By  on October 8, 2010

When U.S. Senate Republicans were threatening to filibuster over a defense appropriations bill that would, among other things, abolish the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell statute, pop icon Lady Gaga took action, making it her mission to help repeal the ban.

She kicked off her campaign at the MTV Video Music Awards, appearing on the red carpet with four gay veterans of the armed forces as her dates. Next, she posted a video call to action on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, directly addressing senators with a passionate defense of her stance, attired now in a sober black suit rather than the dress made out of raw meat, which had garnered so much media attention at the awards ceremony. She asked her fans to post their own responses about why they wanted their elected representatives to repeal the ban and included explicit instructions on how to contact one's state Senators in Washington on her Facebook page (where she has 18 million followers and counting), her Twitter account (the medium of which she's been dubbed "queen of " and of which she numbers more than six million followers) and her YouTube channel (where she has almost 350,000 subscribers. Oprah, in comparison, has about 81,000).

Thanks to election-year politics, the bill ended up dying in the Senate. But in her own words, Gaga received an "overwhelming" number of video responses, and corresponded via Twitter with Senators Harry Reid, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.

So what does this have to do with beauty?

Everything.

Lady Gaga has reached icon status in an unprecedented amount of time, thanks to her deft use of the digital universe, creating a community of fans who are literally vested in her art, her commerce and her causes. Savvy beauty marketers are now pouring through the virtual door she has opened, realizing that the future of an industry once dominated by top-down broadcasting to the consumer now lies in creating robust, two-way, multimedia digital conversations with her.

"Digital isn't just a Web site. It isn't just social networking. It isn't just commerce. It is the underpinning of how we think about communicating, shopping and buying today," says Wendy Liebmann, chief executive officer of WSL Strategic Retail. "It has put the power in the consumer's hands. Before, manufacturers and retailers had the power and they used it to inform shoppers and create the pathway to purchase," she continues. "Technology has enabled us to put the decision making and the power into the consumer's hands, rendering the consumer at almost equal footing with the manufacturer, the retailer and the media."

"Customers wield power and control over your brand like never before," agrees Marc Speichert, chief marketing officer of L'Oréal USA. "They are talking about you to each other. Either join and enable the conversation or you will be left out."

In other words, technology has rendered the marketing monologue a dialogue. Now marketers have to not only talk to consumers, they have to listen and, most important, interact, educate and entertain. "The idea of building community and listening and engaging with the customer base, and for the customer to feel that they have contributed to your evolution and that you are listening back and using the information from your community in a constructive way to affect what you're doing is an amazing dialogue and amazing ecosystem that puts the customer at the center of the conversation," says John Demsey, group president of the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc. who oversees the Lauder, MAC, La Mer, Bobbi Brown, Jo Malone, Tom Ford Beauty, Smashbox Cosmetics and Prescriptives brands.

Demsey has seen firsthand the impact of Lady Gaga's community. Along with Cyndi Lauper, the singer was the latest face of Viva Glam, MAC's lipstick program in which 100 percent of the proceeds raised go to the MAC AIDS Fund. Prior to the launch, in March, MAC had about 235,000 fans on Facebook. Today, the brand has more than one million, an increase Demsey attributes directly to Gaga.

Having one million Facebook friends is one thing. Monetizing them is quite another. "It has fundamentally changed how we look at business, because it allows us to have a consumer-centric point of view and to target message points based on purchase behavior," says Demsey. "With one million friends, they tell me what I want to hear. We send them information. If they live in a certain city, we direct them to special events there. We direct them to our Web site, where we host live-streaming videos of content that can't be seen anywhere else. We drive people into stores. It is a two-way street and a multilateral communication network."

That communication matrix is an increasingly important influencer network across all demographics. According to a recent study called "From Buzz to Buy," conducted by WSL, when consumers were asked their top destinations for shopping advice, manufacturers' Web sites were number one with 67 percent, followed by friends and family at 63 percent, retailer Web sites at 49 percent, TV and magazines at 46 percent and sales associates at 25 percent. Social networking came in at 13 percent.

Though the number seems small compared with the others, its implications are huge. "One in eight people said they go to Facebook or follow a tweet to find out about a product before they buy it. They're using [social networking] as a resource," says Liebmann, noting that 75 percent of the respondents had used a social-networking site in the last month. Moreover, she continues, as the Millenials come of age, the influence of social media will grow exponentially. "Right now they're too young to be spending a lot of money of their own, but as they move into purchasing power, the power for them to use this medium as a key driver is mind-boggling," says Liebmann.

P&G's Old Spice brand has seen that effect firsthand. Geared toward young men, the brand was locked in a fierce market-share war with Unilever's Axe brand. Then came Isaiah Mustafa, better known as the Old Spice Guy and star of the "Smell Like a Man, Man" campaign. According to Gina Drosos, group president, P&G Beauty, the campaign has received four billion impressions since its launch in February, is the number one all-time most viewed video on YouTube and number two most subscribed channel, while the brand's Twitter following is up 2,900 percent and its Google search is up 2,000 percent. As for Old Spice's sales? They've doubled.

P&G isn't just using the digital space to spark sales of heritage brands. The company has become adept at using technology to pre-seed its product-launch efforts and drum up anticipation and desire before a product even hits counters. For example, prior to the launch of the premium-priced Olay Pro-X range, consumers could visit Olayforyou.com for a personalized skin care analysis and to buy a Pro-X starter kit for $60. The kit sold out in 17 minutes. Similarly, when Gillette launched its Fusion ProGlide Razor, it first sent the razor to bloggers who write about male grooming, along with a widget that allowed them to give away free razors to their followers. In the end, close to 150 bloggers either wrote a review, posted a widget or created an article, and more than 80,000 razors were distributed via the widget.

Likewise, prior to its launch of Advanced Night Repair Eye Synchronized Complex, Lauder created a microsite as a key driver, in conjunction with an in-store initiative in which consumers received a 10-day supply of the product. Sales were up 45 percent for the entire franchise versus the year before, according to Demsey.

"It used to be you had to wait 12 months before turning on the media, because distribution built so slowly," says Drosos. "Today, not only are retailers moving faster, but if we can create premarket buzz, we've already built enough awareness that the retailer has demand from the beginning, so they aren't reticent to bring in large quantities. It helps us with our timing."

For its part, Avon's Mark brand, geared toward the Gen Y consumer, has combined social networking with commerce to drive its sales and build community. Last December, it launched a commerce app on Facebook. This July, the brand introduced the Storecast Facebook Shop, which allows the brand's sales representatives to customize their own shops on their Facebook pages. "We created a repository of assets, which they can use to create their own boutique, which they can then customize and send to specific customers," explains Claudia Poccia, global president of Mark. So, for example, if one customer is into the latest fall makeup looks while another is into antiaging skin care, each would receive a personalized page from her Mark rep.

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