‘It’s PR’: Fashion marketing is failing to understand data

To promote its recent collaboration with Gigi Hadid this September, Tommy Hilfiger launched a cheeky fashion chatbot on Facebook Messenger, which customers could interact with in order to look at items from the collection and learn pre-programmed fun facts about Hadid. For the Tommy brand, the tool checked a few boxes: It milked more use of the brand’s most recent fashion show (one of the industry’s most expensive marketing tools to execute), sent customers to online stores, and demonstrated that Tommy Hilfiger wasn’t afraid of testing out new technology, which scored it free press coverage.

Indeed, the brand was lauded for its forward-thinking creativity and for being among the first to launch such a bot. But when it came to conversion, the brand declined to share any proof that the bot actually drove any.

That pattern goes beyond chatbots: virtual reality, augmented reality, magic mirrors and iMessage apps have served fashion brands as reliable PR fodder rather than purchase-driving marketing tools. That’s because fashion retailers don’t know what to do, or try to do anything, with the customer data that lands in their lap after such activations.

“Things like VR tend to not be an integrated part of overall marketing,” said Jason Goldberg, svp of commerce and content practice at the agency Razorfish. “Brands should be asking who put on the headset? Were they existing or new customers? How do you buy something you see in the experience? But it’s still a novelty effect. They chase the most buzzworthy thing as opposed to the highest value thing.”

Rather than master the intricacies of retargeting and customer relations management, marketing strategies frequently entail a Vogue photo spread, a campaign video filmed by a celebrity, and impersonal digital ads that make use of a photoshoot on online platforms. It’s easier — and it’s sexier. It’s just not teaching the brand anything about the path to purchase.

The problem is that the digital marketing activations, where they exist, exist in a vacuum. When there are actual learnings to be made from digital marketing efforts, the retailers fumble, or entirely ignore, the customer data.

The reasons for this data disconnect in fashion marketing can be traced to internal silos, an industry-wide wariness of digital, and the tendency of many industry execs to do things the way they’re used to — creatively, and not quantitatively.

The muscle memory of fashion marketers
Luxury fashion houses are notoriously slow-movers when it comes to embracing digital technology. Industry reports show that online is the fastest growing channel for luxury goods by far. According to Bain research, while the entire luxury goods market is expected to grow by 2 to 3 percent in the next five years, the online luxury goods market is expected to grow by 20 percent in the same period. With the entire industry behind in moving to online shopping, that mindset has affected is data-driven marketing growth as well.

“The highest-ranking people on fashion marketing teams are old school,” said Goldberg. “They look for reach metrics. How many eyeballs saw it, how favorably did they view it — those are the best metrics they use. When they should be thinking about engagement and call-to-action metrics, did they purchase something.”

Luxury fashion marketing has traditionally spoken to two audiences in the same way: the customer and the aspirational observer. A Chanel bag is only a Chanel bag to the people who own it because of the people who want it but can’t have it. So rather than running retargeting campaigns that try to get the Chanel customer who recently bought a bag to also buy a wallet, Chanel will keep running aspirational, brand-driven — not product-driven — campaigns for the masses.

“All the great luxury brands got to where they are by using mass marketing to drive trends and create aspiration. That’s the muscle memory for marketers,” said Goldberg. “It’s difficult to change that, and when they do try something new and data-driven, it usually lands in front of a junior digital marketer and exists in a vacuum.”

With opportunities for growing luxury revenue tied directly to e-commerce, brands have to become better at vetting and approaching their existing online customers, who Goldberg said is their highest-value customer.

Long-standing relationships with fashion publications also dictate how current luxury marketers spend their time and resources.

“Media plans for fashion retailers have always been partially PR, and are still PR based,” said Neil Kraft, founder and CEO of lifestyle agency KraftWorks, who previously worked at Barneys and Calvin Klein. “It’s an open secret that if [a brand] doesn’t advertise in certain books, [the brand] doesn’t get credit in certain books. That once meant the fashion publications, and now it applies to bloggers as well.”

Kraft said that marketing has always been PR based. Outside of endorsements by bloggers and nods in Vogue, fashion retailers will try something “outrageous” they know will get them written about. At the end of the day, the main goal is increasing brand awareness.

“Data is splintered”
Without using customer data to track purchases, recommend products, figure out why a customer made a return, or research related search habits, luxury brands run the risk of getting edged out by faster-moving competitors, like affordable luxury brands Tory Burch and Michael Kors, and digitally native brands, like Bonobos or Everlane.

“It’s extremely important to understand the customer path, and their behavior, to figure out how to talk to them,” said Curtis Rose, svp and director of technology innovation at Erwin Penland. Many luxury brands don’t adjust for the fact that the same customer is interacting with them on mobile, e-mail, Facebook and Instagram. Saying, “here’s our brand, don’t forget about us,” over and over leads to customers opting out, said Rose.

At fashion brands not born online, internal siloes between tech and marketing teams have caused a disconnect in how brands overall understand data.

“Data is splintered across all of those streams,” said Rose. “So the tech team has ownership of some data, marketing has ownership of other data and there isn’t a centralized point to bring those data points together so marketing can leverage it and move forward to use as intelligence to go after customers.”

Third-party data companies, like a post-purchase data platform Narvar, and retail partners like Lyst, have sprouted up with promises to bring retailers up to speed on interpreting customer data. If fashion brands actually can make better use of their data, they can also apply that intelligence to the buzzworthy initiatives, like virtual reality and chatbots, to take them beyond novelty. Some brands have succeeded in doing this: Rebecca Minkoff learned about her customer by bringing technology into the fitting room.

“There are very promising use cases for technologies that can disrupt what luxury brands can do, but they’re just not getting enough traction,” said Goldberg.

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