Clicks and Mortar

April 26, 2017

Constant competition, changing fads, and fickle consumers with shorter-than-ever attention spans. The world of luxury fashion faces these challenges and more, including all-too-frequent opportunities to fall out of favor. When a high-end designer label proves itself capable of standing the test of time, that brand holds court as a so-called “heritage house,” and brands that most deftly navigate the shifting media landscape are put under a microscope to find out just how they pull it off.

In 2016, Gucci dethroned Burberry for the honor of most digitally sophisticated brand. Burberry had held the top spot since L2 Inc.’s Digital IQ Index was introduced, in 2009, to “benchmark the digital performance of 85 luxury brands in the US market, examining investments in e-commerce, search visibility, social media engagement, and mobile aptitude.”

If it doesn’t sell online, it might as well not sell at all.

Gucci’s rise through the ranks came as a bit of a surprise. The brand had previously struggled to break into the top five. And although Gucci and Burberry scored neck and neck on 2016’s report (145 and 144, respectively), Gucci’s recent reinvention has seen one triumph after another. Amay Makhija, a research associate at L2, said that the brand “presented an array of intelligent investments that enhance the overall digital aptitude of the brand and present a strong base for future success.” If the present is any indication of what is to come, then Gucci’s future appears brighter than it has in years.

But how much success comes from a savvy digital strategy? Can a luxury brand really benefit from casting aside exclusivity in favor of engaging e-commerce? There’s no denying that consumer behavior has changed drastically since the advent of the internet, but let’s take a closer look at what these changes mean for luxury fashion, a historically in-store business that is learning to navigate the uncharted waters of a vast digital ocean.

Falling Out of (and Back into) Love with Gucci

Gucci’s comeback is especially notable in light of its recent—and near-fatal—struggles, which almost led to the brand declaring bankruptcy in the ’90s following the poor business decisions of founder Guccio Gucci’s grandson Maurizio Gucci. The brand is not alone in facing hardship, as evidenced by many other houses’ recent attempts to stay above water. Collections have been condensed, creative directors have jumped ship or been ousted for various reasons, and changes have been made to the way collections are shown—all of which signal trouble in paradise for heritage luxury brands. But picking up and moving forward with a new outlook (and with fresh faces on the brands’ creative teams) can make all the difference.

Gucci’s massive online revamp is thanks to a new plan put into action by creative director Alessandro Michele and CEO Marco Bizzarri. Michele was appointed creative director, in 2015, after serving Gucci for 13 years as deputy to former creative director Frida Giannini, as well as being the lead designer of leather goods, shoes, jewelry, and home collections. Prior to his stint at Gucci, he worked in accessories at Fendi and studied at Rome’s Accademia di Costume e di Moda.

Michele’s career has been marked by overcoming challenges, beginning with his predecessor stepping down a month earlier than expected, forcing him to design a menswear collection in less than a week. He managed to create a full collection and get it on the runway. He was greeted with a warm reception after the show for his designs’ fresh tone.

“Brands are talking about storytelling and narrative, but haven’t really done it. This is Gucci doing it well.”

As innovative as he is with his designs, Michele is equally pioneering in his perspective on digital media for the luxury-fashion industry. He believes that “creativity is often born and finds its voice in digital media, a vital source of visual culture.” Michele recognized early on that embracing this new cultural standard is essential to keeping up in the fashion industry.

The in-store shopping experience is not to be discredited; it is still a vital part of the business for heritage brands and their devotees. However, in the changing consumer landscape, it’s important to grab each and every opportunity to reach people—especially those who might benefit from or prefer the convenience of shopping online. For that, the in-person experience needs to reach across the digital plane, and a refreshed website and tailor-made purchasing experience are musts.

The bottom line: If it doesn’t sell online, it might as well not sell at all. Longtime fashion houses, regardless of their prestige, iconic status, or name recognition, can suffer if their digital presence is weak, and these sartorial giants are slowly but steadily adopting their own powerful digital strategies.

Tenets of the Top

Back in 2011, when L2 released its third annual report card, many luxury brands had a Facebook presence—and that was about it. According to the report, “One in five brands [lacked] e-commerce capability” at the time. Now, increased demand for more collections and efficient digital engagement has drastically impacted brands’ priorities.

It wasn’t all that long ago that luxury consumers exhibited reluctance to buy online, but they seem to have changed their tune. In fact, consumers are buying more luxury goods online than ever before. And although part of the reason to shop luxury is for the catered in-store experience, e-commerce is fast becoming a viable alternative for those who like convenience with their couture.

An arguably negligible percentage of luxury sales are closed online, but a considerable portion starts there. While only 7 percent of luxury purchases are online, 60 percent of in-store sales involve some kind of digital touch point. It’s crucial, then, to evaluate what digital means to a luxury brand, because it’s fast becoming the way that consumers interact with—and feel intimately connected to—an iconic fashion house.

