Three Unique Digital Marketing Challenges Faced by Luxury Fashion

Luxury fashion is a challenging vertical for digital marketing. Whilst as clients, they often bring big-boy budgets, high brand affinity and amazing products for agencies to work with, they also bring with them some tricky uphill battles when it comes to keeping up in the digital ratrace.  

This article will outline some of the unique and complex issues faced by luxury fashion brands online and discuss tactics for winning at luxury e-commerce.

Firstly, let’s think about defining luxury itself and the specific attributes that differentiate it from its high street subordinates.

Luxury isn’t about the price tag. It’s not even about the product itself - at least not the functionality or purpose. It’s about the status, the symbol and the association. There’s no functionality this Celine canvas bucket bag offers that this PU version from Missguided doesn’t. Luxury fashion transcends functionality, rationality and need. It is unique because it is irrational, impractical and often, unprofitable!

So where does digital marketing come in to it? And what are the struggles that are unique to luxury brands?

1.The shop assistant

One of the obvious differences between luxury and high street is the imperative presence of the shop assistant.

For luxury fashion shoppers, the shop assistant or store manager is their very own exclusive set of eyes and ears to the brand’s must-have pieces and new collections. They know their customers style, size, budget and location. The knowledge held by the shop assistant is unrivalled when it comes to maximising lifetime value of the customer.

Think also about the experience of visiting a luxury fashion brand’s store. Martin McNulty, CEO of digital agency Forward3D, speaks of “San Pellegrino moments” - delivering the unexpected moments of delight that transcend a shopping experience to more than simply ‘buying expensive stuff’. Sparkling lemon water being served to me in a clothing store? Ah yes, I’m in Prada. And yes, I will take a seat on your genuine baby giraffe leather chaise longue while I wait for my friend to pay, thank you very much. It’s Prada. It’s luxury.

Luxury fashion consumers are seeking "San Pellegrino Moments".

So how can digital compare with any of this?

In order to keep up with customers' online shopping expectations, luxury fashion brands need to re-evaluate the role of the website. It can no longer serve as a placeholder to in-store visits.

Buying online provides every bit of knowledge that was previously held by the store assistant - purchase patterns, size, taste. But using this information to the site’s advantage can be a big data nightmare, complicated by the desire to maintain the brand’s integrity but driven by the necessity to better.

The reincarnation of the shop assistant for the online store is the holy grail for luxury to succeed online.

A new wave of intelligence coined as “customer experience management” from companies like Qubit, shows how on-site customer behavior can be translated into actionable on-site changes that improve experience and ultimately, conversion. Site “personalisation” through customer feedback surveys, product page A/B testing, attribution modelling & robust mobile analytics - build not just the next best thing to a shop assistant, but the next, better thing.

Tips for winning at personalisation

  1. Let your customers do the talking. Knowing the frustrations customers are suffering holds the key to improving experience. This awesome personalisation case study from Qubit for Topshop shows how they collected both qualitative and quantitative data to help inform decisions about changes to mobile navigation, product page redesigns and highlighted the importance of site search. A simple customer feedback survey could be the first step in getting to the crux of what your customers are really coming to your website for and importantly, what they’re not finding.

An example of Topshop asking for customer feedback. Image Source: Qubit.

  1. Use RLSA for PPC brand ads. Luxury brands running PPC campaigns are likely to receive the vast majority of traffic through core brand terms. Segmenting audiences and creating bespoke ad copy makes understanding what works and what doesn’t a lot easier. For example, experimenting with men's-only ad copy for brand ads shown to customers who viewed your menswear collection pages. Or try running a selective generic campaign on RLSA-only for terms that would otherwise be too costly and risky.

2. The “luxury customers don’t buy online” myth

Luxury fashion websites began life as, at best, a tentative toe dipped in the sea of e-commerce. Websites were often a clunky re-imagination of their most recent runway shows, built on “branding” rather than conversion and sometimes with no shopping functionality at all. It just wasn’t luxury.

Introduce Net-a-Porter, home to the world’s biggest luxury fashion brands, existing purely online since 2000 and recently valued at a cool £350 million. Net-a-Porter owned a unique position - selling luxury brands in a new space that was built entirely for the online shopper. It’s annual sales of £654m quash the myth that a luxury customer won’t buy online.

At the same time, they put forward a good case against the “print media is dead” myth too: their exclusive editorial content in the form of Porter magazine has a circulation of 152,000 in over 60 countries. Yep, you read that correctly - a print magazine. In 2016!

Net-a-Porter delivers luxury not just in the form of the products they sell, but the environment in which to enjoy them and this extends across mediums and across devices with seamless usability. The less glamorous logistical infrastructure beats a lot of peers too, with flexible delivery options and returns policies and a 24/7 customer service helpline.

So if the first challenge is accepting that luxury customers have moved from bricks and mortar to online, the next challenge is keeping up with shift to mobile.

It’s not news to most that mobile shopping search has officially overtaken desktop, but those of you out there running the accounts for these brands are well aware that mobile shopping behavior has not followed suit just yet. Mobile conversion rates are generally still incredibly low in comparison to desktop, presenting a complicated and risky situation: how can you tell the investment you’re making in mobile is worth it?

