The concept of a luxury brand has for a long time centred on exclusivity and aspiration. Louis Vuitton didn’t build their reputation and become coveted by millions of Michelle Williams wannabes based on unrivalled accessibility and homespun retail staff. Rather, they used their luxury positioning to drive emotions of aspiration and a desire to accede to a lifestyle perceived to be better, more aesthetically valuable, coupled with a very high quality product. The result: LV achieved an Interbrand valuation of nearly $25 billion in 2013 .
With the advent of digital, the paradigm changed. Suddenly, those heavily guarded Cartier doors were not so inaccessible. Anyone could Google the price of a Lamborghini, and read a whole range of online reviews and ratings too. Everyone is on the Internet, so we expect every organisation to be on there too. But for the luxury sector, this presents a different challenge from mainstream retailers. How to reconcile this “democratisation”, where everyone can access all things, with the need to retain the exclusive scent of luxury?
Previously, luxury organisations were able to control the customer experience very tightly. Now the experience is partially dictated by the device and browser the customer is using, even with the brand’s own .com site. Whilst pages on social media can be configured with content and commentary, the look and feel is often dictated by the site host - just compare https://www.facebook.com/Fendi with http://www.fendi.com/ii/en. Brands are catering not just to actual customers with the occasional intrigued passer-by, but also to hordes of aspirational customers who may not actually buy a product for five, ten, or fifteen years.
Before any brand decides to go online, or to initiate a social media presence, it needs to understand the purpose behind “going digital”. How does this tie into the brand and organisational strategy? Is this a move to drive revenue through eCommerce, or is it simply to showcase the brand and build engagement? Digital is an enabler - it’s not the solution in itself. This is true for any organisation. But for the luxury sector, where brands are aiming to retain their high-end image, the quality of the execution is thrown into especially sharp relief. Without this combination of solid strategy and flawless presentation, a luxury brand risks a digital “dilution” of its perceived value.
Firstly, let’s look at excellence in execution. A luxurious look and feel needs to pervade all elements of a high end brand’s website. These need to echo the standards you would expect in a physical store, and be consistent with the brand image. This flows from the design aesthetic - beautiful images, video and copy - to the user experience, interface, and customer service. There needs to be a carefully considered balance between content and eCommerce: too little content and it won’t feel luxury; too much and customers will be frustrated with the convoluted path from product browsing to check-out.
Content needs to be high quality and well curated. The “Discover Hermès” microsite http://lesailes.hermes.com/gb/en is a fun take on this. Focussing on storytelling is also key: from brand heritage to tastefully exhibited celebrity campaigns. Chanel epitomises this at http://inside.chanel.com.
Responsive design is crucial: the website must render perfectly on whichever device the customer chooses (with mobile as the growth platform). For a top quality digital experience, payment and service functionality need to be best-in-class: seamless, totally secure and crafted as part of the customer journey.
Ideally, elements of the digital experience will also be integrated with the physical, in-store one, helping to bring these channels together in the customer’s mind. Increasingly, we will see the most digitally innovative luxury retailers such as Burberry joining up the physical and digital customer journey. This will be achieved through analytics such as advanced clienteling, potentially enabling concepts such as store-front customer recognition to become reality: http://vimeo.com/78909077. Digitally facilitated “hyper-personalisation” is an area where luxury retailers should really aim to lead the pack. After all, discreet yet super-charged customer service is one of the cornerstones of the luxury business model, and has been engendering loyalty amongst Very Important Customers since Coco first opened on rue Cambon.
Ultimately, the large luxury players are well poised to capitalise on the digital opportunity, without diluting their brand in any way. LVMH’s Pierre-Albert Carlier articulates this excellently in his "Luxury and Technology" article in the FT. The quality of the execution is paramount, reflecting the brand’s design expertise and placing the customer at heart, whilst ensuring alignment between the “bricks and clicks” presence. It will be crucial to combine online and offline data - and to address the organisation’s internal digital operating model. A successful digital strategy for a luxury brand can do more than just generate revenue from today’s core customers. It can reach beyond this and drive brand engagement with a younger, aspirational market to bring jam tomorrow. In the end, it comes down to telling a story which resonates…across all touch points.
Interbrand – Best Global Brands 2013 ( http://www.interbrand.com/en/best-global-brands/2013/sector-overviews/luxury-2013.aspx)