End of the age of deference? You must be joking! Luxury brands bite back at #SMWLDN

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Day three of London Social Media Week kicks off with a session looking at luxury brands. The panel includes Steve Cobelli, Jaguar (above); Hin-Yan Wong, Connect Group; Matt Smith, Bentley; Paul Simonet, Imagination; and Geoff Turral, Storystream. Moderator is Alistair Duncan, also of Connect Group.

Steve opens the session with a talk about Jaguar’s digital strategy. When he joined Jaguar two years ago, they’d just set up a Facebook page but weren’t really sure what to do with it. Today, Jaguar has 2.4m fans on Facebook. Steve’s strategy is highly visual – “It’s all about the sexiest models”. Jaguar reveals all new cars on Facebook first. During new car launches, they take questions live via Instagram and Twitter, and have used “one of those life-blogging cameras that you stick on your pocket and it records your day”.

One of this summer’s highlights was the partnership with BBC Top Gear where the programme celebrated the success story of British car brands.

“We draped the cars in red, white and blue and drove them down the Mall. It was all a little bit Austin Powers-esque but a bit cooler. We asked people to take photos, upload them to social media and hashtag them. It worked really well. That British essence is very important for us in overseas markets.”

Another success has been the in-house “Alive TV” – monitors throughout Jaguar’s factories and offices showing live brand mentions to an internal audience: “It makes people aware they are part of something bigger. It also gives that importance to social and gets it in the back of people’s minds”.

What are luxury brands doing to get senior buy-in?

It’s not about the numbers, says Bentley’s Matt: “We’re a luxury brand. What Steve says about internal TV is very interesting – it’s taking the passion about the brand to the factory floor. It’s not about numbers but those numbers do help justify budgets and resource. In terms of content strategy, stories are crucial.”

Education is critical for employees, adds Steve: “They’re passionate about the brand but they can tweet or say something that’s out of place. You have to educate them about social.”

Matt agrees: “We need to get people to talk about things in a brand way, and also not release secrets”.

How does social help brands connect internationally?

A lot of british brands have gone into China and made a great impact, says Hin Yan. “In terms of luxury references, China has no history. Millionaires in China consume the same media as we do. Luxury brands need to maintain a level of visibility and social media is a very powerful way of broadcasting that visibility. People think oh, I saw that celebrity with that handbag or I saw that product tweeted on Weibo last week.”

But China is also different, adds Steve: “Outside of the biggest cities, they don’t want Leonardo di Caprio, they want local celebrities to represent the brand”.

Is social media widening access to the brand?

Social media is not about reach, it’s about trust, says Paul. “There’s a lovely line in the book, The Luxury Strategy, where the author [Jean-Noel Kapferer] talks about treading the fine line between “the ordinary of extraordinary people and the extraordinary of ordinary people. When one of your lines gets too popular, discontinue it – I think that’s a good long-term strategy of luxury business.”

The real issue for luxury brands, says Geoff, is “How is that 15year old from India saying “wow, what a great car” going to impact on our bottom line? How can we take those people into (for want of a better word) our sales funnel, or generate leads from them?”

Paul likes to use the term “clubbable” – “A lot of our fans are clubbable because there are a lot of people around them that they can’t relate to. Art is often the club that they associate with [an association between Bugatti and Design Week Miami, for example]. With social, you have to be careful about the way your brand enters the club – especially who it enters the club with. You’re not necessarily just a motor brand. You need to be clubbable – and to have a velvet rope. Try to create a space for the ultra high net worth individuals. Behind the velvet rope, within that club. Create some level of exclusivity by managing that rope.”

If you start to listen, it is slightly scary, says Geoff. “If you start to respond to stuff out there, you’re doomed to fail. On the one hand you have the opportunity to open up the brand to a broader market, but on the other hand you have exposure to a great many people who are probably never going to have the money to buy your car. You don’t want to descend into a forum where you’re going to have your face chewed off. But at the same time, you’ve got to strike a balance between that and what is possible – between what exclusivity looks like now and what it might look like in the future.”

There are layers and layers of [velvet] ropes, he adds. “You are only ever shown the next level – so you strive to access the next room. You are never shown all the levels otherwise you’d think ‘oh no, I’m not worth it’. That’s the strategy.”

That’s why it works to partner with other luxury brands, says Hin-Yang. “We bought together the Bentley brand with ski manufacturers, with other top brands through social media, using hashtags. Through social media, ultra high net worth people can see that association.”

Paul at Bentley agrees: “We’ve taken that brand message and integrated it into a lifestyle context”.

Social is “a global chat in the pub,” says Geoff. “We’re moving from worrying about control to thinking about influence. There’s no human being alive who doesn’t want to look good to his peer group.”

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