NEW YORK, United States — Each May, the world’s leading luxury fashion houses present their cruise shows with elaborate marketing spectacles often staged in far-flung locations and attended by a travelling herd of industry insiders, celebrities and, for the past decade or so, a flock of digital influencers and bloggers. Budgets range anywhere from $2 million to over $10 million.
Is it worth the investment? The short answer is maybe. Success can be measured in earned media value: what it would otherwise cost to buy the impressions driven by these events and their PR, influencer and social media amplification strategies.
In May 2017, when Chanel, Dior, Gucci and Louis Vuitton held cruise shows in Paris, Los Angeles, Florence and Kyoto respectively, Gucci’s presentation outpaced competitors — even Chanel, which has a larger social media following — clocking over $63 million in earned media value, up 170 percent year-over-year for the month, according to marketing firm Tribe Dynamics. Of the four, Louis Vuitton came in last place, generating $25 million in earned media value, a 31 percent decrease year-over-year for the month.
But even Gucci pales in comparison to Anastasia Beverly Hills, one of the hottest beauty brands on the internet, which generated $90 million in earned media value in the same month — and that without spending untold millions on a splashy cruise event.
It's not an apples-to-apples correlation, of course. Beauty drives digital conversion more naturally than luxury ready-to-wear or accessories because it is accessible to a far wider audience. Beauty products lend themselves more readily to conversations about which products to use and how to apply them. (Consider the popularity of YouTube makeup tutorials, which can garner millions of views and thousands of comments.) They're also relatively more affordable, which means it's easier to convert engagement to an actual purchase. In the first six months of 2017, the world’s top five beauty brands generated a total of $1.9 billion in earned media value, $688 million more than the top five luxury fashion brands.
The gap between the earned media impact of beauty and luxury fashion brands should be no surprise to anyone following the rise of independent beauty brands like the aforementioned Anastasia Beverly Hills and Colourpop, which have disrupted incumbents, in part, by dominating the digital conversation. They nurture relationships with thousands of micro-influential consumers by sending them products, inviting them to events, introducing them to executives and celebrating their personal and professional accomplishments.
With luxury, there is hesitation to get into a media format that you don’t have a lot of control over.
By contrast, luxury fashion brands have been slow to use the same approach because they have rich histories with which to contend, something many of these newer, more successful beauty lines don't need to worry about protecting. Therefore, luxury brands are less willing to trust outsiders to play a significant role in their marketing efforts. And when they do, they focus on a select group of established macro-influencers, such as Chiara Ferragni, Aimee Song and Bryan Grey Yambao, also known as BryanBoy — each with well over 100,000 followers on Instagram and documented histories of staying on message.
Luxury brands are historically much less willing to cultivate relationships with unproven, smaller-scale personalities who often have more impact on their followers than macro-influencers: according to influencer tracking company Markerly, engagement decreases as audience size increases, and users with 10,000 to 100,000 followers offer the best combination of engagement and reach.
“With luxury, there is hesitation to get into a media format that you don’t have a lot of control over…to embrace this community of people that are creating content, that really are the new publishers and editors and bring them into the fold,” says Conor Begley, co-founder and president of Tribe Dynamics. “But the frank reality is that you don’t have a choice anymore.”
By largely failing to engage and steer the digital conversation at scale, luxury fashion brands have, in fact, relinquished control. “The audience is just talking about the brand in the way they see fit,” explains Thomas Rankin, co-founder of visual marketing intelligence platform Dash Hudson. “And now certain luxury brands are almost embarrassed by the conversation that has happened from the audience.”
The growing volume of social media activity is increasingly drowning out official brand communications, making it harder and harder for marketers without strong influencer strategies to get their message across. “Every year you see 50 percent more photos being shared and you’re seeing engagement drop 10 percent year-over-year,” says Rankin. “If you don’t have an audience that has deep connections with other people, you can’t compete, even if you continue to increase the amount you put out in the ecosystem. You essentially start to disappear unless you dump billions of dollars into advertising.”
According to Tribe Dynamics, the top influencer driving the conversation on luxury products is the popular — and controversial — singer-songwriter, model and make-up artist Jeffree Star, who has over 500 million views on YouTube and almost five million followers on Instagram. "[Star] is talking not just about the beauty brands, but also the fashion apparel and accessories products," says Begley, recalling a meeting in which representatives from one luxury house told him they didn’t want to be associated with Star, although he was already driving more conversation about the brand than anyone else.
"[Star] is shaping the perceived messaging. [Luxury houses] don’t have to make him the face of their brand, but this is a new wave of publishers that you have to manage and work with....Think about this as PR," he continues. "How have you treated editors in the past? You got product into their hands pre-release. You built relationships with these people and created experiences that shaped their view of the brand."
Forging genuinely reciprocal relationships with emerging influencers is key. “You, as a brand, can have a tangible impact on the careers of these influencers,” says Begley. Brands can share select content created by influencers in their communities for mutual benefit. Anastasia Beverly Hills built its impressive Instagram following of 14.3 million by reposting images from its community of followers. Frequency is also important. The brand posts roughly five times more than its competitors, according to business intelligence firm L2.
Influencer product collaborations also work. Take Becca’s partnership with vlogger Jaclyn Hill on the brand’s Champagne Pop highlighter, which sold out four hours after it launched in 2015 and was the brand’s best selling product when Estée Lauder bought Becca in 2016 for an estimated $200 million.
All that being said, luxury brands will always have to balance protecting their legacies with the inherent risks of influencer marketing. It makes optimising the relationship between the influencer and the luxury house more challenging. “There has to be a sense of humour or wit in order to speak to the consumers these days because there are so many brands,” advises Erin Kleinberg, co-founder of the digital and social media marketing and branding agency Métier Creative. “It’s also important to relate to the individual on a level that they would relate to one of their friends, while still maintaining elevation that ignites an emotion in someone to tag a friend and hopefully take the consumer down the path to eventual shopping.”