ON WITH THE SHOW
ALL THE WEB’S A STAGE, AND DESIGNERS, CELEBRITIES AND CONSUMERS CAN GET IN ON THE ACT.

Byline: Miles Socha

Welcome to the age of “merchantainment.”David Lauren, Ralph Lauren’s son and the chief creative and marketing officer for the forthcoming Polo.com Web site, coined that new term to describe the place — still a frontier, really — where fashion, fun and the Internet are intersecting.
“It represents the merging of lifestyle marketing and merchandising and entertainment,” he said, describing his thinking as the e-commerce site gears up for a launch later this year.
Ah, entertainment. Fashion, music and television marketers agree that its presence on the Internet will flourish in unforeseen ways as broadband capabilities reach more households and designers bring their lifestyle statements to multidimensional life. Even the prospect of adding sound to the mix gets fashion marketers giddy with possibility, given the fact that most of them have relied for decades on two-dimensional images to convey their attitude, style and image.
“Imagine someone speaking to you,” said Jeffrey Morgan, Polo.com’s chief executive officer. “It gives you an ability to create a mood or share information in a way that’s more compelling than just reading.”
Most fashion marketers agreed that the Internet has yet to reach its full potential as an entertainment medium, but that it’s gaining fast. And they brush aside concerns about any conflict or impropriety in blending entertainment with merchandising.
“We have only seen the beginning of the entertainment potential that the Internet can offer,” stressed Harlan Bratcher, senior vice president of global marketing at Calvin Klein, which has identified the Internet as a priority, now that the company has ended its six-month search for a buyer or strategic partner. “Today, the Internet is the encyclopedia of culture, but tomorrow it will be an invisible, pervasive and intuitive necessity.”
The Web’s rudimentary abilities as an entertainer are reflected in research. According to a recent survey of 12,000 online consumers by The Boston Consulting Group, Internet users devote 43 percent of their time online in communication-related activities, principally e-mail. Information gathering represents 27 percent of online activity, while entertainment, which includes playing games, visiting entertainment and sport sites and listening to music, accounts for 13 percent. Still, that’s more time than what’s devoted to commercial activity, including shopping, which represents 8 percent of time spent on line.
Fashion marketers fully expect the entertainment quotient to explode rapidly. Peter Connolly, president of Tommy.com, noted that “no other media in history has been able to gather such a large audience share” so rapidly. “Some people are already spending more time on the Internet than watching television.”
Still, Connolly said he does not expect the Internet to supplant other forms of media. After all, the first motion pictures were expected to replace live theater, television was supposed to replace movies, VCRs were supposed to replace television, and so on and so on, none of which ever came to be. The Internet, he stressed, is “just broadening the scope and range of entertainment.”
For example, Tommy.com recently produced and broadcast a six-part teenage-driven soap opera, “Houseparty,” with interactive elements wherein Web users could read cast bios and get makeup and styling tips. The virtual miniseries introduced characters teenage women would identify with, while subtly promoting the Tommy Jeans brand.
“It’s a vehicle to reach my consumers through my own Web site, and it’s far more economical than buying air time,” Connolly stressed. “That’s my own television network.”
Fashion companies already understand the power of entertainment and the close synergy between music and style, said Peggy Mansfield, senior vice president of advertising at online music marketer The MTVi Group. She noted that almost 20 percent of its online advertisers are fashion firms, mostly status denim brands targeting a youth audience. They know that entertainment — be it music clips, interviews or a behind-the-scenes look at a fashion shoot involving a pop star — is what attracts users to go online and keeps them on the site.
But is there a risk in having entertainment and merchandising so closely interlinked? Most observers balked at that suggestion.
Morgan said the old model of segregating editorial from merchandising is an outmoded concept. But he stressed that online entertainment produced by lifestyle marketers does not mean “advertorial.”
Andy Hilfiger, Tommy Hilfiger’s brother and vice president of public relations for Tommy Jeans, agreed that content shouldn’t be of an overbearing sort. He said its current “Unreleased Cuts” program, which is basically a “battle of the brands” online, puts the power in the hands of consumers, who can vote for their favorites. “You can’t tell kids what they should like,” he said. “They have to decide what they like and what they think is cool.”
Hilfiger said the Internet promises to be a more compelling entertainment vehicle than television insomuch as it is not as passive and it’s more immediate. “You can see what is the hottest new product online before you see it two months later in a magazine,” he said. “[People] want to see the lifestyle, but they also want to be able to buy the product.”
Trey Laird, executive vice president and creative director of creative services at Donna Karan International, said online entertainment must meet the same standards as anything on television, a stage or the big screen. For example, “if it’s comedy, it better be funny,” he said. “It’s the same on the Internet. What’s good is good, and what isn’t will fall out.”
Bratcher stressed that anything that offers a service to the user is considered a win-win online. He cited as an example the firm’s “micro-site” for CK Calvin Klein Jeans on MTV.com, which features musicians from its advertising campaigns, including Moby, Macy Gray and Shakira.
“Because of our relationships with the artists, we were able to offer properties that MTV.com was unable to offer on its own — full-length videos, music tracks, interviews and imagery from our campaign,” Bratcher said. It adds up to “a unique user experience.
Fashion and entertainment already comingle on television, and the Web completes the cycle. A new California-based firm, Set Wave Inc., is launching a site this September that will allow users to purchase clothing and home accessories from popular television shows and films.
Rod Stoddard, Set Wave founder and ceo, pointed to sellouts of Victoria’s Secret pajamas worn by Calista Flockhart on Ally McBeal and Monica Lewinsky’s Club Monaco lipstick as examples of how powerful the two are in combination. “People are influenced by what they see,” he said. “It’s not someone pushing it on them.”
But Stoddard warned that celebrities and popular entertainment properties have the ability to “aggregate eyeballs,” whereas entertainment is not the core business or expertise of fashion brands. He acknowledged that there are exceptions, such as Victoria’s Secret fashion shows that are broadcast live online and have created huge traffic jams. That’s an instance when the fashion world is entertaining. But he said, generally, “people don’t look to fashion firms for entertainment….For fashion companies to become entertainment conglomerates just doesn’t make sense.”
Batcher said speed is what’s needed. “In terms of content and technology, the customer is demanding a quick payoff for the time invested at a site,” he said. “It’s about technology that can customize the experience and give the visitor targeted information customized for them. The consumer wants to have information to make decisions, whether they’re being entertained or shopping online.”