When Amy Claire tried to start a fashion line two years ago, she found it a disillusioning experience that left her feeling taken advantage of by showrooms and boutiques.
So when she tried again this spring she took a different route: launching digitally first. Claire started with a website and small online shop and set about building a fan base. For that she turned to Launch Collective, a New York-based marketing consultancy specializing in emerging designers, which devised a highly targeted Facebook marketing campaign to start generating buzz about the 29-year-old designer.
Six months later Claire has found a showroom -- HH Productions -- she's pleased with, and her eponymous collection is poised to hit retail stores next spring. "It takes a long time to launch a brand," she says, "but with online media the word has spread, which is extremely helpful for every aspect of starting the brand. It's been a better route, and more helpful for business relationships."
Affinity marketing on Facebook
In the entertainment industry, movie projects and music groups are usually pitched as "X meets Y" -- say, for example, "Jersey Shore" meets "The Sound of Music." Fashion is similar, says Launch Collective CEO Martin Zagorsek, but is even more precise, since movies and CDs cost the same, but fashion brands do not.
In retail stores, customers get to know new brands by the similar ones they're positioned next to on the sales floor. Replicating that process on the Internet is difficult, Zagorsek says. "But it's important because that's still how people think of brands: Where do I put them in my shop? Is this the next Chanel or Forever 21? And people don't take the price point at face value until they see some other cues."
One of the most crucial cues for the positioning of a new brand is its style of photography, the chief means of fashion marketing for more than half a century.
So when Launch Collective set about introducing Amy Claire to the Facebook community, it opted for an affinity marketing campaign using highly specific display ads with a certain style of photography. The ads were targeted to a select audience of people who "liked" a similar set of higher end, young contemporary designers, including Philip Lim and Alexander Wang, who sell dresses in the $500 range.
The campaign ran for three months to a targeted audience of 50,000. The goal was to build a fan base for Amy Claire -- to show the media, showrooms and retailers that she had a following -- and when the campaign was over Amy Claire had 700 Facebook fans. This was enough to get her picked up by an established showroom and featured on the website dailycandy.com.
"The biggest barrier for new designers is that no retailer wants to be the first," says Zagorsek. "Facebook is a nice inexpensive way to demonstrate an audience for a brand to a retailer or online sales channel." Though Facebook fans tend not to purchase products, Zagorsek notes, a Facebook affinity marketing program is a cost-effective way of generating buzz, "a tiny fraction of what it would have cost us to run general display advertising, or even a cost-per-click ad."
The rise of digital video
Social media is just one of the technology tools Launch Collective uses to get new designers started on their way. Another top trend is the growing use of digital video, Zagorsek says, which has come to play a strong supporting role to glossy print images, the chief form of fashion marketing. "The biggest challenge with clothes and the reason why people pay so much for them, is you want people to feel a certain way when they put them on," Zagorsek says. "It's not a functional thing and that fantasy world you create, the digital video medium has opened that up to a really wide range of brands, because technology has made it so inexpensive to create and distribute."
Gant, originally founded in New Haven, CT, in 1949 and now owned by Stockholm-based Gant AB, has increasingly relied on digital video over the past several seasons.
"We've found that three-minute videos are the fastest and most efficient way to communicate our message," says Douglas Geller, director of marketing and public relations for Gant USA. Younger consumers, he adds, respond more quickly to video than still photography, and Gant gets the strongest response from heritage-based films that convey a vibe more than clothing detail. "With video you can dance around the subject [the clothes] but still communicate a message," he says.
Shot at the same time as Gant's still photography, digital video serves multiple marketing purposes. Lifestyle videos are shown to buyers during market week, even for seasons 6-12 months out. "Not many brands are able to do this, where they plan so far in advance," says Geller, "so that sets us apart." As the new season approaches, the videos are shown to the press, and then the consumer, both in-store as well as online at Gant.com, on the company's Facebook page, and on YouTube. "Digital video is certainly the best new tool for communications," says Geller. "It's certainly cost effective and it pays off."
In addition to being low cost, digital video working in tandem with the Internet creates instant customer feedback via comments, tweets and Facebook likes. "The thing I love about all these new digital tools is that you get immediate reactions from people," says Geller, "and you can see from the people who love your brand the most exactly why they love it. It's a whole new world of customer response and really understanding them."
Tweets and apps
Companies eager to exploit the instant gratification of social media will have greater opportunity to spend ad dollars with Twitter. Convinced of Twitter's effectiveness, the company is now focusing on growing revenues, according to remarks by new CEO Dick Costolo at Advertising Week, held in September in New York. Twitter had tested its marketing reach with about 30 companies in its Promoted Tweets program, and plans to grow that number to 100 by year's end. Twitter also offers advertising programs through Promoted Trends and its newest, Promoted Accounts.
iPhone apps are another innovative marketing platform for companies with big enough budgets to develop them. Victoria's Secret debuted its app in November 2009, and released a revamped version this August. The app allows a customer to browse victoriassecret.com from her mobile iPhone, and, when inside a Victoria's Secret retail store, to scan barcodes to help find and purchase items unavailable in the customer's size.
"The barcode scanning feature also unlocks exclusive content, including never-before-seen behind-the-scenes photos and videos," said the company in a release. "A share function makes it easy for users to send emails to their friends and post VS photos, videos and stories directly to their favorite social networking sites, and an advanced GPS-enabled store located enables customers to easily find their nearest Victoria's Secret store."
A satisfying mobile experience
But mobile technology is not something to jump into hastily -- at least not for LL Bean. "Going to llbean.com -- as well as to everyone else's sites -- using a browser on your iPhone is very complicated and cumbersome," says senior public relations representative Laurie Brooks, who oversees LL Bean's social media efforts. Currently LL Bean caters to mobile shoppers at the URL m.llbean.com, but the microsite only includes product ratings and reviews. "Eventually we'd like to have a simple mobile shopping site," Brooks says, "which wouldn't be an app you download, but just a site you access with any browser on your smart phone."
But LL Bean is taking its time, looking at multiple vendors and possible designs for its mobile site. Citing an article she read recently, Brooks says, "If a retailer puts out an app and it's not spectacular and the functionality isn't there, it's actually going to hurt the retailer more than help. So you want to make sure you have the best-possible customer service experience, and that's what LL Bean is concerned about. We don't want to put out something quickly, we want to make sure it's customer friendly and easy for everyone with a smart phone to access."
But when it comes to social media, established brands such as LL Bean benefit just as much as emerging designers such as Amy Claire. LL Bean maintains pages on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, and sees them as performing different functions in its marketing strategy. With Facebook, most fans interact with the brand by seeing its posts in their news feed, rather than actually going to the brand's page. "So what you have to be careful of as a brand is filling up your fansââââ¬Å¡¬ËÅâ‚¬Å" news feeds too much, because then they'll unlike you. It's a fine balance in communicating."
By contrast, Twitter followers are voracious consumers of news. "People want instant information, advance notices, and being in on the latest and greatest," says Brooks, who will often take a snapshot of a product sample and post it on Twitter as a sneak peak, only to find that fashion bloggers quickly spread the news.
For its YouTube channel, LL Bean has an in-house photographer/videographer, who has created some 70 videos so far this year. Many are useful how-to clips about the company's outdoor gear, such as tents and kayaks, and end up not only on YouTube, but at llbean.com on the pages of relevant products.
" 'How-to' is one of the most searched terms on YouTube," Brooks notes.
Christian Chensvold is a New York-based free-lancer who writes about men's fashion and the apparel industry. He also runs the blog Ivy-Style.com.