A La Mode

Market/Article 

A La Mode

September 27, 2012

Watch a model strut down the runway in a feathered parrot dress with a matching headpiece, and you might think the fashion world is a little crazy. Or maybe you say to yourself: “There’s my new look!” Regardless, the parrot dress—and most runway fashion—brings you into a world where anything is possible and taking chances is encouraged.

This mirrors the fashion industry’s approach to social media: experimental, trend setting, out there. And it works.

How does it do it? Layering the right mix of lifestyle branding, expressive customer engagement and insider exclusivity. Just take a peek.

Lifestyle

When it comes to expressing a compelling narrative, fashion marketers wrote the book. It’s called lifestyle.

Think about it: The clothing brands you wear say a lot about you. REI: Outdoorsy and active. Nordstrom: Sophisticated. Urban Outfitters: Hip, young and cool. Which isn’t to say consumers embody one particular head-to-toe “look” all the time, but when it comes to building a brand on lifestyle, for the most part, fashion gets it right.

A lot of fashion’s marketing success has to do with aspiration. A full-page, glossy advertisement of a smoky-eyed Angelina Jolie floating on a rustic boat with a Louis Vuitton bag at her side, for instance, reminds us of exotic travel and the journeys we aspire to take. Not that we’ve all toted a $2,000 handbag with us on a wooden raft, but hey, don’t you wish you had?

That’s the point. Both online and off, many successful brands exude a certain lifestyle, enticing customers with the appeal of places (or things) more exotic, more colorful, more adventurous or more diverse than theirs. While some mainstream consumer brands have mastered the lifestyle play—think Apple and Whole Foods—no one is better at this than fashion.

Take Kate Spade New York, which this spring ranked second in a think tank’s list of top fashion brands in the social space. Through its multiple social channels, including YouTube, Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook, the brand takes followers to an exotic world of food, travel, music and nostalgia-inspired, simple objects, like tulips, roller skates or shoelaces.

While everything is “on brand” in terms of bright colors, playful images and retro-chic style, the environment Kate Spade has created is engaging and rich: full of pool parties, day trips and discussion-worthy, whimsical art.

The company’s clever hashtag, #ridecolorfully, continues the sentiment and also helps customers connect in this highly social, virtual world that, importantly, is not built around a suite of products. The images are beguiling, the voice is strong and everything about the experience is bold and vivid. Who wouldn’t want to join in?

Similarly, indie designer-focused Craft & Culture uses social media to curate images that align with its edgy, artsy style. The brand works with designers who, as owners Jason Parker and Hana Ryan Wilson tell us, “already have their own scene.” Which is to say: Our cool world is largely defined by those we invite to the party. Customers, meanwhile, are drawn in, pinning, commenting, sharing; in essence, making this enticing world part of their own identities.

“In a way, it’s no different than scrapbooking or putting magazine tears up on the wall,” says Macala Wright, independent fashion consultant and publisher of fashionablyMarketing.Me. “Before social media hit the scene, curation was limited to the top 1 percent of influencers, stylists and tastemakers. Now, anyone can put up a photo collage on Tumblr, create an inspiration board on Pinterest or start a fashion blog. It’s more about social product discovery,” she explains.

Notice, too, that these brands don’t constantly post about their own products. The social media adage, “promote others more often than you promote

yourself,” holds true in fashion, where the most successful designers tweet about upcoming shows and their favorite designers and artists. To fully embrace the lifestyle concept, think “scene,” not “seen.”

Following the Followers

While we’re on the subject of elevating your community, remember those virtual dress-up bots where you could drag and drop clothes and compile “outfits”? Lands’ End had a pretty good one, but like most of the original online tools employed by retailers, it was clunky and didn’t really do justice to the apparel, or the consumer. But they had the right idea: Allow consumers to assemble their own style. Sharing was the missing component.

With social media, all of that has changed. Wright estimates there are hundreds of thousands of blogs devoted to fashion, style and trends, many of them focused on “personal fashion,” where the blogger uses photography, video and inspirational images to help define his or her own identity and personal style—and share it.

The clue here is to not use social media as a megaphone, but to capitalize on a theme and run with it. For example, Scott Schuman, a former Valentino marketer, started his blog, The Sartorialist, as a way to showcase street fashion images of everyday people.

The blog, which attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every day, helped launch a six-figure book deal for Schuman, as well as a booming fashion-photography business for several luxury brands.

Similarly, Emily Schuman (no relation to Scott) of Cupcakes and Cashmere, started blogging about her interests (fashion, food, interior décor) in 2008. The blog, which has been described as “Martha Stewart meets Carrie Bradshaw,” the perennially popular “Sex and the City” protagonist, launched a collaboration with Coach where Schuman helped the company design a fresh, new handbag for a younger demographic.

