Social Media Rewrite the Rules for Brands

Gucci, Oscar de la Renta, Donna Karan, Target, Urban Outfitters, Louis Vuitton and Rachel Roy jump into social media sphere.

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Gucci is doing it. So are Oscar de la Renta, Donna Karan, Target, Urban Outfitters, Louis Vuitton and Rachel Roy.

Fashion houses, designers and retailers are rushing into the free social media phenomenon that is reshaping not only interpersonal communication, but how apparel, accessories and beauty products are marketed and sold.

They are tweeting, blogging and updating their profiles in an effort to mold their brand personalities on real-time global platforms and form relationships with a community of customers, particularly consumers for whom the Web is as important as a limb.

“Customers can feel like they are part of the brand’s extended family, and therefore the brand itself, while the interactive element further deepens that relationship,” said Alex Bolen, chief executive officer of Oscar de la Renta. “These characteristics address and satisfy that ‘tribal’ part of the fashion consumer — the way in which people identify themselves by the brands they buy.”

A key component of social media “is real-time feedback — an ability to accurately measure marketing results,” Bolen said. “While this aspect of the Internet’s promise has yet to be fully realized, one can adjust, fairly quickly, to emphasize those initiatives that are working best.”

The newness of the platforms has made quantifying the sales impact of social media tough to pinpoint, although companies cite rising Web traffic and more customers using promotions.

“How do you quantify something that prevents a customer service problem that could’ve been a disaster,…[that] can create new buzz for a new product?” asked Paul Argenti, a professor of corporate communications at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business. “How do you quantify that? Where else can you get that kind of instant feedback? It’s all unquantifiable and all incredibly useful.”

Reggie Bradford, ceo of Vitrue, a social media consulting firm, believes it’s important to view the situation in reverse, saying a brand will ultimately be “measured in growth or losses by being there [on social media] or not being there.”

More than any marketing medium, including print, where advertising is suffering, social media give brands a chance to be a part of a dialogue about their own companies. In this new and evolving framework, everyone is a participant. According to Forrester Research, Facebook, with an estimated 200 million users, classifies two-thirds of its users as being of post-college age, with 35-plus the fastest-growing demographic. Twitter, a platform for messages of 140 characters or less that had 20 million unique visitors in May, has 42 percent of its users in the 35-to-49 age range and 20 percent ages 25 to 34.

You don’t have to be famous to get a following, but it helps. The king of the Twitter hill is Ashton Kutcher, who got into the game early and has more than 2.3 million followers. Oprah Winfrey, whose first tweet didn’t come until April — “HI TWITTERS. THANK YOU FOR A WARM WELCOME. FEELING REALLY 21st CENTURY” — now has over 1.6 million followers.

The fascination with fashion has even helped breed followings for Twitterers masquerading as major industry figures, including fakekarl (Lagerfeld) and fakeanna (Wintour). WWD’s own Twitter page has grown to more than 688,000 followers from a mere 200 since its launch in February.

Designers such as Rachel Roy and Charlotte Ronson share snapshots of their personal lives and their company’s activities via social media.

Brands including Gap, Victoria’s Secret, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Nike and Adidas also have tapped into YouTube, MySpace and other sites, where their videos, commercials, behind-the-scenes footage and fashion shows are posted.

“Everyone wants to know what makes [designers] tick, why they design, and get closer to the brand,” said Frances Pennington, vice president of global marketing for Juicy Couture.

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