By and and and  on December 14, 2009

Fashion and luxury brands still grappling with Facebook and Twitter should brace themselves: Foursquare and Google Wave are among new tools on the horizon with potential applications for brand building and e-commerce.

Experts are still counseling measured and clear-headed steps into the digital world, which continues to be unfamiliar and tricky territory for brands accustomed to tightly controlling their image and information about their products and business.

“Fashion has struggled a lot with the acceleration of everything,” said Lucian James, founder and creative director of strategic consultancy Agenda Inc., based in New York and Paris. “Whether they like it or not, in the new environment, luxury brands are also publishers. They will need to find new kinds of information and new ways to deliver it.”

James said “real-time” is poised to be one of the buzzwords of 2010. Suddenly, “the amount of information that marketing and public relations teams can generate is an increasingly small percentage of what is being said,” he said. “And because of the way search engines work, it is the most popular voices that rise to the surface. That’s the power of the blogger.”

He characterized the shift to social media as “just an extension of the democratization of fashion” that has gained momentum in recent years.

Still, the rush of new technology and media is unsettling for brands accustomed to delivering a monologue rather than engaging in dialogue, and imposing large-format images rather than 140-character tweets.

“You have to embrace it and not fear it,” said Antoine Arnault, communications director at Louis Vuitton, which ranked number one in the apparel category in LuxuryLab’s annual ranking of 109 luxury companies according to their online competence, called the Digital IQ Index. “It’s a way of being closer to your customer.”

Arnault is certainly hands-on with digital communication, even tapping out impressions on Twitter last June when he traveled to New York to present Vuitton’s creative director, Marc Jacobs, with the CFDA’s International Award.

“If Kanye West comes in our store on Rodeo Drive, we’re going to Twitter about it,” he said. “[People] want instant information, not only on products but who’s wearing it.”

Yet there are hazards and challenges on the way to online resonance.

For example, using a cocktail party analogy, James said sending out facts and figures about a brand’s heritage on Twitter, as Vuitton does, is tantamount to “announcing your birthday without being asked. It’s not wrong; just not the most comfortable or most interesting thing for everyone else to hear.”

“Online information transmission doesn’t work in the same way as offline: You don’t drop 30 ad spots on a Web site just as you would do on TV,” added Uché Okonkwo, founder and executive director of Paris-based Luxe Corp. “Today’s Web is about exchanges, connecting and dialoguing, and all these things are new to luxury brands.”

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