Is Burberry’s Digital Prowess Really Waning?

Burberry April Showers Accessories | Source: Burberry

LONDON, United Kingdom — For years, digital media experts and observers, including those on this website, have held up Burberry as an example of a luxury fashion brand that’s effectively embracing today’s digital world.

Last year, Joanna Shields, Vice President EMEA for Facebook, the world’s largest social network now with more than 700 million registered users, took that one step further. “Burberry is no longer just a fashion company — today they are a thriving media enterprise,” she said. “Burberry is now the most widely followed fashion brand on Facebook. It’s successful not just because it makes great clothes but because it understands the importance of sparking interest in the community and using social media to engage and delight their consumers.”

Of course, Facebook has its own reasons for promoting brands who have enthusiastically adopted its platform, but there is no doubt that with more than 6.5 million Facebook fans and an impressive array of digital initiatives, Burberry’s reputation as one of the world’s most sophisticated digital operators has now become a core part of its brand DNA.

So, I was surprised to receive a pre-release email from New York’s L2 thinktank about their new ‘Facebook IQ’ report that ranks Burberry 49th amongst 100 prestige brands, giving them an overall rating of ‘Average’. Only 8 months ago, the same organisation rated Burberry as ‘Genius’ in its annual Digital IQ index.

Is Burberry’s digital prowess really waning?

“One of eight minutes spent on the Internet is on Facebook,” writes L2 founder Scott Galloway in the report’s introduction. “The platform’s velocity of adoption is unprecedented, and as it gets bigger, it grows faster, both in number of users and time spent.” But Galloway goes on to knock prestige brands for “maintaining a monocular focus on the size of their Facebook community,” saying “they have failed to embrace the authentic two-way communication and marketing activation required to monetize the platform.”

These are fair criticisms of many luxury brands who have been overly focused on the race for fans rather than embracing the radical mindset changes necessitated by the rise of digital and social media. As I wrote back in February, too many brands are focused on the surface of social media as a marketing tool, without thinking more deeply about how to support core business objectives.

L2 told the FT’s Vanessa Friedman, who was also caught by surprise, that Burberry was penalised, amongst other reasons, “because it is one of the 20 percent of brands that does not allow fans to post on its wall, suggesting they aren’t yet ready to abandon command and control, because… the brand does not allow fans to upload photos or videos to its Facebook page, and because it doesn’t respond to fans or maintain any two-way communication.”

That’s a mouthful, and indeed, most of the report’s accounting of Burberry’s behaviour on Facebook is factually correct. The trouble with this kind of checklist methodology, however, is that it takes a one-size-fits-all approach, lumping brands together from across a number of sectors — automobiles, beauty, fashion, champagne — and assuming that they should all tick the same boxes, regardless of the differences in their underlying business strategies, price points, brand positioning, and product portfolios, which may actually necessitate different kinds of consumer engagement, across different kinds of media.

Despite its undeniable importance, considering Facebook separately from other channels of communication is a questionable way of evaluating success, digital or otherwise. Today, we are living in a multichannel environment where a consumer may first see a product in a magazine, research it online, purchase it in a bricks-and-mortar store, complain about it on Twitter or Facebook, and ultimately have their issue resolved over the telephone. A brand’s engagement with consumers lives across all of these touchpoints, for which different brands will, by necessity, pursue different strategies.

Take Tory Burch, for example, which was rated ‘Genius’ by the L2 report, making it the top ranked fashion brand. Positioned as an accessible fashion brand, Tory Burch products typically cost less than $500, making them readily affordable for many consumers, and accessible even to those who are only able to splurge once in a while. Part of what defines the brand is its openness, as personified by its aspirational but accessible founder who tweets from her travels, sharing experiences from her day-to-day life.

The Tory Burch Facebook page allows consumers to post to its page, even if this does not always shed a positive light on the brand or its products.

“I love your products but the quality is like a cheap chinese (sic) knock off,” writes one Facebook user, Yun Kum Collins. Other fan posts on the noisy Tory Burch page include an appeal for anti-stalking laws, a photograph of a broken Tory Burch shoe, and questions about potential Tory Burch counterfeit sites. Some, but not all, of these comments are addressed by referring consumers to a Tory Burch email address or providing links where more information can be found.

