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Should Fashion Break Up With Big Tech?

Bottega Veneta recently pulled the plug on its social media accounts, but brands and marketing experts say it’s difficult, if not impossible, to replicate the reach of social platforms and search engines like Facebook and Google in other channels.
Influencers with Bottega Veneta handbags | Source: @handinfire

Many fashion brands and their customers have the same New Year’s resolution: spend less time on social media.

Bottega Veneta, the white-hot Italian luxury label whose social media profiles counted millions of followers, went dark earlier this month, deleting its Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages without warning. The decision was hailed as refreshing by Vogue and GQ, among others. The brand did not respond to BoF’s requests for comment.

Whether a permanent strategic shift or a publicity stunt, Bottega’s social media blackout spoke to a conundrum faced by fashion brands big and small: they need social media more than ever as the pandemic makes it harder to reach potential consumers in-person. But they are increasingly uneasy about having to talk to their customers via Facebook and Google.

“When you’re shopping, Amazon controls the menus. When you do a search, it’s their search engine, they give you the list of choices,” said Roger McNamee, founding partner, Elevation Partners, during BoF VOICES 2020. “In doing so, they can drive choices. This goes past trendsetting. They’re picking the winner.”

That unease has manifested into a full-on backlash against the biggest platforms. More than 1,000 companies temporarily stopped advertising on Facebook over the summer to protest what they saw as inadequate efforts to ban extremist groups from posting and advertising. In October, US lawmakers grilled Facebook, Twitter and Google executives about how their platforms handle censorship, extremism and misinformation.

Earlier that month, the US Justice Department filed a lawsuit against Google, alleging the company uses its search engine’s overwhelming market share to stifle competition. The Wall Street Journal reported in late December that Facebook and Google agreed to an advertising price-fixing scheme. The Federal Trade Commission accused Facebook of acquiring competitors to maintain a social media monopoly, raising the possibility that the company could someday be forced to separate from Instagram. Facebook declined BoF’s request for comment.

Meanwhile, big tech’s share of the ad market only continues to grow. Digital advertising on platforms including Amazon, Facebook and Google is expected to make up 61 percent of the overall advertising market this year, double its share in 2015, according to media buying agency Group M.

What does all this mean for fashion? In the short run, not much. The fact is, many founders and marketing experts say it’s difficult, if not impossible for most brands to replicate the reach of social media and search through other channels.

“In our experience operating a small e-commerce business, there isn’t really a way to avoid big tech,” said Jennifer Chung, founder of skincare supplement brand Embody. “Especially in 2020, where in-person retail took a nasty hit, there was pretty much no way to keep out of big tech and still make sales.”

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

Social media algorithms reward power users. A brand that posts content in temporary Stories posts, videos on IGTV and TikTok-inspired Reels is more likely to reach followers than a competitor that posts to its own feed alone.

Ads, of course, are more of a sure thing: a brand purchases advertisements on platforms like Facebook and Google based on an auction system, where prices fluctuate depending on real-time demand. At the beginning of the pandemic, the cost of advertising on social media had decreased, as brands quickly pulled their ad spend. In the near-year since, prices have rebounded to their bloated pre-pandemic rates, making it more difficult for brands to prove their return on seeking new customers and driving sales through paid social ads. Some direct-to-consumer brands that focused their growth strategy around finding customers via Instagram have struggled to convince investors they will be able to sustain that kind of growth and be profitable.

Churning out content for an ever-expanding array of tools is not an ideal setup for many brands. Neither is quitting the platform entirely.

In April 2019, Lush Cosmetics announced a social media hiatus, telling its 570,000 Instagram followers that it was “tired of fighting with algorithms, and we do not want to pay to appear in your newsfeed.” It directed customers to contact the brand via its website, email or phone. Within a week, Lush was posting again to its Instagram page. It now has 655,000 Instagram followers.

Quitting social media abruptly “is like saying, ‘Do you think we should live on another planet just yet?’” said Grace Clarke, a brand marketing consultant.

Seeking Alternatives

Brands and marketers should still be looking for ways to connect directly with customers, even if they can’t quit the platforms entirely. After all, the pandemic boom in minutes spent on Instagram and TikTok is likely to subside once the lockdowns lift.

A return to basics (or their 21st-century equivalent) is a first step. Email marketing, texting and loyalty programmes — those that engage the consumer rather than simply alerting them to discounts — don’t require running through a tech giant’s advertising platform.

We hope that this year once the pandemic is under control we’ll be able to expand into more grassroots, in-person marketing initiatives. Until then, we’ll just have to play the game.

“Once you have a direct relationship with the customer, the better off you are,” said Andrew Gluck, a direct-to-consumer and marketing expert who now works as partner at the venture capital irrvrntVC. “If you can tighten [your relationship with customers] up, especially when other brands are still trying to figure out what’s going on, then it’s definitely an advantage.”

Carrie Sporer, co-founder of the hair care brand Swair, held a contest where customers who entered their email address on a website created for the promotion had a chance of receiving a gift package worth $1,200. Sporer said the only cost involved was the free product, and the promotion increased the brand’s mailing list by 400 percent.

It’s still possible to build buzz around a brand with old-fashioned public relations, said Ellen Rock, digital strategy manager at social media marketing firm Sliced Bread.

“If you don’t have really robust PR, that can tend to make our job a little bit more difficult,” Rock said, referring to how digital marketing teams piggyback off the momentum of a favourable story in a fashion magazine or some other press outlet.

Rock pointed to her firm’s client Dôen, a direct-to-consumer brand known for billowy blouses and nightgowns. The brand generated excitement through the fashion press, increasing the effectiveness of targeted social media ads. (British Vogue called Dôen “California’s Most Romantic Dress Brand,” while Elle wondered whether the brand’s “aspirational vision of motherhood” created a cult following.)

The brand told BoF that it doesn’t think it can significantly reduce social media content, given stay-at-home orders, but plans to continue to leverage PR and community events in 2021.

Embody’s founder Chung also said her brand has avoided spending thousands on Google search ads to increase their web rankings by focusing on a “killer SEO strategy” and features in reputable publishers, something the brand’s PR team helps secure.

“We hope that this year once the pandemic is under control we’ll be able to expand into more grassroots, in-person marketing initiatives,” Embody’s Chung said. “Until then, we’ll just have to play the game.”

Related Articles:

What Fashion and Beauty Brands Need to Know About a Potential Facebook Breakup

Is Facebook Too Big for Fashion Brands to Boycott?

Selling Fashion on Instagram: Expectation vs. Reality


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