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Confessions of a marketer: How hard is it to really digitise luxury brands?

Luxury brands haven’t always earned a reputation for being digitally forward. Even today, there is huge gap between the realm of physical and digital in the world of luxury.

But several years ago, this started to change for Burberry as the brand started to focus more on digital. In 2014, here in Asia, just six months in to a collaboration with WeChat, Burberry extended the partnership to enhance its social and mobile presence in China to allow Burberry followers on WeChat to watch its London Fashion Week show and hear WeChat-only audio content about the inspiration and details of key runway events.

Meanwhile two years ago, in a bid to reinvigorate sales in the massive Chinese market, British luxury fashion brand Burberry ramped up advertising on China’s popular social media app WeChat, which saw a 4% rise in overall sales in the second quarter. That’s more than expected, thanks largely to a resurgence in China, where sales had slowed in recent years.

Marketing sat down with CMO of SAIS group, Michael Hardman (pictured), who previously spent 10 years with Burberry to share his take on tech and luxury.

Speaking to us about his journey to Burberry, Hardman explains his career as a planner in a small communications agency in England, and not long after moved on to a role with Microsoft as head of marketing agency and operations, where he worked on various European and global projects.

“My most challenging work was in the area of consolidating all the marketing creative into a roster of global network agencies for Microsoft,” he said.  This was “huge at the time”, he explains, because Microsoft had decided to start pure “brand” marketing as opposed to a myriad of product communications such as Windows, X-box, Office, Server, SME, among others.

“The consumer at the time was confused about what Microsoft meant to them — and that was a big challenge for what was one of the biggest companies at that time. This was before Google’s search domination and the rise of social platforms,” he added.  Following his stint with Microsoft, he started his own agency with the mission to find the best creative agencies for big brands.

“This is how I initially engaged with Burberry, working on various projects and eventually becoming the head of global marketing operations and marketing director for APAC,” he said.  The  goal then was to elevate the brand all over the world, as the brand was in different stages of development in different countries. The core strategy to execute this was to become a leader in the digital space, which is what we became famous for. After 10 years, Hardmen moved on to run a start-up lifestyle brand called KEYYES, which is part of the SAIS Group, partly owned by the Bulgari family.

Marketing: What was your role like working at Burberry?

Burberry was a huge part of my life. I was part of a new generation of people brought into the luxury fashion industry. Some of the talent brought in was staggering, and I felt incredibly lucky to be working with them. Angela Ahrendts and Christopher Bailey had the foresight to bring in people with deep digital experience with the specific task: “how to articulate luxury online”.

11 years ago, no one had attempted it. This was a creative challenge which I think we did an amazing job at. We effectively became a media content developer and fed numerous digital channels attracting huge followings across platforms in all the large luxury markets. Our tech development – with large companies such as Google, Facebook, Apple – was very much a big part of this success, we were always front of the queue for Beta testing.

Our strategy was think digital first, and be first in digital, simple but super effective. We were obsessed with the L2 rankings and always appeared top of this in all the significant territories. It was affirmation that we were doing the right thing, but we knew that already because on a very basic level the business growth was unparalleled in the sector.

Marketing: Was it hard digitising the luxury brand?

Yes, because the industry was dominated by very traditional marketeers and business managers who opposed a lot of the change. The long standing game was to produce as many beautifully crafted brochures and ship them all over the world and post them to customers, with little or no idea of ROI.

Digitising the brand took an overhaul of legacy and culture. It was change from the inside out. Once we created digital content that effectively articulated luxury, people started to get it, and the evolution spread within the business and eventually into the industry.

Marketing: What was your biggest accomplishment at Burberry?

Music is a huge part of my life, so working on the Burberry Acoustic music platform was great fun. No one had really cracked the nut of a music brand platform at this time. Our concept was bands chosen by our chief creative officer playing acoustically.

We would film a music video, with minimal branding to keep authenticity that both parties could use and post to our ever increasing social followings. As we developed it became a way in which we could support young British acts by introducing them to labels and management. We genuinely wanted to help them if we believed in them. On a relationship basis, a lot of the more successful bands would be much more willing to do other things with us once they had become famous. We were playing the long game.

Burberry Acoustic continues its success to this day run by the very talented David Chase, Burberry’s Music director.

Marketing: Given it was in the luxury space, communication must have been pretty strict. How did you manage to PR the brand and yourself?

Most discerning companies have a strict policy of who the spokesperson is. In luxury fashion, only the creative director can talk about the product and creative vision, and the CEO talks about the business and investor relations. So, from a business comms perspective, you cannot be quoted.

All quotes must be referred to them, you just facilitate the conversations. Although this might seem restrictive, it’s actually something that from a long term perspective elevates for those business leaders, making them a beacon for the business. It’s also a clear voice to the press about what the company and brand is. Apple does this very well.

On a personal level there are very few moments in which you can broadcast who you are and what your thoughts are on industry topics. Appearing in the press is not something that is advisable.

Marketing: If you had to leave our luxury brand marketers with one tip, what would it be?

This for me is very simple: we tend to produce  too many throw away marketing initiatives. One thing I learned from Christopher Bailey was the power of consistency.

Consistency in quality, and consistency in initiative, will ensure the longevity of our platforms. These become reliable places for followers to experience content that delights and engages them.

It’s all-too-easy to produce something and then move on too quickly. High quality curation takes time, effort and consideration. We know luxury brands are never built in a day. Have confidence and conviction in something, build on it and keep building.

Over and above that be creative and be focused. Doing too many things can ruin your efforts by poor execution. Perfect execution is the 101 of luxury campaign work.

Marketing: Let’s go back a little and talk about your role at Microsoft. What was it like?

Joining Microsoft was very much a Charlie and The Chocolate Factory moment. I just wanted to see what it was like on the inside. It was hugely exciting, and meeting people such as Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer was very inspirational. My role was to manage the input and output of the global marketing creative agencies across the disciplines.

It was a very dynamic role working with business units with very different objectives, some B2B such as SME and Server Products, as well as ubiquitous B2C brands like Windows and X-Box. This was extremely challenging but rewarding. Because Microsoft was a super large tech enterprise, we approached our challenges with smart tech.

Microsoft was also consistently voted one of the best places to work during that time. How they treated the staff was incredible, the campuses across the world were serviced with great cafés, restaurants, doctors, dentists, massage therapy, shopping facilities, which I know is more common now, but back then it was groundbreaking.

Marketing: What was the most challenging aspect in managing so many different agencies?

One of my core career skills is agency management. 15 years ago it was all about having agencies for each discipline, and getting them to integrate their proposals and plans. This can be hugely expensive and you end up with very disconnected campaigns unless you work very hard on the client side to weave everything together, which is a specialty I had developed in the past.

Over the last decade, clients have started to look for integrated offerings, which I think is a much more manageable task for medium sized businesses. However I am a believer that in the age of multi-digital-channel integrated campaigns, we are back to needing to find the best of the best for each discipline.

There is an alternative model which is something I worked on at Burberry and that is the in-house model. This was a very progressive solution for the industry a decade ago. In a highly creative-led organisation such as this, it was clear that the Chief Creative Officer needed to be close to everything.

We set out building a world class creative team led by an amazing creative director Greg Stogdon. We even went as far as building photography studios on site, video production facilities, and everything required to build multi-media campaigns. Everything was built and developed in-house except the seasonal campaigns which were shot by Mario Testino.

 

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