Burberry Acoustic

It’s February 21, 2011 and Burberry’s Autumn/Winter womenswear collection has just been revealed to 1,000 attendees at Kensington Gardens in London. Simultaneously, it’s streamed live to 150 countries, at 40 events, and on a 32-metre digital screen in Piccadilly Circus – a world first.

Shoppers are invited to click to buy products on Burberry’s website up to a week after the show, allowing Burberry to earn revenue and access direct customer feedback months before the collection hits stores.

Luxury brands like Burberry define themselves and their products with words like “authenticity,” “timelessness,” and “iconic.” By building their reputation around tradition and history, these brands achieve a level of hyper-exclusivity that keeps them off-limits to the general public.

So how does this translate to a 140-character world where networking, sharing, and the open exchange of ideas, thoughts and emotions are the norm?

Burberry goes geeky

Technology has to be dynamic. It needs to enable the process of designing, and enable the consumer to get close to the brand.

–Christopher Bailey, Chief Creative Officer, Burberry

Luxury brands today need an online presence, but the virtual world is trickier for them to navigate than most. Not enough presence, and brands risk losing potential customers and revenue opportunities; jump in head first and they risk demystification.

Furthermore, a luxury brand’s online image has to remain consistent with its offline values, which can be challenging given the emphasis on history and tradition.

At the helm of Burberry’s technological revolution is Chief Creative Officer Christopher Bailey, who has been heralded as a digital pioneer in the fashion industry.

Since his arrival at Burberry in 2001, Bailey has made strides to revive the 155-year-old British brand, once famous primarily for its trench coats. Thanks to Bailey’s efforts, the brand has become a streetwise global leader on the digital frontier.

Burberry boasts almost nine million Facebook fans and Bailey personally updates the company’s Twitter account, posting behind-the-scenes photos and re-tweeting mentions from followers.

“It’s about an experience as well as buying a product,” Bailey told Vogue last year. “The more we entertain, the more we allow people into our brand. Then maybe one day they’ll buy. And then … who knows?”

In 2009 Burberry launched the hugely popular Art of the Trench, a social networking site where users can share their trench looks from around the world.

It’s also launched Burberry Acoustic, a website featuring up-and-coming British bands, complete with its own Facebook page and YouTube channel, and which has quickly become the MTV for the British fashion scene.

In the meantime, Burberry’s corporate website features countdowns for product launches and fashion shows, in addition to an online shopping portal.

Technology is now part of the brand’s DNA, and Burberry continues to look towards the future: its most recent retail opening in Beijing featured virtual image technology, animated footage, and holograms – all streamed live on Burberry.com. It even launched official accounts on four Chinese social media platforms to honour the occasion.

Burberry's Art of the Trench

Hermès’ digital stumble

Luxury whispers and cannot be loud or too colourful.

–Cem Boyner, Chairman & CEO, Boyner Holdings

While Burberry’s reinvention as a thoroughly digital brand has been applauded around the world, Hermès’ digital forays have been seen as major missteps. When a brand veers too far from its original values, customers take notice – and quickly.

In 2010 Hermès launched J’aime mon carré, a street-style inspired micro-site featuring ‘It Girls’ from New York, Paris, London, and Tokyo. Through the use of photos, videos, and guides, the girls showed visitors the many ways they wear their Hermès silk scarves.

Within days of the launch the blogosphere was ablaze with comments. Visitors noted the site’s lack of interactivity compared to Burberry’s Art of the Trench; there was no way to upload pictures or leave comments.

But what was really jarring to existing and would-be Hermès customers was the acute departure from Hermès’ much-lauded brand values.

Hermès is widely considered to be the last genuine luxury brand, in part because of its discreteness. Hermès has never used splashy marketing campaigns or engaged in the now ubiquitous celebrity-endorsement deal. Instead, it has chosen to remain truly exclusive, with customers gladly waiting up to a year to purchase one of its coveted Birkin or Kelly bags.

The girls featured on J’aime mon carré were young and beautiful – meant to show the masses just how cool wearing an Hermès scarf can be. But Hermès is not for the masses; within months of its launch, the site was shut down.

Out with the branding, in with the content

People are no longer being communicated to, they choose what they want to see, when they want to see it, and how they want to see it.

–Jefferson Hack, Editor-in-Chief, AnOther Magazine

Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH) is one of the world’s largest fashion conglomerates. LVMH’s portfolio includes a myriad of luxury brands with a range of online properties, from the simple lookbook-style of Celine’s website, to e-commerce and dedicated microsites at Marc Jacobs and Louis Vuitton.

Blurring the lines between editorial and promotional content, LVMH launched NOWNESS in February 2010. The site’s content is generated by an international team of editors who produce photo slideshows and videos about art, fashion, photography, architecture, and design. Users can provide editorial direction by tagging a post as “Love” or “Don’t Love.”

Excellent curation and exclusive content is a powerful combination, and with no product to sell and no obvious links to LVMH on the site (the site also features brands outside of the LVMH group), NOWNESS has taken on a life of its own.

NOWNESS attracted 300,000 members and more than 10,000 visitors within the first month of its soft launch, and now boasts more than 35,000 Twitter followers.

Keeping the brands’ values and the brands valuable

Luxury brands are still figuring out where they fit into the digital landscape. But it’s becoming clear that while they can’t afford to sit out of the social media revolution, they need to engage people in ways that respect their existing customers and reputations.

Hermès initially stumbled in the online space because it forgot what made it successful in the first place. Burberry and LVMH, on the other hand, knew who their audiences were, and then created content and communities especially for them.

For both brands, establishing an online presence that held true to their brand values allowed them to push their brand forward into the digital market, and also to attract a new generation of digital-savvy shoppers.