The challenge has become less about driving consumers one way or another and more about navigating and innovating within the entire multichannel experience. Those who are willing to embrace this challenge and, like Gucci, are worthy of a high digital-IQ score, ultimately create a seamless experience in all aspects of brand interaction. So how did Gucci manage it?

Gucci has been outstanding in its digital dexterity, but the face that the fashion house presents in the online realm is a new one, and therefore the brand needed to find ways to connect its e-commerce experience to its in-store and on-runway experiences to continue to strengthen its relationship with preexisting buyers while keeping the image fresh and current. Gucci has woven e-commerce, social media, digital marketing, and the integration of mobile apps into the tapestry of its legacy offline business. As a consequence, the modern consumer’s relationship with Gucci is holistic, which has resulted in huge returns from longtime customers and new converts alike.

This consumer response has confirmed the importance of allowing offline and digital to work in tandem. These are not separate pieces of the same entity, but rather symbiotic practices used to bolster the success of each. By blurring the lines between physical and virtual sales, consistent, frictionless commerce can take place. And there are many ways this can be accomplished.

What Moves a Digitally Smart Brand to the Front of the Class?

1. Take advantage of the available social real estate, and use it to build a sound, consistent strategy.

Even if the user base is young and/or currently ill-equipped financially (think Snapchat users) to embrace your brand, that doesn’t mean you can’t build brand loyalty early with what may be prospective buyers. They might not buy big-ticket items from the jump, but they’ll be at the ready for that first exciting purchase as soon as it’s within reach. Gucci hopped on Instagram back in 2015 (relatively late) and now has over 12 million followers. The label has used this platform as a tool to grow its reach, with user-generated photography and hashtag campaigns such as #GucciGram, which featured collaborations with prominent visual artists to display the brand’s newest motifs in interesting ways.

Gucci utilized Snapchat creatively in recent years, too. For example, the #24HourAceCampaign used Snapchat Stories, with hourly Takeovers, to promote artists’ treatments of the Ace shoe, and the Gucci Guilty fragrance ad featuring Jared Leto was preceded by a Snapchat Takeover by Leto himself, in December 2015. Because of this influence, the spot made 400 million impressions before its release, in October 2016.

2. Make mobile easy, or more specifically, make it easy to purchase via smartphones and tablets.

Making the process quick and painless means that reaching the final destination (i.e., a completed purchase) will be all the more likely. For example, Burberry saw its e-commerce sales triple after it began supporting Apple Pay’s signature thumbprint-scan feature, which goes to show how the smallest digital update can make a huge impact on profits.

3. Make it personal.

When customers set up accounts on their sites, luxury fashion brands like Hermès, Louis Vuitton, and Burberry achieved greater buyer satisfaction by going beyond asking for names and birthdays. By asking about specific shopping needs (size, style preferences, etc.), they were able to incorporate personalized recommendations, which in turn led to swifter purchasing.

4. Stay true to your brand.

Gucci has spent decades cultivating its brand identity, and it has fared well in adapting to new trends. The modern Gucci is still eclectic, contemporary, and romantic. Gucci has been reinvented, perhaps, but it is still as desirable as ever, with the quality and innovation that are the hallmarks of the brand, representative of all that luxury and Italian craftsmanship embody. The only difference now is that Gucci has made an entrance into the digital space, and, in typical Gucci fashion, that entrance was smart, chic, and a little unexpected.

E-commerce Gold

Gucci’s new website launched in North America, in 2015, during Michele’s first year as creative director, after his wearable designs had won over critics with their Wes Anderson–like colorways, gently gender-bending styles, and vintage-inspired details. The revamped site launched in Europe, Australia, and Asia the following year.

The site featured larger images, vertical scrolling, and an editorial section (the Agenda), all of which earned it a spot on the map of the high-fashion world’s increasingly smart digital landmarks. The Agenda, which has since been renamed Stories, uses images of current collections to drive visitor interest and enable online shoppers to “connect emotionally with the brand’s new creative vision” by telling the stories behind the patterns and styles in the collection, Fashionista reported. This is valuable information for luxury purchasers because, after all, the draw to luxury is in the craftsmanship and cutting-edge art and design genius that go into each piece.

Gucci has proven that devotion to a singular—albeit evolving—brand narrative is essential to achieving success in the digital space. While far from being the only example of keeping a tight focus on brand storytelling, Gucci is one brand that has recently (and quite profitably) demonstrated the benefits of understanding and adequately conveying a distinctive identity by digitally repositioning itself.

Specific retail aspects of the Gucci site include options for free returns, in-store pickup (Gucci is one of only 5 percent of brands included in the L2 Index that have the “reserve online, pick up in-store” feature), gift wrapping, and at-the-ready customer service, via both phone and email.