Burberry, on the other hand, has taken a different tack. A spokesperson told BoF: “Engagement on Facebook for us is not driven by replying to comments — we do that better via click to chat on or via our customer service which engages on a personalised one to one basis. We engage fans on Facebook via one of our key strengths, content.”

Burberry is using its Facebook page as a mechanism for creating social objects, to be engaged with, shared, discussed and propagated by its fans, as opposed to using it as a primary customer service channel. In this way it is less about a “two-way” conversation between a brand and its fans and more about inspiring engagement and conversation with and amongst the fans themselves.

“Our fans are the benchmark for us,” continued the spokesperson. “The growth indicates they are engaged and sharing with their friends. We also look at how long they spend on the site, how much they spend viewing and commenting with all the different content and then move between our various platforms in a truly cross-platform, sharing community.”

This is not to say that effective handling of customer complaints is not important, just that for Burberry, Facebook may not be the best place to do so, especially with its complex hierarchy of sub-brands, product lines and price points.

Of course, this raises questions about Burberry’s openness. Doesn’t social media require that all brands be completely open all the time now? Not necessarily. Sophisticated luxury brands are generating consumer intrigue and excitement by being both open and closed, opening themselves up to consumers in some channels but also stepping back behind the veil to maintain some mystery in others.

Both Tory Burch and Burberry seem to think Facebook is an important platform, but are using it different ways, linked not just to the scale of their businesses and specific brand positioning, but also vis-a-vis the other channels through which they interact with their consumers. Does this really make one brand more genius than the other?

Part of the reason for creating these kinds of rankings, of course, is to spark a debate, and in this, L2 have clearly succeeded. As emails, blogs and tweets were exchanged amongst the digital fashion community debating the report’s validity last week, it brought into focus some of the key issues facing luxury and fashion brands as we enter a new phase of this digital revolution. If the first phase was mostly about adoption of and education about social media, the next phase will focus on strategic and creative execution to achieve business objectives.

Consider this BoF’s contribution to the debate. Things are only going to get more interesting. Burberry may have to revise its Facebook strategy if, as expected, fan posts on public pages become mandatory as of this August. It will be interesting to see how the posts of 6.5 million fans change the dynamic of the brand’s Facebook presence.

Imran Amed is founder and editor of The Business of Fashion

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  1. Doest anyone actually read that report? In no other industry would anyone think that his “research” is legitimate research. It’s a combination of opinions from weak at best “experts” and is always changing.

    The whole thing is a joke. Show me how anything in his report ties to anything actionable: Brand Affinity, Sales, Brand Awareness.

    It’s completely unfounded opinions from an academic with no real life experience in retail or digital. its terrible and a shame that its even allowed to be published.

    james mcladden from New York, NY, United States
  2. Just a personal opinion, but allowing fans to post on a brand/page’s wall usually leads to endless amounts of spam. When I visit a brand’s page and see nothing but fans posting “check out my blog” or “I’m a photographer” or (worst of all) “buy designer sunglasses at” it really cheapens the experience for me.

    If Burberry has 6.5 M fans then opening up fan commenting would be begging for this kind of spam, so I understand why they don’t do it. As long as users can comment on page posts I think the engagement factor is still there.

  3. @james, if I’m not mistaken the academic behind the report actually did start an e-commerce business, so no experience in retail or digital is a stretch.
    That said, this was measuring execution on a specific platform, and while everyone will always have different criteria for what constitutes influence or best practice, you have to start with criteria beyond looking at who’s biggest. Lady Gaga is more popular/influential online than Barack Obama. That doesn’t mean she’s more powerful than the President, even if she’s more popular in a certain area.
    I see this as something similar. Maybe online as a whole, Burberry is more powerful even if another brand is executing better than they are on Facebook. How much is that worth? That’s a good case for a different study, but doesn’t make this one worthless.
    @AlexP I think that once brands get past the gurus, that’s what real social media expertise will be about: how to keep the conversations on track in a situation where so many voices are present. Facebook’s own filtering will become important too. Right now, the most popular conversations (not necessarily most recent) make their way to the top. For high end brands, ensuring that conversations around important brand points are also the ones where the most interaction is taking place will be the challenge.

