Can luxury brands work online?

At the Future Luxe Conference this week, MT asked whether high-end brands can ever really be comfortable with mass communication.

by Emma Haslett
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013
The web is sometimes hailed as the solution to all retailers’ woes - and today’s record online sales figures (a 25% increase during December) might seem further proof of that. But is that true across the board? MT headed to the Future Luxe conference, run by website Luxury Briefing, at the Royal Institute yesterday, where it discovered that when you're in the exclusivity business, mass communication sometimes causes more problems than it solves. But that's no reason to shy away from it...

With luxury brands, the usual rules don't necessarily apply. Take MT: your correspondent has been in the market for an expensive handbag lately. But would we buy it online? Not a chance: when you’re about to spend 500-odd quid on a handbag, you want a room reeking of leather, customer service that borders on the sycophantic, and a nice, long tube journey to show off your monogrammed shopping bag. In short, not something the postman can deliver.

But then, we’re not regular customers. The audience at Future Luxe conference probably feels differently (illustrated very nicely by one speaker's comment that there ‘probably isn’t one woman in the room who doesn’t own a pair of Louboutins’ - cue embarrassed giggling). A survey by Google found that 95% of a group of millionaires had made their last purchase online – which is where the likes of Net-a-Porter.com, the designer shopping site that was last year sold to luxury group Richemont, comes in. For the well-heeled, Net-A-Porter offers exactly what appeals to the rest of us about sites like asos.com: convenience and 24/7 availability. It’s even recently launched a ‘discreet packaging’ service, for customers who want to keep their high-end purchases under wraps, so to speak.

But what about social media? Until last year, most of the biggest fashion houses had avoided the risk of besmirching their names by shunning Twitter and Facebook altogether. At the conference, the head of one hotel group told MT: ‘our employees had a lot of ideas, but we had to put a stop to it – we need to have control’. Which is telling: control is one thing social media does not necessarily offer.

They might have been slow on the uptake, but luxury brands are learning fast. Burberry, for example, launched artofthetrench.com last year. It’s a website which allows users to upload pictures of themselves in its signature trench coat (a snip at £650). There, other (presumably  trenchless) users can comment, rate or even share the image on Facebook. The brand even live-streamed its S/S11 London Fashion Week show online. So they’re slowly discovering ways to use social media which can spread the word without damaging the brand.

Changing shopping habits are also making a difference. These days, some of those who might once have frequented TopShop are saving their pennies and buying less frequently, but more expensively - a phenomenon Michael J Silverstein and Neil Fiske call ‘masstige’ in their book, ‘Trading Up’.  For brands that haven't previously made much effort to engage the masses, it may be time to start looking toward those lower-end customers, who might just make one or two purchases a year, as potential regular clients.

And if mass communication is getting more important for luxury brands, they can't really manage without a strong online presence...

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