Digital and sustainability were highlighted by ‘The State of Fashion 2021 Survey’ as the largest opportunity areas for the year ahead. It is, therefore, unsurprising that Bottega Veneta’s overnight retreat from all social media platforms earlier this month caused a stir. Could this departure be reduced to a simple publicity stunt, as many have already claimed? At face value, the timing of the anticipated FW21 launch and this exit does seem to resemble a successful publicity strategy. Despite this, it is important to consider the underlying rationale that has shaped the decision to go off-line and, importantly, if other brands will follow.
Luxury brands have been notoriously slow to adapt to the digital evolution. Take the exponential growth of Tik Tok, for example; brands are still working out how to use this hyper-social app characterised by duetting and replicating other users’ content. Quite the opposite of a luxury one-of-a-kind mentality. The fundamental conflicts are undeniable: social media represents unlimited instantaneous content to the masses in a limited audio-visual format, whereas luxury represents exclusivity, rareness and timelessness, delivered via a highly personalised, sensory experience.
The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified brands reliance on social platforms to communicate with consumers. Most fashion houses have taken this in their stride and experimented along the physical-digital spectrum to showcase collections. Notable examples include: Balenciaga’s FW21 ‘Afterworld: The Age After Tomorrow video game, J.W. Anderson’s ‘Show-In-A-Box’, KHAITE’s WebAR viewing and, more recently, Prada Men’s FW21 Q+A post-presentation livestream. Most, if not all, are accompanied by the prompt and expected social media coverage direct from brand pages.
Social media is instrumental in the democratisation of luxury. Access has disrupted the luxury universe. Digital communication erodes the physiological distance between, on the one hand, an unattainable luxury dream epitomised by brands like Bottega Veneta, and on the other, the average consumer. Some traditionalists would equate this closeness as a threat to perceived value. I would disagree. The opportunity for digital tools to elevate brand awareness, cultivate deep emotional connections, and communicate sustainability, far outweighs that threat. Could BV’s decision to leave the social media space be an attempt to regain control and preserve brand identity, exclusivity and competitive advantage – just as it reaches the precipice of overexposure? Is it a tactic to drive increased demand? Or are they simply passing the ‘keys’ over to Influencers to promote ‘It’ products and maintain their position as fashions ‘most wanted’?
In Q4 2020 we experienced the consolidation of social media platforms as e-commerce destinations symbolised by Facebook Shoppable Livestreams, Tik Tok’s integration with Shopify, and Instagram’s homepage featuring the Shop tab. It is understandable that this alteration confuses the purpose of platforms like Instagram. Although, the shift to e-commerce isn’t surprising, as these platforms have been on this trajectory for a while with the flourishing business of influencer partnerships, #Ads, endorsements and sponsored posts. Maybe pushing Instagram as an online shop was a step too far, and too soon, for the luxury space? Commercialisation doesn’t just affect luxury brands; many Instagram users have complained that the new algorithms disproportionally favour business-related content over their own more anecdotal content. For luxury, social media was never about selling products, but rather, the platform offered another avenue to sell their brand image, philosophy, and dream. In other words, the shift to e-commerce may have counterintuitively made social platforms less relevant for luxury brands, like Bottega Veneta, and has further alienated individuals like Daniel Lee, who has notably never warmed to social platforms.
A withdrawal from social media may indicate a strategy in which fashion houses pass the responsibility of diffusing brand awareness and selling the opulent dream to influencers and KOLs. It is possible that influencer seeding, paid partnerships, UGC, and fan accounts like @newbottega may replace a central brand page on social platforms. Brands could leave digital natives to navigate the complex world of social media on their behalf and reinstate (to a certain degree) the physiological distance between them and the masses. As a result, fashion houses could focus on their craft as well as physical, personalised and exclusive experiences – a focus which, hopefully, will still include social media influencers. This does, however, jeopardise brand autonomy in curating their unified online image. For more established houses this may not be seen as an obstacle as such, but for those without a historical legacy, relying on a select talent pool to disseminate your brand messaging across platforms is potentially risky business.
BV’s exit highlights the delicate balancing act of accessibility and exclusivity. It could encourage other brands to reassess their own digital strategies and question if social platforms still serve the same utility. If this reflection incites a mass luxury brand exodus from social media, it is disconcerting to imagine what this could mean for sustainability if transparency in the luxury space is limited further? Whilst that is another topic entirely, it is worth thinking about how eliminating this form of communication could impact consumers holding brands to account. Could it be that Bottega Veneta are taking back power and gearing up to use social media on their own terms: when, where, and with whom they choose. Maybe on their own platform? Who knows! Or perhaps, we are observing a brand taking a tactical break in preparation for a new digital strategy better suited to evolving social platforms. A strategy, no doubt, that will be unveiled during their – inevitable – digital comeback.
Words by Matilde Speelmans, ModusBPCM Digital Team
Image Source: Paper Magazine, 2019