  4. As much as I appreciate and acknowledge the time and energy that was put into the research from L2 and Scott Galloway (both of whom I follow), the final report does appear to have a major flaw – not all brands that are active in SM can be ranked against the same criteria. It is also fair to say that the headline of this article is somewhat sensationalist and will certainly get a lot of people’s/brands’ backs up.

    In line with the sentiment of healthy debate, I agree with HeyitsAlexP with his reference to allowing large brands to have open walls does lend itself to spam and certainly cheapens the experience. It is also worth noting that Lady Gaga does not allow fans to post on her wall either.

    As someone who works with high profile international brands on a daily basis, and often consulting on digital brand management, it would also be my recommendation for Burberry, a brand with a large Millennial fanbase and over 6.5m fans, to disable their public wall. For any brand positioning themselves as luxury, a spam-free community is a must.

    If it does become a prerequisite implemented in August to have an open wall, and pages were set to change to make this a necessity for all brands, then Burberry would need to add a ‘House Rules’ tab, as Coca-Cola does, and implement tighter community management (which has cost implications) to ensure the removal of spamming, random wall posts that are off topic, swearing, nude photos etc. As AlexP mentions, FB’s on filtering will be key to this too.

    In summary, I am wholly for an integrated digital management approach and Facebook is far from being the focal point of engagement. Brand engagement takes place best with a specialist interest community, as opposed to a generalist interest community, which is what FB is. So is their digital prowess waning? No. Are they being digitally brand-savvy? Yes. Are they ensuring that the relevant comms (PR versus customer service) are taking place via the relevant separate channels to avoid unnecessary human resource and overlap? Clearly.

    Nik Thakkar

  5. This is BOF at its best – an excellent article Imran, couldn’t agree with you more.

    Burberry have clearly done something right in this space and their sheer number of fans across all platforms (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, etc) suggests that.

    As a brand owner I’d personally take 6.5 million people who’ve actively accepted to receive my brands message, than a number one ranking on a report any day.

    Lex D from London, London, United Kingdom
  6. The report is overstating the importance of comments for a huge brand like Facebook. Why doesn’t the brand take into account luxury email marketing? If Burberry have loads of email subscribers taking in their content, I think that matters more than people simply liking their Facebook page.

    As Burberry showed this year with their financial performance so far, their digital strategy is clearly working.

  7. The article states that Burberry “doesn’t respond to fans or maintain any two-way communication,” yet Christopher Bailey has posted multiple videos responding to questions from Facebook and Twitter followers. Also, as many others have stated above, a brand so large would cheapen their image if their wall was littered with spam. So I think having Christopher himself interact and post videos is probably the best balance a luxury brand could have.

    Kate from New York, NY, United States
  8. Really great article, I was also wondering about this study especially because a separate study from AdWeek shows that luxury brands garner larger audiences with much less effort than non-luxury brands. But I think both studies need to translate either fan volume or fan interaction into results. How did these companies perform financially, what portion was due to social media efforts, and how much did they spend on those efforts relative to the results they generated?

    Summary table for the AdWeek study:

  9. I partially agree with James Mcladden, this reports seems more speculative than empiric.

    This is instantly obvious when looking at the methodology of the report where “number of likes” (as part of a larger group of elements) is more important than “SEO visibility” in the point scoring system; number of likes can be bought by investing media budget and can go as low as £0.20 per like, so large brands are more likely to have a bigger following. So probably not the best benchmark of social success.

    What I find extremely short sighted is the fact that Facebook is simply a platform, and, even though there are best practice rules, each brand should use it to achieve its own objectives and safeguard its own reputation.

    So a high end fashion brand like Burberry should have a completely different strategy to Benefit, Johnny Walker or in fact Tory Burch and they certainly do which means that, to answer to the article’s title, they certainly haven’t lost their digital prowess.

    Annalisa from London, London, United Kingdom
  10. I was surprised to receive a pr-release email from New York’s L2 think-tank about their new ‘Facebook IQ’ report that ranks Burberry 49th amongst 100 prestige brands, giving them an overall rating of ‘Average’. Only 8 months ago, the same organization rated Burberry as ‘Genius’ in its annual Digital IQ index.

    Jasmine from Milan, Lombardy, Italy
  11. Does anyone really look at posts by others on brand pages? It seems like a non issue.

    Michelle Mccormack from Winchester, MA, United States