Digital marketing for luxury brands is called to capitalize on the relationship with the consumer, preserving and enhancing the most emotional aspects and trying to overcome the contradictions that still limit the digital shopping experience.
Today, widespread digitization is influencing and transforming the entire value chain of luxury brands, from Customer Relationship Management to the in-store experience, to the use of the latest technologies such as virtual reality and artificial intelligence. Digital tools give a practical functionality to luxury without risking exclusivity, and although they are still mainly used to simplify purchasing procedures, digital tools offer a huge potential for creating emotional, efficient, and multi-channel experiences.
Luxury is a historical, economic, and cultural phenomenon with deep psychological implications. And it is, above all, intrinsically relational.
Importance of the brand-consumer relationship
When it comes to digital marketing in the luxury sector, there is evidence that may perhaps seem counterintuitive, but it must be recognized and kept in mind: the relationship between luxury brands and consumers is even more vital, distinctive, and binding than the one with consumers in other sectors.
The tendency toward personalization has always been a part of the luxury universe: the relationship built with a brand has a deep emotional dimension based on mutual knowledge and trust. Luxury implies, beyond clichés, a strong human and relational dimension, both in its more public aspect (luxury is a direct result of social stratification) and in its more private and personal aspect (which concerns intimate motivations such as, the satisfaction of a desire for beauty or emulation, for example).
The affirmation of digital technologies has impressed a radical change in the customer’s path, which was once substantially linear. Today, consumers inevitably come into contact with one or more digital touchpoints during their customer journey and expect that through all these different points of contact the relationship with the brand will remain continuous and consistent. In the case of luxury, the change has been continuously renegotiated from the beginning, so as to respect and enhance the main characteristics of this relationship (warmth, listening, proximity).
According to McKinsey, luxury customers (not just millennial customers) have enthusiastically embraced the digital lifestyle so much that almost 80% of sales today are digitally influenced. Digital luxury is increasingly a fully C2C economy with the consumer firmly at the center of the purchase path. From that position of absolute preeminence, it is gaining new authority and new decision-making capacity, creatively exploiting the possibilities of increasing participation offered by social media. The luxury consumer thus actively contributes to redefining the content conveyed by the brand.
Luxury and digital marketing: some contradictions
Communicating, promoting, and selling through the web or social media has therefore become an imperative for everyone, including luxury brands, which by their nature and the characteristics of their supply (and the demand they create), are generally reluctant to implement the marketing strategies adopted in other sectors. Instead, luxury brands are more inclined to develop specific, alternative, and differentiating actions.
According to Jean-Noel Kapferer and Vincent Bastien (The Luxury Strategy: Break the Rules of Marketing to Build Luxury Brands, 2012), selling a luxury product on the Internet would be extremely dangerous because it would reduce the “dream value” of the brand by increasing its penetration too quickly and giving easy access to an uncontrolled number of unqualified leads.
The observation is theoretically acceptable: luxury is not a volume strategy but a mark-up strategy, and this mark-up is a measure of the added value perceived (and recognized) by the customer, a value due to the exclusivity of the experience. The contradictions between the digital world and the luxury world are many, some apparently irremediable.
Kapferer and Bastien (2012) made a list:
- digital is noisy, crowded and flashy; luxury is quiet and elegant;
- digital is immediate, available, accessible, easy (in this sense, close to the value system of fashion); luxury is about timelessness, culture, heritage, expertise, and expertise of the manufacturer;
- digital is transparent and explicit; luxury is implicit;
- digital concerns crowdsourcing, which is understood in its broadest sense as a collection of ideas, suggestions, and opinions; luxury has to do with solitary creation starting from the brilliant intuition of the individual (at least this was the founding myth of many luxury brands);
- digital is about price: good deals and discounts; luxury does not include the price variable: no rush to sales, no discounts.
Forcing the limits of digital: personalization and multisensory experiences
In particular, according to the authors, there are two fronts on which the needs of luxury brands would clash with the insufficient potential of digital technologies.
- If luxury demands one-to-one relationships, in the anonymous universe of the web, the personal relationship necessary for the transaction would be destined to disappear rapidly, annulled by the use of process automation;
- the world of the Internet, virtual and immaterial, would not be able to support luxury strategies, which are designed for the real world and realized through immersion in a sensory universe that is inaccessible by digital today. The online experience would not be experiential enough compared to the holistic interactions offered by luxury.
The signs of evolution are actually unequivocal on both issues: from both a technological and cultural point of view, the path taken seems to be one of progressive personalization and increasing multi-sensoriality.
