With so many stores closed and runway shows canceled, 2020 was the year fashion brands became digital content producers above almost everything else, and their own mini Hollywood studios in some cases — creating short films, episodic series, prime-time TV specials, immersive video games, marionette shows and more to showcase their collections and connect with audiences.
For a pandemic pivot, it was laudable, and some of the content was entertaining. But commercially speaking, it’s difficult to imagine any of it having the influence of Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit,” for example, which sent sales of chess sets soaring 125 percent in the U.S. without any paid partnership, or even Nicole Kidman’s coats in “The Undoing,” which captivated designers and fans alike.
As fashion enters another year of all eyes on digital content, whose end user is a potential consumer as much as an industry insider, brands can take cues from Hollywood: One, it’s about the story. If you get that right, the commerce will follow. Two, when you do craft a good narrative, or attach your product to one, it pays to monetize that connection as soon as possible, not six months from now.
To that point, all I could think about while watching Gucci’s “Ouverture of Something That Never Ended” episode featuring Harry Styles and observing the hundreds of adoring fans commenting on YouTube in real time (besides the confounding lack of story throughout), was when will his pink Gucci athletic T be available to buy? Talk about a missed opportunity for a merch drop back in November. (The spring collection is not in stores until April/May.)
Jonathan Anderson, on the other hand, seized his Harry Styles moment in 2020, releasing for free the pattern for the crooner’s cardigan, creating a win for viral marketing, craft and brand awareness, if not for commerce.
“The truth is, we’ve already moved into a society that’s purchasing less engineered fashion and more pop culture,” said Marc Beckman, chief executive officer of branding firm DMA United, who believes most brands do not create content with enough of an emotional connection to drive purchasing, and even those that do are missing the opportunity to convert viewers to customers.
Alexander McQueen’s spring 2021 “First Light” film directed by British filmmaker Jonathan Glazer (54,000 YouTube views compared to the Gucci Harry Styles’ episode’s 1.8 million) left me wanting more for a different reason. At the end of the five-minute film, I was just starting to feel emotionally invested in the story of the haute urchins and punk pickpockets in the muck of the Thames.
At least the brand had the foresight to put the clothes in stores for pre-order immediately following the film’s release. But how about a sequel to see how those characters develop? I’d watch that. I wouldn’t mind seeing Moschino’s Jim Henson Creature Shop marionettes return, either, maybe even with some form of collectibles on toy store shelves. Mattel might be game to help.
While designers may agonize over the latest sleeve, brand narrative is becoming paramount in fashion, which is why it’s surprising that Tom Ford, who legitimately has a foot in both the fashion and entertainment storytelling spaces, hasn’t done more to mix the two in the form of making his own feature-length film to sell his women’s collection. (His men’s suits on the other hand, has had plenty of screen time in James Bond films directed by others.)
I’ll never forget watching Ford’s directorial debut “A Single Man” and being obsessed with the scene of Julianne Moore putting on her eye makeup…Imagine if that had been Tom Ford eye makeup? (His 2015 “Nocturnal Animals” didn’t feature any Tom Ford clothing, either.) Or imagine if Ferragamo, which has a history going back to the golden age of Hollywood, decided only to show its collections by integrating into one series a year? Giorgio Armani, who has had so many film partnerships already, could also do that as an innovative way of showing.
In addition to pushing fashion brands into more content creation of their own, the pandemic has created more opportunity — and appetite — for brand integration into film, TV, music video and video game content, according to marketers.
“With the decentralization of content, we went from having four linear networks 20 years ago to having more than 200 channels to consume content now,” said Erin Schmidt, chief strategy and client service officer at BEN (Branded Entertainment Network), whose agency works with Hollywood’s Producers Guild as a resource for brands to find out about upcoming projects. “There is a unique opportunity for brands to come to the table with producers and say ‘What are you working on, how do we create an alignment where a brand can create all the looks in a series, then day and date drop it and have those looks come out?'”
Clearly, Amazon Studios, which aligned content with commerce with its fashion show, “Making the Cut,” and with Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty special, has an advantage operationally (though it’s not clear how commercially successful Savage x Fenty or “Making the Cut” first-season winner Jonny Cota are at retail, despite the e-commerce giant’s might). But Schmidt sees other opportunities for designers and brands to get ahead of Hollywood content, particularly streaming TV content, which has a shorter production cycle than film. “Talk to producers, say ‘Is there a story that aligns with my vision for 2022’ and be a part of that.”
When brands do integrate, whether it’s long form, short form, livestreaming or scripted, they need to seed more information around content to turn viewers into customers, said Beckman.
“What we’re trying to do is move brands to the new mind-set of AI, creating an emotional connection through content, then using artificial intelligence to maintain it by giving the audience as much customized information through the linear purchasing path as possible, from ideation through post-product acquisition where they become evangelists.”
What would that look like exactly? “If I see Tom Cruise in his new movie wearing an amazing suit, I’d like to be able to in real time figure out when it’s going to be available, what it’s made of, if it’s sustainable, how long it will take me to get it, can I customize it…all while I’m watching the film,” he explained. “A chief marketing officer should be able to use AI to figure out what data I need to push it out to me while I’m fully immersed in the next ‘Mission Impossible.'” It’s being proactive, rather than reactive.
The ultimate blend of content and commerce is creating a shoppable moment in an on-screen blockbuster. Tiffany & Co. placed its timeless Elsa Peretti bone cuffs in the recent “Wonder Woman 1984” film, which drove me, at least, to take a closer look. But I had to do it on a second screen.
“The disconnect now is the technology that’s going to connect the box in the living room to the mobile phone,” said Stacy Jones, founder of marketing agency Hollywood Branded, adding that there is also a legal business issue.
“If you have an actor in a scene wearing an outfit, should the actor get a commission from a sale? They think they should. Should the director and producer and show owner, whether it’s a production company or studio, and who should profit off that when the show is sold into syndication? And once you get everyone paid is there anything left from the sale to make it worthwhile to a brand?”
But the whole business model of Hollywood and fashion is changing, and the worlds are moving ever closer. “This leap will happen in the next year or two,” she said.
Watch that screen.