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Should retailers bring social media channels in-house?

There is a trend afoot with social media – the world's savvier companies are doing it for themselves and not only owning the media but also creating all of the content.

Now where this new paradigm fits most snugly in my mind is retail, particularly fashion retail. 

The beauty of the fashion industry is that you are expected to reinvent your brand and to wrong foot people from time to time. Somebody recently expressed this in Campaign magazine as "going underground a little", in order to add a new dimension to the brand story and to discover a new cachet. 

A couple of brands spring to mind – Burberry and Superdry. 

The former is the world's oldest new brand. It has pulled itself out of a fusty conservative image, survived a 'chav' audience wearing its clothing, and then, with new music and new media, it reinvented itself to be one of the biggest fashion brands on the planet and very, very hip into the bargain. 

The latter is a still a saucy challenger that maybe grew too fast and as a result experienced some growing pains and a bit of a stock market wobble. But, the sudden growth presented a challenge for the brand that it is now addressing brilliantly. 

Both brands are names that I watch all the time. Why? Because they are pace makers and trend setters and are using social media and their own media more creatively than many others. Both generate their own content, understanding that they will always be able to connect with their brand better than any ad agency. And I truly believe that they will go on to bust well established category norms in other ways too. For example, in the area of audience ownership. 

Adweek ran an interesting article earlier this year by Kevin Bobowski who pointed out that for brands,  "the value of audience ownership is a crucial concept to grasp". Brands like Burberry, with 3.5 million followers on Twitter and a first ever 2014 Festive ad starring a 12-year-old Romeo Beckham – that secured nine million views on YouTube, have already taken advantage of the disruptive power of broadcasting messages to their consumers mostly free of charge. 

With a little hard work and creativity both brands have been able to connect with a social audience outside of a traditional advertising or marketing model. But I suspect that they also realised long ago that social media channels are essentially a money making vehicle for their owners and that they can replicate the social experience themselves on their own websites. In the right hands the experience can be completely customisable and they can take their consumers one step closer to the point of purchase. 

Adweek's insight piece hit the nail right on the head, saying: "The democratisation of technology now allows brands that once relied on social networks for communication in the social sphere, to instead offer that experience themselves. A company's website can offer photo and video uploading, commenting, contests and sharing – and is no longer governed by the whims of algorithm changes, or the rise and fall of individual social media sites."

Obviously, along with the do-it-yourself route lies the magic and alchemy of data capture and consumer insight. By owning this process from end to end, brands can now generate and control data that will be the foundation of marketing, advertising and product development efforts, in an age governed by data insight and social consumer content. 

Both brands are already a long way down the road by comparison to their peers. They are generating great content by making their own highly personalised ad campaigns and content.

World Famous photographer Mario Testino is shooting Kate Moss for Burberry fragrances, the brand also films up-and-coming musicians for the Burberry Music series, cleverly dressing musicians like Jake Bugg in Burberry for the shoot. Meanwhile, Superdry has employed the talents of cinematographer Richard Terry to both shoot and produce iconic footage for Superdry TV, which generates big screen quality cinema ads, fly-on-the-wall documentary footage from fashion shows and random pieces of film that are released piecemeal onto social media. 

It's all part of the growing trend of articulating the brand through moving images, of sharing the secret with a loyal following and offering something exclusive, that turns followers into customers and vice versa. And, underlying the whole thing is the belief that, like home cooking, it's really hard to beat something made with both love and understanding. 

So, the thinking goes that in-house reaches the parts that ad agencies will never access, and people like Testino and Terry know how to present a brand in the best possible light, making it the undoubted superstar of big screen, computer screen and mobile. 

But, as I pointed out, the future of engagement is about regaining control over your data, 'disintermediating' as Adweek puts it, the current channel owners, and creating ongoing relationships with customers beyond individual transactions. 

Mark Bonchek, in the Harvard Business Review, points out that we can see how content, community, and context come together in the owned media strategies of today's most innovative marketers.

He said: "These brands create engagement platforms that do more than push out messages. They create a gravitational field that pulls prospects and customers into orbit around their brands.  

"Of course, it will take courage and vision, but the alternative is a lack of differentiation and authentic engagement."

So, the likes of Burberry and Superdry as new social channels? It’s one of my retail predictions for the next 12 months.... 

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