Until recently, the luxury industry tended to be a bit snooty about the internet. Luxury brands lure customers with craftsmanship, heritage and beauty: all things the digital world lacks. If you don’t agree, just take a look at Google, Facebook and Twitter. They’re very useful, even addictive. But beautiful? Not really. That’s because the internet was built by technologists, not artists.
Yet luxury brands no longer have a choice. They have to go digital, or face flagging sales. The emerging younger market grew up with the internet. And in developing economies, luxury retailers often have a limited physical presence. One of the reasons luxury brands have been rather slow to establish themselves in India is a lack of premium real estate – and subsequently high rental costs.
The British brand Burberry is known for its enthusiastic embrace of the internet, in part thanks to its young designer Chris Bailey. Burberry made headlines by streaming its catwalk shows live over the internet; not only that, but viewers could click to buy the products they were ogling. So perhaps it’s no coincidence that former Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts is now heading to Apple – to run its online and physical stores.
Luxury brands are well aware of the power of the store environment. When you’re shopping in a palace, it seems logical to spend a fortune on a handbag. Luxury retailers call this “the emotional experience” of shopping. Clicking an image just doesn’t have the same allure. So how do you replicate that experience online?
Among the first people to insist that the Web and luxury could be friends was Natalie Massenet, the former Tatler fashion editor who launched online shopping site Net-a-Porter in 2000. Massenet cunningly designed her site to look more like a glossy magazine. She also realized that service was a key ingredient of the luxury experience: her goal was to make her customers cry with joy when they received one of her parcels. But even after the beautiful packaging had been removed, Massenet made it absurdly easy to return items that didn’t fit.
Other luxury brands began to get the message. In 2007, Louis Vuitton took the unusual step of hiring an advertising agency, Ogilvy & Mather, to revise its digital strategy. (Luxury brands tend to work with fashion photographers and freelance art directors rather than big Madison Avenue agencies, which they consider more appropriate for selling detergent.)
At first it looked as if O&M had come up with another print campaign: pictures of Catherine Deneuve and – more unusually – Mikhail Gorbechev posing with Louis Vuitton bags. But on a website called “Journeys”, the celebrities described their favourite travel destinations, supported by audio-visual collages. In other words, viewers could embark on a virtual journey with a VIP companion. The project proved that online branded content could be compelling – and even rather lovely.
Since then, Vuitton has been admirably experimental in the digital field. It recruited a team of bloggers to test its “soundwalks” – MP3 files in which actresses such as Gong Li and Joan Chen narrated strolls around their native Beijing and Shanghai – and invited Foursquare users to “check in” at a revamped London store. Its site continues to feature sumptuous graphics and high quality video content.
For example, a trio of films currently showcases three different bags for men. The films take viewers on a tour of hotel rooms in Florence, Havana and Livingstone, inhabited by unseen people we might like to be: a film-maker, an oceanographer and a herbalist. Well, maybe not that last one. Anyway, by panning across the desirable objects in each room, including the bags, the films create a glamorous universe that we might like to be part of. Exactly like a flagship store.
The creative landscape has benefited from this shift of luxury brands into the digital world: along with Vuitton, brands such as Cartier, Dior and Prada regularly diffuse high quality branded content online. Cartier’s award-winning “Odyssey” and the Prada film “A Therapy”, directed by Roman Polanski, are just two examples. They are far too long and languorous to be described as “commercials”.
To a certain extent, technology has caught up with the luxury brands’ desires: today, digital can be beautiful. And when it’s backed up with impeccable service, consumers of luxury goods may begin wondering if they need to leave home at all.
Written by Philippe Paget