How luxury brands can use social media for exclusivity Part 1

Written by Linda Wölk

Luxury brands are a case of its own when it comes to social media marketing. Most of the well-established brands gained their recognition through traditional media long before the birth of social networking sites. Although quite late, most luxury brands have by now entered the social media sphere. For instance, Chanel, which has been on Twitter since 2011, only last year discovered the power of photo sharing, when creating the Chanel Official Instagram page (Heine, 2014).

Nevertheless, some companies such as Monocle (the culture and design publisher) completely shy away from social media. For Monocle it seems that engaging in social media marketing would lessen their prestige image and feel of the magazine. From their perspective "[Social media] feels like a little too much exposure” (Heine, 2014, para.6). Although Monocle does not use social media within their online strategy, users filled the gap and created the Monocle Community Facebook Page with 86,955 likes. Cases like this emphasize the risk that luxury brands take when remaining silent on social media due to the fear of loosing their prestige image. Therefore, the main question for luxury brands remains how to take advantage of social media, while not compromising their exclusivity.

The secret formula of luxury brands

Luxury brands are a kind of their own due to their unique characteristics. Unlike other products the desire for luxury brands is mainly driven by emotions and the urge for mental satisfaction (Hennigs, Wiedmann, Behrens, Klarmann & Carduck, 2013). As defined by Heine (2010, p.1), luxury brands are “images in the minds of consumers that comprise of associations with a high price, quality, aesthetic, rarity and specialty”.

Their most distinguishable and sacred characteristic is their exclusivity. On the one hand exclusivity is created through scarcity of the products, which refers to the limited accessibility of luxury products, and on the other hand through rarity, which emphasizes a unique look and feel that distinguishes the product from other products (Mortelmans, 2005). Both of these aspects contribute to the ‘dream-capability’ of luxury brands, which clearly distinguishes them from fashion and premium brands as seen in the model below (Kapferer, 2012). As described in the model (image 1) luxury brands lead to the social elevation of consumers, which allows them to distinguish themselves from the masses and to rise in the social hierarchy. In order for luxury brands to remain exclusive they have to keep the pieces of their success formula in place: scarcity, rarity and uniqueness.

Image 1:  The differentiation between luxury, premium and fashion brands (Kapferer, 2012)

Image 1: The differentiation between luxury, premium and fashion brands (Kapferer, 2012)


Social media – a new category in marketing

The term social media describes the new digital platforms for social interactions, which allow for participative and collaborative exchanges (Vernuccio, 2014). Similarly to luxury brands, social media has its own distinct characteristics that turn the rules of traditional marketing upside down.

First of all, in the world of social media there is no control over the exchange of information, which means that the presentation of a brand is developed in a process of co-creation and interactions with consumers (Hennig-Thurau, Hofacker, Blocking, 2013).

Secondly, social media is still a quite ‘young’ and fairly modern concept of our society, which distinguishes itself through its ever-changing and up-to-date mentality (Gelles, 2014).

Thirdly, social media defines itself through its openness. This characteristic can be understood in the way that content is not only constructed and distributed by the brand itself, but additionally by the large community of users (Vernuccio, 2014). Additionally, information is widely available and accessible by everyone, which calls for more transparency on behalf of brands. This aspect is described as the Age of transparency (Fournier & Avery, 2011).

The paradox of combining social media and luxury brands

The unique characteristics of social media and those of luxury brands seem to create a paradox (summarized in image 2).

The lack of control in the social media environment represents a challenge for luxury brands for which control in the relationship with customers is basically paramount (Tungate, 2009). The strong orientation towards the consumer is also something quite new to luxury brands, which are used to being driven by the ideas of their creator (Kapferer, 2009) and being the ones who set the trends rather than leaving it up to consumers.

Social media’s young age and need for reinvention does not combine well with luxury brand’s strong reliance on their historical roots. Heritage usually plays a crucial role for luxury brands, as this demonstrates their strong performance over the years and reinforces their superior level of craftsmanship (Wiedmann, Hennigs, Schmidt, Wüstefeld, 2012). While luxury brands are characterized by their consistency over time, social media reinvents itself continuously.

One of the most conflicting characteristics of social media is its ‘openness’. Unlimited accessibility and full transparency are both major threats to the success formula of luxury brands, characterized by exclusivity and a magic aura. Through the openness of social media, the identity of brands is continuously reshaped and reinterpreted through every interaction (Vernuccio, 2014). The risk for luxury brands is that the cautiously and thoroughly crafted brand perception of prestige and uniqueness might be transformed into an image that conflicts with the brand’s desired image.

Image 2:  The paradox between characteristics of social media and characteristics of luxury brands

Image 2: The paradox between characteristics of social media and characteristics of luxury brands

The marriage between social media and luxury brands

At a first glance luxury brands and social media seem incompatible. How can luxury brands’ exclusivity possibly work with the openness and lack of control of social media? However, social media also has some characteristics that perfectly complement the success formula of luxury brands.

Luxury brands as already mentioned create an enclosed ‘sphere’ for customers, who want to set themselves apart from others - the effect of social elevation. This ‘sphere’ can be transferred into the online world by making use of brand communities (Jensen -Schau, Muniz, Arnould, 2009). A brand community represents an accumulation of users regardless of geographic location, who are bound together by a common interest or admiration for something (Phan, Thomas, Heine, 2012). Building or tapping into such brand communities can particularly help luxury brands to create the feeling of ‘obsession’ between the consumers and their brand.

Luxury brands can take more control of the representation of their brand by being present in these communities and by actively engaging with them in order to co-create the brand.

Social media’s specific mechanisms for targeting selective audiences and its focus on relationship building are further two characteristics that luxury brands can use to their advantage. Using these two aspects, luxury brands can get in touch with influencers and brand advocates, who can represent their brand online (Dial, 2014).

While the openness of social media still remains a problem, luxury brands, which are using social media, can at least to some extent decide how they want to represent their brand. This might even include creating a more exclusive networking site, such as Mercedes Benz’s invite only forum for Gen Y (Chang, 2008). Apart from Mercedes Benz, other luxury brands have found strategies to optimize their social media activities, while others are still failing.

Interested to know how luxury brands can embrace social media, while still maintaining exclusivity? Then take a look at part two of this post, which provides some examples and presents the central conclusion.

End Part I