By Charlotte de Villeneuve, illustrations : Ray Noa/Oxy Illustrations
Long resistant to the digital realm, the luxury sector now plays a key role in its expansion. From websites to social networks to mobile applications, luxury is everywhere. Proof that opposites really do attract.
Fitting a luxury brand comfortably into the digital world is no easy task. The crux of the problem: their identities, which are incompatible from the start. While luxury embodies the values of rarity and exception, the Internet symbolises mass market and low-cost convenience. While designers exalt intuition and instinct, digital dances with bytes and big data. While luxury defends its legitimacy with tradition, the Internet extols instantaneousness. Luxury long kept its distance from the virtual world, one in which expectations of transparency posed a risk to its reputation. In the Web’s early days, only a few luxury houses grasped the advantages to be found there, initially in the form of e-commerce sites: Hermès and Gucci had their eureka moments in 2000, Louis Vuitton in 2005. Fifteen years later, the digital market has become an inescapable necessity. According to McKinsey’s Digital Luxury Experience Study, online sales account for less than 10% of the industry’s revenue, but they are growing twice as fast as offline sales. More than half of consumers conduct online searches before purchasing a product in the store. Currently, four out of 10 luxury sales are influenced by digital, a figure that is expected to mount to an even 50% of sales by 2020.
The inexorable force of digital has pushed brands to enter the web, but luxury-makers are finding that the virtual world is actually a goldmine of opportunity. “Data collection means we know more about customers and their buying habits. Digital opens the door to a younger clientele,” explain staff members in the communications department at a cosmetics group. Customers targeted with a digital tool also spend more money and are more loyal, both online and in the store. They form a key category whose attention must be thoroughly captured. Happily, digital provides an unprecedented communications platform at a time when advertising is running out of steam and relations with current and potential customers are developing in new ways. With such an arsenal of influence, digital has ultimately transformed the luxury industry, causing it to open up to the masses. Brands are sacrificing some of their rarity in the interests of emotion. Whatever the tool (website, application, social network), the goal is to reproduce the magic that surrounds the luxury world, to trigger emotion and create a unique experience.
To achieve this, the major companies are developing a multichannel approach and premium services. The foundation of their online presence is elaborate websites, each presenting a company and its wares with superb style, sustained by brand content so that the maker can hone its image while maintaining control of the message. Interviews, articles, photographs, videos – the content provides opportunities for top-quality storytelling and weaving a dream world for visitors. Ruinart has teamed up with artist Jaume Plensa to create a limited edition of 20 boxes for the house’s Blanc de Blancs. The message: though anyone can visit the site, only the privileged few can own the box. Because luxury customers expect more than just the product they purchase – that is the very principle of the luxury customer experience.
The inexorable force of digital has pushed brands to enter the web
To satisfy this expectation, the brands are offering a broadening palette of services: telephone and/or email customer assistance in several languages, appointments for in-store fittings, service geolocation, a click-to-call button to have a sales advisor call back, etc. At Gucci, salespeople even stay in touch with their customers via WhatsApp. But to offset this almost intimate closeness, the Italian brand practices a strategy of high prices, and no longer holds sales. Customers therefore continue to feel they are part of an exclusive population while the brand extends its influence.
To survive and hopefully thrive online, brands must build a community. SnapChat is an effective illustration of how brands can create the feeling of belonging: during the 2015 Paris Fashion Week, Burberry used this network to offer sneak previews of behind-the-scenes activity at the show, giving subscribers a sense of privilege. But Instagram is the hands-down winner in this category. The application makes the most of the renown enjoyed by various brand ambassadors, spokesmodels and designers, who share details of their personal and professional lives with their respective communities, causing an exponential increase in the strength of the messages. Still, though famous faces remain important for a brand’s prominence, there is now a pronounced upswing in the emergence of influencers. These individuals have managed to build communities, sometimes composed of millions of people, who closely follow their recommendations in fashion, jewellery, cosmetics, food and more. Brands are forging increasingly close relationships with this group. “But this relationship could be the one with which luxury reaches the limits of its virtual presence,” warns the communications manager of a large French luxury group. “Some people fear that brands could be damaged by Internet stars or websites that boost sales but don’t properly embody the industry’s codes and quality.” To avoid conflicts in genres and standards, LVMH has refused to have its products on the Amazon online sales platforms. While some predicted the disappearance of brick-and-mortar retail outlets with the rise of digital, brands are actually using all the tools at their disposal to express their DNA. For are not a store, a website and an application simply variations on the 360° experience that brands now want to offer their customers? It certainly seems so.