Shoppers can also quickly search for complete looks and individual items from the most recent season by clicking on runway photos in the online product feed. This way, prices are discreetly withheld from e-commerce shoppers until they click on the complete look they’re interested in and then on the specific product they’re seeking, which works for luxury consumers, who are typically “price agnostic,” as L2’s Makhija put it.

Video of recent runway looks and collections can be found on the new site as well, offering an inside look at the brand in action by featuring behind-the-scenes details about seasonal campaign shoots, in-depth interviews with fashion luminaries and artists, and other on-brand inspirational posts.

The video component of the remade site is one that has received a lot of positive attention, especially the campaign video directed by Gia Coppola. “[Michele is] a relatively new creative director, who is trying to position his aesthetic as a total lifestyle, so [the videos are] a great position for them to show not just the clothes, but how you wear them and what inspired the collection,” said Tony King, founder of creative agency King and Partners. “Brands are talking about storytelling and narrative, but haven’t really done it. This is Gucci doing it well.”

Influencing the Influencers

In addition to partnerships with Hollywood visionaries, car companies, and pop stars (Beyoncé and Lady Gaga, to name a couple), Gucci has embraced internet culture and made a handful of up-and-coming Instagrammers into luxury-brand stars. After the fall 2015 show, Michele commissioned @UnskilledWorker, a.k.a. Helen Downie, to do a series of paintings to celebrate the new line. New York–based graffiti artist and DJ Trevor Andrew, now known as GucciGhost, also has become an unexpected player in the brand’s digital strategy.

Andrew’s graffiti, in which his street character, GucciGhost, figured prominently, attracted the attention of Michele, sparking a creative bond and eventual collaboration. The ghostly motif Andrew employed was inspired by a last-minute Halloween costume some years prior, when the young artist cut eye holes in an old Gucci bedsheet to serve as a quick costume. Thus the GucciGhost graffiti tag was born, and it cropped up all over New York City. When news of this reached Michele, he was thrilled to discover that someone was making the traditional, century-old Gucci logo—and the creative vision it represents—contemporary and street-savvy, something that Michele himself had been aiming to do with his designs since he became creative director. Andrew was flown to Rome to work on the designs for Gucci’s fall 2016 ready-to-wear line, and show attendees were ecstatic at the result of the Michele-Andrew partnership.

“That show was one of those moments in fashion that I will always remember,” said fashion editor and stylist Sarah Stallman. “It has been a bonding experience for my friends and I to follow [Michele’s Gucci]. We send each other screenshots of its Instagram Stories with dramatic text captions, a lot of emojis, and far too many exclamation points. To have that kind of connection with a brand and what it represents is really what fashion is all about.”

Gucci has made an entrance into the digital space, and, in typical Gucci fashion, that entrance was smart, chic, and a little unexpected.

Last year also saw the release of Beyoncé’s Gucci-filled “Formation” video, Lady Gaga rocking Gucci as she sang the national anthem at Super Bowl 50, Jared Leto and Brie Larson strutting Gucci on the red carpet at the 2016 Academy Awards ceremony, and the debut of the GucciGhost collaboration. And all that was just in February.

Gucci has dressed countless celebrities for a variety of public appearances, and nearly all of them stand out in fashion news—for good or ill. Most recently, Gucci received negative press for the Inauguration Day coat worn by President Trump’s senior adviser Kellyanne Conway. Whether or not the media sensation was intentional, there’s no denying that the militaristic jacket in the colors of Old Glory—with prominent feline buttons sewn onto the bodice, no less—set social media platforms ablaze.

It’s important to note, though, that seeing a specific face associated with a brand is a matter of perspective, as shown by a survey conducted by Glossy on the streets of New York City. What a brand chooses to do as it represents itself is up to the creative minds behind it, although the myriad platforms on which consumers can express their opinions means that those impressions will be made very public very quickly. But one negative media storm wasn’t enough to sink the brand, because Gucci’s solid digital strategy and revived reputation as a fashion powerhouse provide a foundation strong enough to weather it.

A Banner Year

Gucci’s 2016 was certainly one for the record books, and both Alessandro Michele and Marco Bizzarri have been praised for their hard work, open minds, and skilled handling of the brand during a turbulent time for high fashion. In 2016, both men were presented with awards at the British Fashion Awards, and Michele was honored with one of GQ’s Men of the Year Awards: Designer of the Year.

The brand continues to evolve, and we’ll continue to keep an eye on the excellent work Gucci’s creative team is doing. Given that the brand’s sales increased by 17 percent during the third quarter of 2016—up 7 percent from projections—there’s no question that Gucci’s recent transformation serves as an example for the modern luxury industry. But perhaps the greatest lesson we’ve learned from Michele’s new and improved Gucci is that a strong digital presence—built on a clearly defined brand identity and supported by a strategic scaffolding—can make an enormous impact on the future success of a brand.

Photos: Shutterstock

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