At Internet Week NY, It's All About the Brand

By Jessica Binns, Contributing Editor — May 17, 2012

Thousands of professionals converged on SoHo for Internet Week New York May 14-18, where seasoned advertising, marketing and brand development executives discussed the state and future of social media and nurturing the brand ecosystem.

Representatives from Donna Karan International, Kate Spade New York and Bergdorf Goodman — each an All Star from the 2012 Fashion 2.0 Awards — shared their social media strategies and insisted that, at least for now, their social presences are not linked to ROI. Indeed, Lindsay Knaak-Stuart, director of marketing strategy for Kate Spade, says, "You can't be an innovator if you're strapped to the wallet of your CEO."

That approach to business has enabled Knaak-Stuart and her team to try new and different things — with varying success rates. The company experimented with social shopping company sneakpeeq, which gave visitors to katespade.com a "sneak peek" at handbags at significant discounts, with those prices only available for a brief window of time. Knaak-Stuart was initially enthusiastic about the technology — "I thought it could be the next Facebook," she says — but the effort turned out to be a flop. "We only sold about three bags," she adds. By contrast, the brand's Holiday 2011/2012 "surprise ball" campaign was a ringing success. "It was the first time our print team and digital team came together and executed across all mediums," says Knaak-Stuart.

Aliza Licht, senior vice president of global communications for Donna Karan International, manages the company's presence on Twitter. She says she doesn't think about things like measuring the ROI of being on the social platform. "I'm a community manager," she explains, adding that tweeting about what the brand is up to "comes from a place of passion. It's brand evangelism I'm after. It's not about the click-through rates. A consumer is more hyperaware of the brand because they see it in an environment where they like to be." Licht describes success as getting the brand's followers to sustain a conversation that she started. When that happens, "I want to cry," she says. "They're doing my job for me."

Bergdorf Goodman can be intimidating and overwhelming as a brand, says social media manager Cannon Tekstar Hodge, so the company got on Facebook a few years ago to help change that perception, aiming to establish a voice on that platform that comes across as "friendly. We think of our Facebook page as a party." For Tekstar Hodge, social media ROI is bigger than numbers and dollars. "We want to see passion," she explains. "We want see what excites our followers or what makes them angry."

Although the typical Bergdorf Goodman shopper is a mature female, Tekstar Hodge says there's value in engaging younger women who may not be able to afford the store's price points, but who aspire to in the future. "Social is about talking and connecting — that's what this digital space is for," she adds. Bergdorf Goodman currently is unable to tie Facebook users to actual brand customers.

Recreating retail
There's an arms race among retailers toward omnichannel operations, says True Fit Corporation co-founder and vice president of product marketing Romney Evans. On the other hand, just 10 percent of consumers are shopping for apparel online, according to Jaidev Shergill, CEO of Bundle.com, a company that analyzes data to find out where consumers shop and eat. One way to encourage shoppers to become more comfortable with buying clothes on the web is to put on ecommerce websites all of the metrics and data that's available in offline channels, he says. Evans says the opposite is also true. "Retailers need to leverage the rich dynamic content that's online and bring it into the store," he adds.

The best brands and retailers are blending the digital and physical worlds, according to Digital Brand Architects co-founder and managing director Kendra Bracken Ferguson, citing Burberry, which allows fans to vote online for their favorite runway pieces, with the winners then carried in stores. And to keep a competitive edge, retailers should differentiate their store experiences. Nordstrom, for example, arms its store associates with styling tips from celebrity stylist Rachel Zoe, says Lindsay Wallner, vice president, Zoe Media Group.

Brick-and-mortar retailers can't escape the increasing phenomenon of "showrooming," where consumers visit a store to evaluate products before making their purchases elsewhere — and often online for less. Whether companies view showrooming as a threat or opportunity is up to them, says Evans. "Everyone wants the tactile sensation of experiencing the product," says Andrew Schmidt, who manages global digital business development for PUMA, adding that retailers should embrace showrooming. "You want to control the consumer experience. Give them an incentive to stay in your channel instead of going to a competitor."

Bracken-Ferguson points to emerging retail concepts such as pop-up stores stocked not with physical goods but shoppable QR codes. By offering virtual inventory in an inviting space, smaller brands and retailers can use this approach to reach new audiences without investing a lot of capital.

The antidote to personalization: shut down your website
What's more, the vast store of data available through Facebook's Open Graph will help companies understand what customers love, like and lust, adds Kendra-Bracken. At some point in the future, when brands and retailers have mastered the art of targeting, "we will stop finding products, and products will start finding us," says Shergill. This is already happening to some extent; Shopcade, a social shopping application on Facebook, encourages users to share products they like. Additional products are then pushed to users, based on what they've shared in the past.

Although personalization is a big area of focus for marketers these days, Shergill cautions that too much of such specificity could result in a "narrow view of the world." Wallner agrees. "The antidote to personalization? Shut down your website," she says, tongue-in-cheek.

"If you personalize too much, you lose the lifestyle aspect of a brand," she says.

While Facebook is an established platform for brand awareness and engagement, Facebook commerce is an unproven model, according to Shergill. And although Bracken-Ferguson says there are a lot of good fragmented digital strategies happening but not many well-developed holistic approaches, she points to Tory Burch as a brand that's doing it right. She cites the example of one consumer who didn't like the brand — she particularly hated the logo — but after reading and enjoying Tory's blog, she was compelled to stop by a store one day, and walked out a brand convert a few hundred dollars later.

It's anecdotes like these that may explain why Donna Karan's Licht says of social media, "I can feel the ROI."

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