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Think BR: Luxury brands and the social media dilemma

Luxury brands using social media have to walk the tightrope between accessibility and exclusivity, writes Jane Simmonds, managing partner of Conran Design Group.

Jane Simmonds, managing partner of Conran Design Group and founder member of Havas Design+

Jane Simmonds, managing partner of Conran Design Group and founder member of Havas Design+

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From live streaming runway shows to creating exclusive online networks, the world of luxury fashion is in the throes of a radical 21st century style makeover.

As customers, media and celebrities have embraced social media, the luxury brands have had to respond, but for these companies their journey into the digital age poses dangers to their brands as well as new opportunities.

These luxury brands need to strike a fine balance between growing their band of digital followers and maintaining that all-important element of luxury: exclusivity.

London, Paris, Milan and New York might be the historic hubs of fashion but proximity is fast becoming less important.

Runway fashion shows - once the exclusive pleasure of a select few fashionistas - are now watched by thousands via live online streams, with no fewer than 40 designers at New York Fashion Week streaming live videos of their shows online, illustrating just how common the practice has become, and quickly.

During its spring/summer 2011 runway show at London Fashion Week, Burberry went one step further by making it possible for customers to order pieces online in real-time.

The English heritage brand’s Art of the Trench blog, a photo-sharing website dedicated to images of people sporting their trench coat, has been a major success and has been visited millions of times, but crucially it keeps the element of exclusivity, by being only available to those who own the product.

Burberry is not alone however. It’s also a measure of the effort luxury houses are putting in to connect with existing and aspirational customers to boost engagement and loyalty.

Technology makes it easier than ever for them to do so and some luxury brands are even venturing bravely into the world of smartphone applications.

Ralph Lauren, for example, has developed apps for its Ralph Lauren Collection and Rugby brands, enabling customers get details on recent shows, view video highlights of catwalk shows, explore collections, or - in the case of the Rugby app - customise their own shirt, rate other users’ styles, and purchase their customised designs.

Engagement and improved brand loyalty are the ultimate aims of these ventures, and Facebook and Twitter are popular platforms amongst luxury brands.

Dolce & Gabbana has over 3.5 million Facebook fans, while Burberry boasts almost 10 million. Lagging behind, Prada has almost 825,000 Facebook fans.

Large numbers of followers are helping to keep luxury brands front of mind but are not the answer to keeping their customers loyal.

Luxury brand customers want to be made to feel special and the challenge is to provide these followers with customised and exclusive content.

The pop-up shop craze has been a perfect opportunity for brands to target their most special customers and provide them with a tangible experience.

Increased, intelligent and stylish use of online customisation is the key for luxury brands to continue to successfully walk the tightrope between desired accessibility by all and exclusivity for the few... to look inviting to all but to be for their loyal audience the online equivalent of the store manager who greets his best customers by name and has their personal preferences front of mind as soon as they cross the threshold.

Jane Simmonds, managing partner of Conran Design Group and founder member of Havas Design+

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