By  on August 24, 2005

LONDON — If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

With consumer electronics eating into consumer spending on apparel, U.K. fashion marketers are embracing Internet and cell phone media to connect with prospective customers — and it's not just the youth market they're after. At least one fashion purveyor is making a high-tech appeal to more mature shoppers.

French Connection, Adidas and Shopdirect, among others, are leveraging emerging technologies as marketing media in an effort to connect one-to-one with shoppers, create buzz about their fashion brands and products, and impart a sense of style and innovation that complements their fashion brands.

French Connection launched its instant messenger marketing program in July, while Shopdirect began marketing via cell phone short message service technology, or SMS, in December 2004 in a bid to heighten awareness of its catalogues — making the pair pioneers in those realms. Shopdirect is continuing its SMS marketing, most recently with a free-delivery promotion for its Abound apparel and home goods catalogue.

In addition, about a half-dozen fashion brands have approached Yahoo about joining its IM marketing program, including Adidas, which has agreed to offer its women's apparel in the U.K. via the portal's IM medium by yearend, said Darren Cairns, senior marketing manager at Yahoo Europe.

Neither French Connection nor Shopdirect furnished figures on the results of their IM and SMS marketing plays.

"This is the time for High Street retailers to experiment and refine their approach to those media, rather than miss out in the future, even though neither IM nor SMS marketing are huge now," said Lysander Meath Baker, director of Internet consultancy Digivate.

These marketing channels are likely to see a growth spurt in the near future, with SMS marketing projected to be adopted quicker in the U.K. because more than 80 percent of the people own cell phones, said Fiona McDonnell, a senior analyst at Internet consultant Forrester Research. "Unlike traditional TV and print advertising, SMS marketing can engage with consumers, rather than shout at them," McDonnell added.

A Forrester Research study of mobile marketing among 124 European marketers and 220 European ad agencies conducted in 2004 found that 23 percent of the marketers, or 28, and 38 percent of the agencies, or 83, were using SMS marketing. Those who did so spent less than 100,000 euros, or $123,100, on average, on the marketing channel.As for marketing via instant messaging, experts predicted a younger consumer with disposable income will be the main draw. During July, the number of people in the U.K., ages 2 and older, who sent instant messages via the three biggest Internet service providers — MSN, Yahoo and America Online — increased 9 percent, to 10.68 million IM users, up from 9.81 million, a year earlier, Nielsen/Net Ratings found. They spent two more sessions on average, or 13, sending those messages last month, compared with 11 in July 2004, while the time devoted to that instant messaging grew by close to an hour, or 52 minutes, to 2 hours, 53 minutes. Those findings are based on a representative sample of 4,500 Internet users in the U.K.

With teens a primary target, French Connection collaborated with Yahoo to stir interest by creating a set of cartoon avatars adorned by French Connection's summer 2005, 10-piece capsule collection. When establishing one's preferences for a Yahoo Messenger palette, the avatar feature can be chosen.

Subsequently, those figures appear in a Yahoo Messenger window when users are sending messages to each other. Those users can then personalize the fashion avatars to represent their own features, such as hair color and skin tone, and virtually dress them by choosing items from French Connection's 40-piece online collection. IM users who want to buy an item can click on a link to the fashion brand's Web site, which appears in the instant messaging box below the cartoon figure, in order to transact a purchase. The French Connection goods are on offer in France, Germany, Italy and Spain, as well as in the U.K.

"While they had a Web site [at frenchconnection.com], French Connection didn't previously market themselves elsewhere online," Cairns noted. "Rather than traditional online marketing, which would just drive traffic to the Web site, this new strategy allows [instant messaging users] to test what an outfit would look like." Too, online banner ads promote the feature, pointing surfers to Yahoo's instant messaging link.

Since Yahoo began its venture with French Connection last month, Cairns said, traffic at the instant messaging site has increased 20 percent, but he declined to specify the number of users. "We would eventually like to mimic real shopping, where consumers can 'try on' a French Connection top with, say, some Diesel trousers," he said."It makes sense that French Connection would want to be where instant messaging is," Meath Baker said. "Figures are showing that teens prefer this form of communication to e-mail."

A Pew Internet & American Life Project last month tracking IM use in the U.S. — which Meath Baker considered roughly transferrable to the U.K. — showed that almost one-quarter of American teens, or 24 percent, prefer instant messaging as a means to communicate, compared with just 5 percent who prefer e-mail. Seventy-five percent of American teens use instant messaging, versus 42 percent of adults.

Shopdirect, a U.K. company that owns U.K. apparel mail-order houses, such as Burberry parent Great Universal Stores, Additions and Choice, regularly uses SMS promotions to reach its clientele who use mobile phones — 74 percent of whom are over 35. Shopdirect takes cell phone data from its customers who have already purchased items over their cell phones from the company and who have given permission for their data to be used by Shopdirect, and then promotes mail-order brands it handles online at shopdirect.uk., via SMS messages. Consumers can keep an SMS promotion on their cell phone as a reminder of the marketing message.

"We ran a competition via SMS messaging to raise awareness of our Additions mail-order catalogue, and over 100,000 people responded, which really surprised us," said Alex Goodland, head of product development at Digital Rum, which creates cell phone marketing and purchasing campaigns for Shopdirect. "Consumers seem to like the one-on-one relationship that SMS messaging fosters — as long as they have initiated that relationship."

Indeed, both SMS and IM marketing have some pitfalls. "As SMS messaging and instant messaging are one-to-one communication methods, companies have to take care not to be seen as spamming consumers," Meath Baker cautioned.

Further, Meath Baker counseled, "marketers will have to learn to listen and not shout. Digital technology allows customers to talk back. Companies will need to add mechanisms to respond to customer feedback," she continued. "The result should be much more targeted and personalized promotions."

Instant Messenger Use: U.K., July 2005
JULY 2004
JULY 2005
Internet Application Unique Users Sessions Per PersonUnique Users Sessions Per Person
MSN Messenger Service
8.0M
12
8.6M
14
Yahoo Messenger
1.5M
11
1.7M
15
AOL Instant Messenger
310,000
10
382,000
10
Total Unique Users
9.81M
10.68M
Source: Nielsen/Net Ratings, combined at home/at work

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