumer generated content in the form of product reviews should have a place in a Luxury retailer’s online lexicon.

Debate rages on both sides as to whether reviews are contrary to definition of a Luxury brand. One side argues that brands such as Cartier or Hermes are “five star” in and of themselves, thus it is counter to the brand to open up their product catalogs to any degree of public scrutiny. The other will argue that this form of consumer word-of-mouth is being shared daily around the world and that reviews captured on a retailer’s site provide a degree of brand authenticity and aids in instilling consumer confidence in products and brands based on the opinions and experiences of real people, without the influence of advertising.

Regardless of where you stand in the debate, one thing is certain – for those attainable luxury retailers such as Saks and Nordstrom or brands like Brooks Brothers or La Mer, customer reviews have been adopted on their e-Commerce sites based firmly on the realization that customers want the ability to take shopping advice from their peers. As the WSJ article quotes Denise Incandela, President of Saks Inc.’s Saks Direct:

“The customer wants a more objective voice saying, ‘I own this, and these are the things you need to know about it.”‘

I realize that this topic revolves entirely around social media marketing as opposed to my primary focus on mobile, but I felt this topic too important not to address with the interest of Luxury retailers in mind. The purpose of today’s posting is not to weigh the inherent value (or lack thereof) of consumer generated content for Luxury brands but, rather, how brands can capture consumer sentiment in a manner that remains true to the essence of the Luxury brand experience, yet provide the authenticity and openness that consumers have come to expect from brands in this (r)evolution to a C2B retail paradigm.

As brands begin investigating how best to capture consumer sentiment in a manner that remains true to the essence of the Luxury brand experience, it is important to distinguish between two very different forms of consumer generated content: product level content and brand level content. The examples cited in the WSJ article focus entirely on product level content, primarily in the form of customer reviews. It is precisely this content, spoken directly from the mouths of consumers, that has always been the barrier to entry for consumer generated content on Luxury brand sites. The statement from a Chanel representative reached for comment by the reporter speaks volumes – “We will not comment on this topic.”

Scott Galloway, founder of L2, a think tank that specializes in prestige brands, accurately surmises, “The notion of having a user saying that Chanel No. 5 smells like Brooklyn is so scary that [luxury brands] were literally paralyzed.” Note Galloway’s choice of words – literally paralyzed. Luxury brands have always existed as arbiters of fashion, defining stylistic trends for a global audience based on the brand’s view of the fashion universe. This paradigm, however, is steadily shifting as the C2B (r)evolution continues to gain momentum. Shoppers are armed with previously inconceivable access to information, opinions, and accessibility to brands than ever before. At some point in the not-too-distant future there will be a forced assimilation to engage consumers in open dialogue and those brands which ardently refuse to engage risk relevancy extinction. The question remains, how to best engage in open dialogue with customers and offer freedom of speech while maintaining the veil of mystery that Luxury brands inherently possess.

Let’s turn our attention for a moment to brand level content. As Luxury marketers shift strategies to adopt a more lifestyle-driven approach to market, brand level consumer generated content is uniquely capable of providing the level of authenticity and transparency that consumers are craving. Imagine a brand like Cartier running a campaign soliciting love stories from their customers, curating those they feel most representative of the brand essence, and leveraging this authentic branding exercise to position them as purveyors not only of fine jewelry, but as purveyors of love. That strategy has potential, no?

The underlying advantage of brand level consumer generated content is that it does not require the same degree of transparency as product level content. At a product level, regardless of whether a review is overwhelmingly five star positive or underwhelmingly two star, that content requires display in order for consumers to glean from others’ experiences and provide that level of authenticity and transparency. Brand level content does not require the same degree of transparency. A brand can curate only that content that they feel is most representative of the essence of the brand and the values it represents. In this manner, a Luxury brand can solicit content from customers, which could be limited to those in the appropriate demographic, customer value category, etc., that allows real people to tell inspiring stories with the brand at the apex of the experience.

The cosmetics brand Philosophy has continuously provided excellent examples of this type of brand level content campaign strategy. Although this campaign has concluded, Philosophy developed a campaign around the launch of their Unconditional Love product line that solicited content from its brand loyalists about their stories of unconditional love.

Through this campaign, Philosophy effectively positioned itself as a social brand that encourages its loyalists to share stories about topics that are important to them while promoting a brand image that is not about beauty product but, rather, about love.

Authenticity and transparency are the new black for Luxury retail brands, however careful consideration must be given to how to engage customers in dialogue that is authentic while maintaining the essence of the Luxury brand experience.

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