The mobile has become the primary research tool, used for initial stage research, browsing and comparing. However, the significant majority of transaction completions occur on desktop and as a result, device-type conversion rates can be misleading. This is especially true for luxury brands.

Re-thinking mobile KPIs and optimizing to smaller scale conversions can deliver conversion rates that signal actions along the path to success. For example, adding store locations and contact details to search results and tracking these interactions can shed light on how many of your customers come to the site as a precursor to visiting the store.

ASOS has undergone a conversion rate overhaul over the last 3 years, with a particular focus on the new versus returning customer split and mobile/app functionality. If you’re considering giving your checkout process a new look for 2016, ASOS is possibly best in show.

Tips for winning at conversion rate

  1. Improving conversion for luxury sites isn’t about just improving transaction volumes. Offering as many helpful services other than just shopping can keep a luxury website in favour. Great examples are store locators, location-specific delivery updates (e.g. last order dates for Christmas) and options to continue purchases later (ASOS has as “save for later” button that makes on-the-go browsing extra easy, so you can log back in on a different device for closer inspection and to complete checkout another time).

The Asos 'Save for Later' button can be seen under 'Add to Bag. Source: ASOS.

  1. Product imagery should be the stuff of dreams on luxury e-commerce sites. These brands are aspirational, so onsite conversion may always be low, but the experience of browsing the collections should be visually tantalising, exuding luxury and serving to remind shoppers why they aspire to own their pieces. Burberry does an exceptional job here: this trench coat product page shows us exactly what we want to see -  the lining, the material type magnified, multiple views of the model wearing the iconic coat. Contrast that with this Chanel calfskin pump product shot (that’s the only product image you get) and it’s easy to see that some experiences feel somewhat lacking.

  1. Remember mobile shoppers in your paid search campaigns. Mobile shoppers have less time, so make sure your PPC ads require the minimum effort possible to access the pages they are really looking for. Experiment with landing head terms on your most popular product pages, make sure sitelinks are deeplinked to your best selling products. Making the mobile experience seamless and convenient will make sure customers return when they’re next on the go.

3. Joining the dots

Time for the buzzword du-jour: omnichannel. For some, omnichannel is “[Marketing your business] across as many channels as it can to reach the target audience”.  To others, its “cross channel being done well”. I would argue the latter is a far more appropriate definition of the two, based on being done well.

Omnichannel is not about ticking boxes. This is particularly challenging for luxury fashion, because certain channels come in and out of season in terms of when they are appropriate to the brand.

All brands need to ask questions about which marketing channels are appropriate for them and when, but luxury brands arguably have a lot more to lose. For example, running a generic PPC campaign may only be profitable during the summer sale. A display prospecting campaign might only feel appropriate during gifting season. If your TV ads are only about perfume, should your YouTube ads mirror this? And, obviously, what about Instagram?

Instagram has become the “water cooler of the fashion community”. It offers the perfect setting for aspirational brands to deliver exclusive access and premium content as well as providing an almost unique opportunity for brand affiliation to grow completely organically and legitimately. Instagram holds the unrivalled potential for free, effective marketing. The dream! Yet it also provides extremely thin ice on which luxury brands have to walk on - trying too hard to attract followers or likes is extremely last season and would cause huge damage to the exclusivity of a luxury brand. For luxury brands, similarly to Instagram, image is everything.

Tips for winning at omnichannel

Before investing in any marketing channel, be absolutely clear on the objectives. If Instagram is valuable for brand affinity, what does success look like? If you’re investing heavily in PPC, is your target ROI the same for brand campaigns as for generic? Avoid the “tick-box” temptation by defining exactly what the goals are: growth, profitability or awareness? Be specific and selective - both with marketing channels and targeting criteria. Sometimes, not being somewhere might work better than being there. Make the most of new targeting and reporting functionalities to avoid wasting investment for the sake of vanity - read more about Facebook’s Power Editor tools that you might have missed previously in Tim Allen’s post.

In summary

Luxury brands represent a unique beast for advertising and digital performance. Firstly, the shift to “online” rattled brand owners with a shift to online considered tasteless and risky. Secondly new business models like Net-a-Porter disrupted the marketplace and did what brand owners weren’t doing. Next, mobile and social fragmented the entire online experience and customer search behavior became unrecognisable in a matter of two or three years.

It’s possible that luxury brands will enjoy more in-store retention over time than high street retailers, thanks to the value of their in-store experience (the “San Pellegrino moments”). But they can’t count on that for long.

I think the biggest challenge for luxury brands is being brave enough to invest in understanding before investing in solutions. By this I mean starting from the ground up with their approach to “online”. This might mean totally re-evaluating website functionality before investing in channels like paid search. That’s a daunting prospect, but the reality is that customers have moved on from bricks and mortar and taking a step back to understand where sites are falling short is crucial for future proofing. Collecting qualitative and quantitative data as shown in the Topshop Qubit case study highlights minimum-input, maximum-effect changes to start with.

If you’ve faced any of the challenges discussed here for some of your clients or your business, share how you tackled them in the comments below! And feel free to get in touch with questions and further comments.

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