Before screens, impressions and clicks were covetable, executives fought for bulky front of books. Luxury brands would imprint the opening pages of a magazine with commercial narratives told by the likes of Steven Meisel and Mario Testino, the imagined worlds of which would rival the editorials to come. Now, brands are turning away from traditional ad buys, with the ratio of ad to editorial content growing ever slimmer and online content increasing. Following More, Self and Lucky, L’Uomo Vogue and Vogue Italia’s sister brands are the latest magazines shuttering to cut costs, encouraging the nail in the coffin of the fashion ad’s former choice medium.
Thanks to increased consumer interest in digital platforms, luxury brands like Gucci and Louis Vuitton have increased online ad spending by 63% since 2013, according to the Wall Street Journal. Over the same period, these “high luxury” brands still spent roughly 73 percent of their budgets on print, but spending on magazines fell by 8%. And even though the percent spent on print is set to remain high in 2018, those print ads are rendered with a digital tinge. Before, like game-set-match, a model, look, and logo were enough to entice the consumer. Now, calls to action to move off the page are digitally integrated with QR code scannable features, mobile app mentions, social handles, campaign hashtags, and brand websites reading like fine print on the bottom of the page.
François-Henri Pinault, chief executive of Kering, told the Wall Street Journal he estimates the company spends up to 40% of its communication budget on digital because that’s where the consumer is. “If we were to launch a brand today, all the communication to start would be online,” he said.
Before, brands were faceless, aspirational entities who only appeared in the pages of magazines championing a current collection. Now, they are veritable creative agencies, producing content versus campaigns in pixels versus print.
And where brands become personified is their social media presence. Consumers can follow luxury brands like friends, liking, commenting, and saving content. What was the cut-and-paste collage of print magazines is now Pinterest pins and Insta saves. The experience is immersive and participatory, asking you to look and act, and not stop and stare. Print is disposable while digital, though seemingly fleeting, exists to be retweeted, reposted, and regrammed. Perhaps more than any other platform, Instagram’s scrolling visual narrative reads like one long advertisement.
While a magazine mainly reaches subscribers, with hopes of pass-along readership and the rare newsstand and morning coffee combo, digital allows a wider reach, says Alice Pafrement of Fashion Monitor. “Brands using Instagram for their shows give users a backstage feel, while also giving the designer the opportunity to showcase their collections on a global scale,” she told Marketing Week.
That backstage feel is a huge part of the appeal. Process videos, from those revealing couture techniques at Chanel to the construction of Loewe’s new laced #HammockBag, are back doors to a consumer’s favorite brand. And whereas print ads served to remind readers of what they’ve already seen, digital can precede collections, campaigns, and build expectations – rather than merely meet them. In a series of posts over several days in July, Louis Vuitton teased an exclusive Instagram launch of its Tambour Horizon Connected Watch, later unveiling a 9-gram campaign replete with 1-minute quick clips and ad stills. And prior to couture week, Dior teased its oncoming safari with theme hints and trailer-like promos. Print reiterated the past, but social media builds anticipation.
To introduce its latest fragrance, Chanel No. 5 L’eau, the brand launched “The Fifth Sense” in collaboration with i-D magazine. Using varying artistic mediums, the continuing campaign consists of six installations exploring the fragrance and its tangible expression through female creativity. Consumers unable to attend the exhibition can experience the content online through videos, photo stories, and artist features. Though the coverage itself showcases the work of six multifaceted women, it ultimately serves to promote the perfume. Whereas the classic Chanel No. 5 found itself sprawled in print ads and across winding commercial narratives, the newer, fresher fragrance is aimed for a younger woman and being promoted on the platforms she uses most.
And while it’s not cheap to produce videos or online campaigns, it costs far less than a full print narrative. Brands can reach further for less with digital and, thanks to user generated content, can spread messages organically and across platforms. Earned Media Value, coined by Tribe Dynamics, assesses the money brands save through organically shared social media. According to Business Insider, the average EMV in terms of amount saved for the top 10 luxury brands was $33 million in March 2017.
What they save in spending brands gain in influence over purchasing patterns. Last year, Mintel reported 35 percent of women cite social media as a top influencer over their clothing purchases. And as for Instagram, research says following a brand makes you 53% more likely to shop with them.
Perhaps no brand has experimented with digital content and shared social media like Gucci since Alessandro Michele revamped the brand, filling our feeds with bows and its signature green. A strictly digital endeavor, That Feeling When Gucci turned advertisements into inside jokes. A collaborative art project, the campaign called on artists to create memes with riffs centered on the brand’s Le Marché des Merveilles collection of watches. And the brand’s gram-worthy billboards, murals painted by partnering artists like Angela Hicks and Coco Capitán, exist in real team off the web. Yet they are pulled into timelines and newsfeeds through user-created posts. Stepping directly into youth culture, and even exploiting it, Gucci created viral posts shared across platforms. Even when consumers weren’t sure what they were selling, they were sharing.
For luxury brands like Gucci, and their conglomerates, online platforms are the key to creating an identity with intergenerational reach. Ultimately, designers sell a lifestyle that transcends a single collection. Currently, online does not just promote a seasonal campaign; it embodies the brand and seeks to connect with an audience. In seeking more followers, brands are really following the consumer, says Zenith’s global brand president, Vittorio Bonori. “Luxury advertisers are having to respond to consumers' changing expectations," Bonori said, as reported by CNBC. "Consumers are now looking for luxury experiences that are personal and relevant to them, and targeted brand communication is central to creating this extra brand value."
But the techniques being used beg the question of if brands are aiming for the money – or simply for millennials. As a generation, millennials may have finances permitting luxury in the future, but by and large aren’t buying in the moment. The core consumer of luxury is largely off line and still enjoys print. Still, for the generational cohort up-and-coming, social media branding builds a long-term aspiration where the second consumers can afford it, they’ll not only buy the brand they’ve been following, but also share, tag, and post it when they do.