Luxury & the Internet: Milano Fashion Global Summit 2009

25 11 2009

Last night I had a brief moment to slip out of the office and into the Milano Fashion Global Summit in the center of Milan, where the industry leaders of Italy were gathered to talk about “Who Will Survive” the Global Financial Crisis, and more importantly, how.  Of course, with most speakers getting between 5-10 minutes on the floor, it goes without saying that there was not much depth (or height, in this case?) to the Summit.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t get away in time to hear Matteo Marzotto speak about his plans for reviving the Vionnet brand, but I was able to make it there towards the end of the day, when one of my favorite topics was being highlighted: Web & Mobile Luxury. However, upon arriving at the venue, I was disappointed to find that the presentation was entitled: “Is Luxury Compatible with the Internet?”

Seriously?! …After writing about this for more than a year, and studying and working in the field for longer, I sometimes can’t believe that we are still hearing this question asked among those considered to be the industry elite.

But I digress.

The presentation was delivered by Jacques-Antoine Granjon, French CEO of vente-privee.com, a members-only online retailer of some 850 brands, typically selling end-of season products through 3-day flash sales. It’s kind of like the European version of Gilt Groupe, with what appears to be a much smaller selection of merchandise and fewer high-profile brands.

The presentation was brief, but in his defense, with only 8 minutes to deliver a message to convince business leaders that luxury and the internet do belong together, he made an entertaining synopsis.

Without further ado….

My Brief Notes on the… Brief Presentation

Following are the notes I took from the presentation. I tried to keep it as verbatim as possible, so read this with a French accent. To begin to illustrate his point, Granjon started with an analogy to online luxury…

Question: What is the most exclusive toy in the world of luxury today?

Answer: The Luxury Jet

  • It saves time & offers control (controlling the when & where in life = freedom)
  • It provides the best service (with highly skilled staff, pilots, maintenance & 1-to-1 travel care)
  • It offers the utmost in innovation & know-how (provided through superior R&D, highest quality materials, technology & design)
  • It is exclusive (traveling alone, in privacy = power)
  • It provides the dream (exploration, imagination)

These five points represent the luxury codes, which the internet can provide for brands. BUT, these codes are not enough for luxury online. There are several more points:

  1. The internet is not just a new format of boutique. It requires a new distribution strategy.
  2. It accelerates growth and visibility of brands everywhere around the world, but only if controlled.
  3. There can be no mistakes, because the internet is permanent, and it takes time to build a presence.
  4. The internet is a world that requires new skills and entrepreneurial determination. In addition to the luxury codes mentioned above, in order to be successful on the internet, luxury brands need the following:
  • Tech skills: must evolve as quickly as they emerge
  • Digital factory: create graphics, coding, etc
  • B2C distribution centers
  • Award-winning customer relationship services
  • Knowledge of online marketing

I see your point, but…

For those of you out there who are, like me, thinking, “That’s IT?” after reading this… yes, that’s it.

They still don’t get it. While it may seem obvious if not insufficient to those of us who eat, sleep and breathe this stuff, I have personally met CEOs and marketing managers of major luxury brands within the last year who are reluctant to start developing a branded web-presence because they fear losing control of the brand image. On the other hand, I have also met online wizards who are eager to take advantage of this lack of luxury presence online, but fail to realize that they need savvy logistics and distribution systems as well as a killer CRM program before even contemplating the notion of luxury e-commerce.

But, back to that presentation. There are two primary associations to luxury that are critical, and are blatantly missing here. When a branded online environment is created, they should definitely be addressed.

The first, and perhaps the most important of all luxury codes is connectivity (this can mean a lot of things, among them the connection a customer feels to what a brand represents, like American Aristocracy with Ralph Lauren, or to a brand’s history of jaw-dropping elegance and sex, which is what a customer is buying in a modern Vionnet dress). Some people will call this “history,” but I think it’s also important to indicate that the luxury customer is  buying into a community, connecting that history with their own.

Most luxury brands have a profound history, and if they don’t start with one, it’s often fabricated, as was the case with the Tod’s brand under Diego Della Valle’s brilliant marketing strategy (he had shoes from the new Tod’s brand superimposed on famous images of Audrey Hepburn and other classic icons). Just as the luxury jet connects us either to a location from our past, or to an exciting future, so does the luxury brand. There is a story behind it- something both intimately familiar and excitingly new. The internet is the perfect vehicle to convey that history, to tell the story about how a particular brand developed and why that brand is loved, and to build a connected community of “lovers” around it, like a family that shares the same values.

Finally, an unfortunate association to luxury that is certainly present with the private jet, and a term which occurred in my graduate research on the topic more than any of the other luxury codes, is waste or excess. Happily, the internet can help to eliminate waste in so many ways, from streamlining the supply chain on the back-end to providing the transparency that allows consumers to understand and choose what tradeoffs they are willing to make between such hot points as carbon footprints, “Made in…” issues, labor conditions, and production materials, versus price and quality.

Moving on to the other points of the presentation, I disagree with a couple of things:

  • His point: The internet accelerates growth and visibility of brands everywhere around the world, but only if controlled.
    • My point: The internet accelerates growth and visibility of brands everywhere around the world, regardless of whether or not the brand controls the message. It’s always better to establish your own online presence than to entrust it solely to outsiders and amateurs, who could accelerate brand growth and visibility in an entirely undesirable way.
  • His point: There can be no mistakes, because the internet is permanent, and it takes time to build a presence.
    • My point: No one is infallible. Tell a brand manager that she has to be perfect in every way on the internet, and she will never build a presence there. The beauty of the internet is that you can address mistakes right away: you apologize, publicly correct the situation, and in the process it’s likely that you actually increase your fan-base because people trust you.

So, for those of you out there who are fashion/web geeks like me, take heart: we’ve got a lot of fun work to do!

And, by the way, I noticed that the Vionnet site is not developed. If anyone knows Matteo Marzotto, let him know that I’d love to help!