As an industry that is known for avant-gardism, innovation and creativity, it may not be immediately apparent why luxury brands and social media have been locked in a love-hate relationship. Luxury brands have been afraid of the big bad wolf of social media and it does not seem as if luxury brands are the trendsetters in regards to this revolutionary phenomenon - rather luxury brands are driving behind in an old-fashioned rusty car. The luxury industry shows little or low commitment towards integrating social media, and we propose that most of the hesitation is caused by extreme contradictions between luxury brands' way of being managed strictly from the inside versus the way consumers define the brand from the outside on social media
We have identified three main reasons why luxury brands have been hesitant to join the social media party:
- The top-down dynamic is turned upside down on social media
- Social media is perceived as a destination for the masses
- Controlling ones brand on social media is impossible
Because consumers look up to luxury brands, the relationship between consumers and luxury brands is to a large extent characterized as being top-down (Okonkwo, 2010: 13). If this unique relationship is placed in the context of social media, where the consumer is in total control and expects to be looked up to, "(...) it would likely lead to resistance, apprehension and anxiety from the top (the luxury brand) and disappointment from the bottom (the luxury client)" (Okonkwo, 2009: 303). Think about luxury brands as being used to throwing the coolest parties of the night (top-down) - those kinds of parties, where everybody wants to be on the guest list. In the context of social media, this relationship is turned upside down. Here, the consumers are throwing the party of the night, and the luxury brands must patiently earn the right to be invited. This tension between luxury brands and consumers is amplified on social media and it explains why several luxury brands resist joining the party.
Social Media is a Destination for the Masses
Some of the innate characteristics of luxury brands include exclusivity and limit in access for a niche clientele (Okonkwo, 2010: 14). In direct disparity with the niche consumer base that luxury goods have always targeted, social media is perceived as being available to a mass consumer base (Okonkwo, 2009: 304). A major contradiction that luxury brands face online is the risk of exposure on the "(...) mass and classless Internet world" (Okonkwo, 2009: 304). Last week Mark Zuckerberg announced that 500 million people all around the world are now actively using Facebook, thus - generally speaking - social media can be viewed as a destination for the masses, which is innately contradictory from that which luxury presents and desires (Okonkwo, 2010: 48). Ironically, a large part of this mass consists of luxury consumers, and luxury consumers are also active users of social media (Okonkwo, 2010: 48). According to luxury consultants, "Luxury requires another way of doing things, almost opposite to that which flourishes in mass-consumption and upper range goods" (Kapferer & Bastien, 2009: 39). Therefore, the luxury industry's resistance to social media derives from their perception of being unique compared to other industries.
Loss of Control
Everyone has complete freedom of expression on social media thus it becomes impossible for marketing managers to control the content and frequency of information on social media (Mangold & Faulds, 2009). For luxury brands that are managed and controlled strictly from the inside, the loss of control may be the biggest reason for resisting social media. Luxury brands prefer consistency and perfectionism in everything they do, and luxury brands are horrified at losing control. With the entry of social media, luxury brands are challenged to let go of a carefully planned, executed, and controlled integrated marketing communication programme (Safko & Brake, 2009: 681). Luxury brands' control on the Internet is limited only to each brand's own website (Okonkwo, 2010). In our opinion, if luxury brands want full control on social media, it's just going to remind of Internet commercials like we've known them since 1996. Consequently, luxury brands are afraid to join social media because they fear losing their usual control of their brand.
Is Luxury and Social Media an Incompatible Match?
Clearly, there are some tensions between the way luxury brands are managed and the principles of social media. These tensions may tempt one to question if social media and luxury actually are an incompatible match?
As argued above, the biggest reason why luxury has been hesitant to join the social media party is due to the fear of losing control over their premium image. Does social media really mean that brands loose all control of their brand? Yes and no. We argue that the control luxury brands are afraid to lose on social media is control they never had in the first place. Consumers will gossip and party on on social media with or without luxury brands, thus, we argue, luxury brands might as well join the party.
Furthermore, the top-down dynamic is turned upside down on social media. Thus luxury brand managers cannot dominate and preserve their distance to the customers. On social media, customers do not want to join a party where the luxury brand decides who is invited, what they can talk about and how they should act. On social media, consumers set the agenda and if luxury brands wish to participate, they must act accordingly - causing a reverse top-down dynamic.
The contradiction between luxury addressing a niche clientele and social media addressing the masses seems incompatible on the surface. We argue, however, that luxury brands should not view it as a problem that everyone - and not just the niche client - is on social media. By reaching beyond the niche target group, we argue that luxury brands can keep the aspirational dream alive on social media.
So, are luxury and social media an incompatible match? On the surface, yes. The characteristics of luxury and luxury brand management do no seem to be compatible with the main dynamics of social media. The hesitation is understandable, but social media is unavoidable. In short, luxury brands' fear of losing control and appealing to the masses is irrelevant on social media. The control is already lost and the masses are only a threat as long as you try to control them.