By
with contributions from WWD Staff
 on October 15, 2009

The star of Gucci’s latest viral ad campaign isn’t an up-and-coming model, the celebrity of the moment or the brand’s creative director, Frida Giannini. It’s the Gucci customer.

To mark the launch of Gucci Eyeweb, a new collection of sunglasses aimed at “the digital generation” of 18- to 25-year-olds, the brand will unveil today a global, multilingual, social networking microsite that asks users to upload and share their photos. Their pictures will then rotate over a 3-D image of the sunglasses, looking as if they’re reflected in the dark lenses. Users of Guccieyeweb.com can switch among cities such as London, Milan, New York, Tokyo, Paris and Berlin to check out what their friends in each place are doing around the clock, and they can share their Gucci photo galleries on Facebook and Twitter.

Next month, Gucci plans to swap the sunglasses, which cost $220, with ski goggles, so users can upload their winter holiday and weekend snaps.

“It’s important for us to speak to these customers in their own language and in their own world,” Giannini told WWD. “Although I’m not on Facebook myself, it was really the community spirit I saw on [Gucci’s] Facebook page that inspired my thinking for this social network. And I love the way this technology allows people to share their creativity.”

Gucci, which, according to industry sources, is also set to launch an iPhone app in the next few weeks, is the latest European brand to tap into the fast-growing power of social media.

Like their American counterparts, European fashion and luxury brands ranging from Alexander McQueen, Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, Hugo Boss, Sonia Rykiel and Rena Lange to Camper and Topshop have begun to embrace social networks with vigor — tweeting, blogging, posting and streaming their way into customers’ hearts, not to mention pocketbooks.

Next month, Burberry will launch Artofthetrench.com, a social media site that will be an “online celebration” of the brand’s famous trench and the people who wear it, according to the company.

The new site, which is live for preregistration, will launch with pictures of trench-clad Burberry fans around the world photographed by Scott Schuman, the man behind The Sartorialist blog. Visitors to the site will be able to comment on the portraits and share content with other social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter.

Three days before their spring ready-to-wear show last month, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana pulled open the doors of their design studio and invited the public inside via three preshow video diaries posted on YouTube and on the duo’s online magazine Swide.com.

Gabbana subsequently told WWD the designers’ YouTube channel — later updated with pre- and post-show footage — attracted 16 million hits, making it “the most visited brand channel in the world.”

Even at the Dolce & Gabbana show, streamed live on its Web site, the designers plowed into the digital age by placing bloggers in their front row — at the expense of some major American retail executives.

Not long ago, the message from most luxury brands was one of exclusion, with mile-long waiting lists, snooty sales assistants and “celebrity ambassadors” separated from the masses behind black velvet ropes. Today, that message is rapidly becoming one of inclusion, with brands keen to build relationships with existing customers and to attract new fans — regardless of whether they can afford the products.

“For so long, luxury brands felt they were the ones controlling the conversation,” said Lopo Champalimaud, co-founder of Wahanda.com, a London-based health, beauty and wellness site. “Now the conversation is already happening out there, and brands realize they don’t have full control. So they have to be engaging with their audience. And if they don’t engage, they’ll no longer be relevant.”

According to a study by Universal McCann earlier this year, social networks are now a part of the regular online experience, with 64.1 percent of active Internet users spending time managing their profiles.

The report, “Power to the People: Wave 4 Social Media Study,” concluded the “engagement opportunities” of social media are deeper than those of traditional mass media, and the power of “social amplification” is far stronger.

Indeed, Facebook estimates that, for every 10,000 fans it has, a brand will reach 1.5 million people. Taking into account the amplification factor and the fact that e-commerce is the only area of luxury that’s growing, it’s no surprise brands are trying to drum up the good will — and empower their fan base — in the hopes of banking future revenue.

“Social media is a way into the site for those women who can’t be customers — and another opportunity for us to engage,” said Alison Loehnis, vice president of sales and marketing at Net-a-porter.com. The online retailer is active on all the major networking sites, dispensing styling tips and running contests on Twitter, and offering show footage and “how to get the look” videos on YouTube.

In July, Net-a-porter launched an iPhone app updated with new products and content twice a week, which allows customers to buy directly from the site without having to reenter their payment details.

Meanwhile, Fashionair.com, the new fashion and entertainment Web site that drives customer traffic to more than 500 e-tailers worldwide, offers its viewers the chance to create digital scrapbooks with looks they find on the site, or photos they snap themselves and upload.

“Social networking is about engagement and dialogue. And it doesn’t have to be loud or make the viewer feel exposed. It’s about giving your consumers the tools to personalize their experience and the choice of how they want to interact with the brand,” said Sojin Lee, co-founder of the site.

Europe’s brands also are using the sites as vehicles for customer feedback and fresh ideas.

Georgia Fendley, brand director at Mulberry, said the company has recently begun contacting customers who have tweeted that they can’t find a particular bag. “We’ve also repaired a much-loved old bag for a consumer who was worrying about how and where to repair it,” she said.

Social media is growing to such an extent that brands are beginning to invest more heavily in online advertising, films, contests and competitions. In some cases, brands are diverting money from print into social media-focused marketing.

Last month, Jimmy Choo unveiled a social media campaign and competition to promote its limited edition Project PEP collection, which launches Oct. 29 and benefits the Elton John AIDS Foundation. Burberry already has shifted 25 percent of its global advertising spend into digital media, according to a spokesman, who added: “Digital activity is at the core of Burberry’s strategic marketing.”

French designer Vanessa Bruno has set aside 5 percent of the company’s budget for online media. “Facebook and Twitter have a real unconscious impact on e-business, and these social media are touching the core of our clients,” she said. The brand also is planning to launch an iPhone function for sales and a personal blog on the site.

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