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Luxury Brands and the Lure of Social Media

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Here are three questions that ought to get the pulse rate running of any self-respecting brand or marketing manager. What is your Facebook strategy? What is your Twitter strategy? What is your YouTube strategy? You can add Google, Weibo, Instagram, Tumblr and a host of other social media platforms to that list too. Skill in engaging with these forums is now key to competitive differentiation in consumer goods marketing. Yet, many of the world’s leading luxury brands – especially those in hard luxury – have been slow in developing a strategy.

Things are changing. Social media is fast becoming the big new battleground for luxury timepieces and jewellery. Rolex, for example, launched its official Facebook page earlier this year and now showcases its newest products on YouTube. Last month, Omega began building a presence on Instagram. Cartier makes big budget video advertisements for Facebook. There is no shortage of innovative digital endeavour, but have these luxury brands really thought their social media strategies through?

From James Bond to Facebook

When Rolex bit the bullet and signed up to Facebook, it was a big deal. Here is a traditional brand with a fundamentally conservative business model. Rolex had not even wanted James Bond to be seen wearing one of its timepieces when Dr No (the first Bond movie) was launched in 1962 – producer Cubby Broccoli had to lend his own Rolex Submariner to then Bond actor Sean Connery.

Half a century on and Rolex is still regarded as a traditional luxury brand, but it wields enviable international cachet. In the space of seven months it has accumulated 1.6 million fans on Facebook – that is over three times as many as Omega, the favoured timepiece of the latest Mr Bond, and almost as many as Cartier, which is around two years ahead of Rolex in its social media penetration.

The ambition is clear. Mobile connectivity and social media are all the rage and Rolex wants a piece of the action. And why wouldn’t it? Over one billion people worldwide use Facebook (around three quarters of them from a mobile device). Grabbing even a small percentage of that user base can dramatically raise a brand’s visibility and help it connect with a whole new generation of wannabe or future consumers. Social media is especially attractive because its core demographic is precisely where luxury brands need to recruit new consumers the most.

Could Social Media Over-Popularise Luxury Brands?

Building a social media profile makes perfect sense, or does it? Here is the problem. Social media is about maximising visibility and brand awareness, but ubiquity is not necessarily a good thing for luxury brands, especially the high-end ones. The more popular a brand gets, the more it risks diluting its exclusivity and prestige value. Luxury is often about perception, after all. That is what defines the aspiration and the cachet.

There are other problems, too. Social media platforms are places of open, largely uncontrollable conversations. These are the cafés, bars and street corners of the digital world – big on gossip, especially when it is negative. Consumer brands are scrutinised in their every move and exposed to potential criticism as never before.

Luxury brands such as Rolex are used to having almost total control over image and reputation, yet such control starts to evaporate the moment a brand signs up to social media. It begs the question as to whether some luxury brands might be better off giving social media platforms a wider berth.

A Case of ‘Dammed If You Do, Dammed If You Don’t’

Advocates of social media will argue that luxury brands cannot ignore the power of Facebook and its peers, and that you need to be part of the ‘digital conversation’ in order to maximise marketing and advertising potential.

That argument makes sense for a luxury brand such as Burberry, which has turned digital and social media strategy into a virtual art form - and has won kudos (not to mention market share) on the back of it. But, Burberry is an affordable luxury brand defined by its fashion credentials. It has everything to gain from being at the forefront of digital innovation.

For the world’s most prestigious luxury brands, less is often more. We know, for example, that Louis Vuitton and Gucci have each experienced some downside from rapid expansion into China’s interior cities. This is because the exclusivity of both brands has been undermined, at least in the eyes of many affluent Chinese consumers in the coastal (first-tier) cities.

It is clear that Rolex struggled with the potential conflicts of interest of having a social media profile. Why else would the brand have waited so long to launch on Facebook and Twitter? Equally, it is easy to imagine the internal pressure the brand would have been under to develop a social media strategy. Most of its competitors were already on stream.

Strategy is Key to Control

We will not know for some time whether the social media gambit of Rolex and others like it pays off. It does seem, however, that a brand with the heritage of Rolex – a brand that is renowned for subtlety and caution in its marketing – has taken a big leap of faith by opening up to the unpredictable and largely uncontrollable world of social media.

When Rolex made its first video on YouTube, a link to the video was tweeted by brand ambassadors Roger Federer and Tiger Woods, reaching over five million people in less than a minute. That is a measure of the instant power of social media. For non-luxury consumer goods, that type of power is wholly positive, game-changing even. For high-end luxury brands, there are possible negatives to factor in too.

Getting the strategy right is going to be key, and there has to be a different strategy tailored to each specific social media platform. This will be key to retaining control over a brand’s development. Social media tends to be unforgiving, so there is limited leeway for getting it wrong.

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