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Is Burberry's Digital Prowess Really Waning?

Burberry April Showers Accessories | Source: Burberry
By
  • Imran Amed

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 burberry.com 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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