Marketing strategy in the see-now buy-now era

This article was originally featured in AdAge on September 23rd, 2016

What does see-now buy-now mean for fashion marketing?

When Lotta Volkova, fashion stylist of Vetements fame,was asked who in the fashion industry is in power today, she simply replied: the consumer. Not the CEO, the editor, the journalist or the fashion critic. The consumer.

Ms. Volkova is right. Out of more than 152 designers presenting collections at this September’s fashion week, 10% are doing it in the see-now buy-now manner.

In the accepted fashion cycle, clothes were shown before they were produced. There was a six-month gap between design and debuting collections on the runway and their retail. Menswear and womenswear collections were displayed separately.

In the new direct-to-consumer model, collections are available immediately after they are shown, and menswear and womenswear are presented simultaneously. Runway shows take place at the end of the production process (and not prior to it), and clothes displayed at the runway are in-season. Consumers can forge a direct relationship with fashion brands, unmediated by long-lead press, magazine editors, PR machinery and retail distributors. Just like with Calvin Klein, nothing comes between them and their fashion choices.

This disintermediation was made possible by digital technology and its immediacy, transparency, responsiveness and instant gratification. Fashion heavy-weights like Burberry, Tom Ford, Ralph Lauren, Proenza Schouler and Tommy Hilfiger were quick to understand that customer expectations are shaped and formed outside their industry and that, to stay relevant, they need to join the customer-centric game.

The eagerness of the fashion industry to change the way it works in hope of rebooting sales doesn’t answer an important question: see now, buy now, market … when?

In the direct-to-consumer model so far, going to market meant that buyers had to sneak in showrooms a few months before fashion week. In the secrecy scenario that would make Apple proud, they’d get watermarked photos for their catalogues and sign non-disclosure agreements with penalties equal to sacrificing one’s firstborn child.

There is a legitimate question of what happens with a 10 lb. September issue of Vogue if all collections are presented in-season. The marketing model of fashion built around desire-inducing, anticipation-creating and dream-inspiring is losing relevance faster than last year’s denim bell bottoms.

It remains to be seen what it is going to be replaced with. Despite the current hype, no one knows whether the see-now buy now-model will excite consumers enough to become a direct driver for sales. Once the novelty of the format wears off, consumers may decide that it’s time to move onto something new, leaving fashion brands exhausted creatively and steeped in the unfamiliar production and distribution cycle. Without their demand being groomed, consumers may also not like anything they see on the runway, displayed in-season or not. They simply may not be ready for the clothes they see.

But this is the beauty of customer-centrism: trusting that the fashion audience can figure it out, without editors telling it what to like and without brands claiming that consumers don’t know what they want until they show it to them. As the industry moves from “promise, deliver later” to “deliver now, promise later,”

fashion marketing needs to break the mould in telling their brand and product stories and embrace the creativity, testing-and-learning and experimentation.

Fashion shows are likely to become even bigger and more mass marketing and sales affairs, aimed at tapping into consumers’ wallets while they are blinded by the never-seen-before items. Getting the clothes straight off the runway has the “I was there” badge and social currency aura attached to it. For those who weren’t there and live-streamed the show, they still get to be #first to see and get the new items.

Then there is buzz, there is advertising in real-time. This includes a quicker turnaround for magazine spreads and fashion editorial, which will need to reflect the runway offerings at the speed of Instagram stories. Without their traditional role of telling consumers what to think, like and wear, magazines and brands have to tap into uniquely digital advertising opportunities revolving around direct and performance marketing tactics, creating purchase leads, and generating consumer data for the future direct marketing and CRM activities. Social advertising gets to accompany the just-shown runway product imagery with clear and immediate call to action, driving traffic to brand website and/or product pages.

To drive audience in stores and to their websites, social media and contenthave to master the art of the tease, which drives consumers to shop upfront.The high-drama lament of the French that see-now buy-now is a “negation of dreaming, of desire” brings out the irony of the fact that digital may prove to be more suitable to building fashion intrigue than any medium before it (think the thrill and newness of Instagram or Snapchat).

The opportunity to tease out the stitching, the product details, the collages and sketches that inspired the collection, the behind-the-scenes workings is unmatched. Equally unmatched is the potential for a creative product release cycle. Freed from the fashion calendar, brands are able to tease out the products in a manner that feeds consumers’ interest, and to release items in a phased-out manner that leaves audience wanting more and keep coming back.

To feed the tease, brands are going to adopt the platform model (vs. campaign pushes), where things happen all the time regardless of the season, accompanied by shorts bursts of activity from special events. Consumer interaction with content and social actions is an indicator of the early intent and serves both for data intelligence gathering and for building a long-term customer relationship.

Investing in the long-term customer relationship marks a shift from what buyers are asking for to what consumers are buying and talking about. To really own it, fashion brands need to invest a lot more in their marketing departments. Knowing who their consumer is, where they live, what they like, how they spend their time, what inspires them and what lifestyle they lead can come only from smart, deep, and always-on market research (and no, I do not mean surveys). Social listening, digital ethnography, observation, monitoring content and social interactions and testing-and learning are all going to give designers a feel of the vibrations of consumers’ desire.

How massive the change in fashion really is remains to be seen in retail distribution. Gone are the days when retailers insisted on coat deliveries in July because Babe Paley used to buy them then. There’s nothing like a chunky sale that drives department stores foot traffic, but this can be expected to dwindle down once wholesale adapts to consumer demand. Another thing that’s going to dwindle: reliance of fashion brands on wholesalers to tell their stories. With the direct-to-consumer shift, they are going to have to use their own runway shows, stores, e-commerce and social media to put their vision and message forward.

So far, this message is best summarized in Alber Elbaz’ words: “When there is a wind of change, we can build a wall to protect ourselves from the storm or we can build a windmill to let the wind blow faster, so we can benefit from the wind and be part of change.” Let the windmills show the way.