In the first case, the development of e-commerce and desktop and mobile apps optimized with an advanced UX and the spread of social networks allow a bi-directional, polyphonic, and polysemic dialogue. In the second case, the progress of augmented reality and the development of increasingly ergonomic devices have expanded and enriched the experience of luxury shopping, at least as far as the senses of sight and hearing are concerned.
From luxury as a product to luxury as an experience in the digital age: the digital luxury experience
A fundamental step has marked the last decades of luxury marketing and it has further intensified with the mass diffusion of digitization and the consequent affirmation of digital luxury marketing. In the case of luxury brands, compared to brands in other sectors, there has been a marked shift in attention and investment from the “good” to the consumer’s experience and in particular to his digital experience. What is the digital luxury experience? Let’s try to go deeper.
Wided Batat, in Digital Luxury: Transforming Brands and Consumer Experiences (2019), says that marketing strategies that aim to build a centered and satisfying digital luxury experience must take into account the “intangible and subjective experiential needs of customers, including emotional, relational, symbolic needs” and their expectations in terms of value systems.
In fact, the digital luxury experience interprets the brand-consumer relationship from the latter’s point of view, and takes into account the changes that this relationship experiences during all phases of purchasing both online and offline. Therefore, “the digital luxury experience includes human and technological factors, which are directly or indirectly related to the consumer and the way he lives and defines this same experience.”
The digital transformation into luxury: an experiential revolution
In the concept of the “digital luxury experience,” there are more general considerations concerning the concept of luxury itself (for further details, check out these posts where we address historical aspects, important definitions and the most recent approaches to luxury marketing). Here, however, we need only remember that luxury combines symbolic meanings, individual psychologies, collective imagination, economic and cultural conditions that directly and indirectly impact the modes of consumption under a single definition. In this sense, luxury is, first of all, a specific type of experience: desirable, out of the ordinary, and disconnected from necessity.
The experience of digital luxury is closely linked to the quality of services (logistical assistance, customer care, possible training for the use of the product, etc.), which represent a fundamental component of the brand offer before, during, and after the sale. The main objective of the luxury brand is to guide and assist the customer throughout the purchase process, online and in store. This sort of customer-centric experiential revolution can be achieved by completing some preliminary actions in which digital technologies play a fundamental role from the beginning.
- Collect data on consumer behavior and expectations in both digital and in physical spaces;
- establish the overall digital strategy of the company based on the profiles obtained;
- choose the best-fitting channels and formats to achieve the objectives.
Digital transformation should not be conducted by simply replicating the physical customer experience on virtual touchpoints. Even more so, the construction of the luxury customer experience cannot be a trivial and simplifying process. Instead, it is a complex process that starts from the formulation of a series of questions, for example: what are the individual objectives specific to each channel? What is the design that best supports the funnel that leads to these goals? What is the perceived value? How can you translate them into something that conveys the sensory dimensions of the product? What technological potential do we need to create a digital experience that is unique and memorable?
The Hublot case history: virtual boutiques and pre-orders from WeChat
Consumers today can easily move between different media, platforms, channels, and formats by exploiting the features that allow immediate access and communication. What luxury consumers expect, however, is something more: their shopping experiences must not only be fast (not to say in real-time) but also qualitatively impeccable, personalized, exciting, consistent with the offline world of the brand. An example of a perfectly successful “translation” from physical to digital can be found in the virtual boutique opened by Hublot in 2018.
Hublot, the Swiss watch brand owned by LVMH, establishes a relationship with its customers characterized by certain distinctive values: trust, availability, and flexibility. To be able to translate these values from the physical world (a store with qualified staff and high standards of service) to the digital world, in 2018 Hublot designed and created a “virtual” boutique that allows remote access to products (viewable in 3D) and all their technical specifications.
The platform makes it possible to communicate in real time with Hublot’s sales managers without ever having to physically enter the boutique: just a call on FaceTime or Skype and the customer can make an appointment. All the information they need is conveyed through different types of multimedia objects: from videos showing all the wonders of the gears in operation, to product sheets with precise and detailed descriptions.
The digital experience designed by Hublot for its target audience has become even richer since April 13, when it activated a tailor-made service through which you can order directly from WeChat, even before it’s available on the market (pambianconews.com).
Customers who purchase in this way benefit from additional exclusive advantages, such as the possibility to consult technical information on the watch you’re interested in, request free delivery, receive extended warranties, chat online with technicians or sales teams, and participate in offline events. The initiative demonstrates once again the importance for brands to adapt their strategies to the online world, in line with the growing trend toward the digitization of luxury.
Hublot’s success lies in having reproduced the precise, rapid, accurate customer service typical of its stores in an original and tailor-made form, while preserving the element of human connection that underlies the relationship with the consumer.