“A big part of social media’s allure is that it’s very status driven,” explains Wright. “Everyone wants to be known for something, and consumers are getting more selective about which brands they choose to ‘like.’” The trick is to identify and tap into those key influencers early and forge relationships—in the way of cross promotion, affiliate sales or even new product development. “It’s the new way to engage your brand ambassadors,” she says. They’re already sharing fashionable tips and trends, so why not yours?

Intimacy

There was a time, not long ago, when fashion brands were fearful of pulling back the curtain and letting consumers see what happens behind the scenes. What if they see how unglamorous it can be? They might ask, “How hard is it really to put together a runway event, a new clothing line or a photo spread?”

Thanks to reality shows like “Project Runway” and even “America’s Next Top Model,” consumers don’t just want a peek backstage, they’re demanding VIP access. They want to see the pain and the drama, and top brands are giving them the inside look. It’s become a big part of the fashion narrative and has helped propel the social media success for many industry brands.

“Consumers will appreciate you more if they know what goes into the making of your product,” says Mariana Leung, an independent fashion designer and blogger at MsFabulous.com, a site devoted to the behind-the-scenes elements of fashion design. Leung, a graduate of Parsons School of Design in New York, has worked on nearly all sides of the fashion business, including sales, technical design, public relations and marketing. She highlights an interview she did last year with artisans from Rome who flew to New York City to work on a custom fur for Fendi. “It took 10 designers over 40 days to complete,” she says. “When buyers know more about the inspiration and art form behind products, and the skill level involved, the connection between customer and the brand is deepened that much more.” Consider bloggers your new product-knowledge team.

What if your products aren’t couture or custom-made? There’s still a story to tell, and customers want to hear it, particularly from a designer or another insider who can serve as a friendly guide. Two of the most popular fashion feeds on Twitter are @DKNY (of Donna Karan New York) and @OscarPRGirl (of Oscar de la Renta), both

run by the communications veeps for those brands. The feeds (which attract hundreds of thousands of fans; @DKNY has over 400,000 followers) offer intimate, personal, seemingly unfiltered access to behind the-scenes elements of these big-time fashion companies, including real-time links to Instagram and Pinterest mood boards, or simple musings on life in the fashion lane.

Note that VPs are crafting the clever tweets. (A recent one from @DKNY: “I made an appointment with my creativity for now and it seems my creativity is late.”)

“Unfortunately, a lot of companies have assigned their social media initiatives to an intern or low-level marketing manager, and this is a huge mistake,” cautions Leung. Fashion brands know better than anyone that image matters, and company communications—even in 140 characters—can speak louder than the latest runway trends.

Tweets are just one part of the new customer accessibility. Macy’s “Backstage Pass” program allows users to snap QR codes in various departments and get style and fit advice from Macy’s celebrity partners. And Maurices is now in the second year of its “Main Street Model” contest, which allows fans access to the selection process, as well as insider elements of styling sessions and photo shoots. Whatever your brand strategy, it’s all about letting customers in. Remember: You’re still the one who decides what they get to see.

Social Commerce

With everyone at the social media party, the dynamics of commerce are changing as well. Ratings, product reviews and the “share” button all have gone a long way toward transparency and well-informed consumers. But when it comes to product creation and selection, involving your fans and followers from the start can be just as important.

Some brands are effectively utilizing crowdsourcing to support social commerce. ModCloth, a vintage-inspired e-retailer whose internal company motto is “ModCloth is a company you’re friends with,” embraces this ideology. Users essentially act as fashion buyers, writing product descriptions and voting on clothing samples. Similarly, Grunt Style, a fashion line aimed at the military set, regularly lets fans decide which products go up for sale. For the brand, this is not just a fun social media gimmick; it’s part of its business strategy.

“I’ve had several items that I thought were awesome, but apparently our customers didn’t agree,” says Daniel Alarik, owner of Grunt Style. Now, he posts new designs on Facebook and within seconds has a resounding response from his 10,000 fans: yea or nay. “If they’re interested in buying, I’ll make it available for pre-order on our website, and within a few minutes, the orders start rolling in.” If the proposed design is a dud, he scraps it.

To encourage more commerce through social media, the fashion world is paying close attention to a couple of new platforms. One is Fancy, which combines the social engagement of a photo curation website like Pinterest with the ease-of-shopping experience of Amazon. So far it’s a fashion destination that feels more male-oriented, focusing on high-end travel gear and modern home furnishings. But anything is possible; Facebook started out as an online yearbook for college students.

In addition to Fancy, Fantasy Shopper, just launched in the U.K., combines features of popular online games with real-world fashion merchandise. Users can spend “fantasy money” on virtual clothes, share their outfits with friends and buy real items online or in store. Meanwhile, retailers are tracking user behavior and product “likes”—turning that data into personalized deals, discounts and specials.

“One of the myths of social media is that brands are talking to the masses,” Wright says. “It’s not true. The power is in the intimacy. Brands speak to a small group of individuals and then those individuals pick and choose the coolest items to share with their friends.” This is how the dialogue starts, and where the story begins.

 

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