This week’s purchase of Yahoo suggests Verizon’s strategy department thinks much the same way as myriad other organisations; “size matters”. Whether it’s about minimising risk or increasing economies of scale, such logic has steered many companies to successful tenures. However, there are new trends in the marketplace that make such aphorisms more and more contentious.
It was a couple of years ago now that Rita McGrath wrote about “the end of sustainable competitive advantage”. Prior to this, the arrival of digital was, in general, supposed to have done away with such things. But perhaps the most recognisable face of the digital revolution over the past decade has been none other than Facebook. Facebook has consistently maintained competitive advantage through a savvy use of lock-in via network effects and an aggressive proclivity to buy out any competition (see Instagram, Whatsapp). Users spend about 50 minutes per day across these platforms.
What about organisations outside of TMT? For several years now, Zeitgeist has seen qual data showing the waning power of branding. As we’ve written extensively about in previous posts, this is partly to do with information asymmetry. In the early days of advertising, it wasn’t easy for an average person to be able to know much about a product like Colgate; a brand identity was a quick way to communicate what expectations a consumer should have. Nowadays, almost entirely due to the internet and digital communication, we are able to quickly ascertain what products meet our requirements (what size tube do I need), which are bullshitting (how much whiter teeth?) and which our friends use (still ranked as the most important data point for trying a new product). Companies like Colgate sit in the Consumer Packaged Goods [CPG] category, where most of the world’s most instantly recognisable brands reside. But according to research from Boston Consulting Group, between 2011 and 2015, CPG companies lost nearly three percentage points of market share in the US. Nestle has missed its sales growth targets for the past three years.
Part of what’s hitting the CPG sector is a sustained enthusiasm for “local”. Zeitgeist first saw this trend emerging in 2011 when he worked in a strategic capacity for retailers who were increasingly looking to tailor their store design and offering to the area they were in. This is happening in media too, where local content in the Chinese market is quickly adapting to the pyrotechnics and thrills of imported Hollywood fare, and reaping the rewards. Many of China’s businesses are built on being the home-grown version of x foreign product. Uber’s recent deal with Didi Chuxing is an example of this. Moreover, if you’ve decided you’re happy to pay a premium for a product, it is increasingly unlikely you’ll choose a mass produced one. A real treat would be buying a nice cheese from Jermyn Street’s Paxton & Whitfield, not from one of the thousands of Waitrose stores in the country. Deloitte report that US consumers would pay at least 10% more for the “craft” version of a good, a greater share than would pay extra for convenience or innovation.
Of course, as mentioned earlier, digital has had a profound impact on lowering barriers to entry. From The Economist,
[New entrants] can outsource production and advertise online. Distribution is getting easier, too: a young brand may prove itself with online sales, then move into big stores. Financing mirrors the same trend: last year investors poured $3.3 billion into private CPG firms, according to CB Insights, a data firm—up by 58% from 2014 and a whopping 638% since 2011.
Digital’s impact has also been to dovetail with the trends already mentioned. Consumers’ turning away from brand messaging and interest for local is a quest for authenticity in a crowded market. Rightly or wrongly, no other tactic has proved so successful to communicate a roughshod authenticity as the viral video over the past ten years. New entrants are communicating using different channels but also in different ways, that make incumbents uncomfortable. As pointed out though in an editorial from the FT this weekend, “It is tempting to see these young companies as miracles of branding. In fact, they expose outdated industry structures and offer dramatically more value to consumers.”
Large organisations, sensing the eroding advantage, are responding in different ways. P&G is increasingly focusing on its top tier brands, selling off or consolidating around 100 others. Unilever recently bought the famous Dollar Shave Club, and VC arms are popping up at companies like General Mills (think Lucky Charms) and Deloitte, which like other firms is also thinking about how to avoid disruption.
At the start of this piece we mentioned two reasons that going big could lead to sustained advantage: minimising risk and establishing economies of scale. In our eyes, the former is more at risk than ever, as firestorms on platforms like Twitter and Periscope can eviscerate a brand more quickly than ever; VW’s vast operations have not saved it from significant reputational damage. Economies of scale are also a risky proposition, as The Economist points out “Consolidating factories has made companies more vulnerable to the swing of a particular currency, points out Nik Modi of RBC Capital Markets”.
But what about Facebook? At the start of the article we talked about its ongoing rule of the social world, but that definition seems too narrow for what the platform is trying to accomplish. Zuckerberg has talked about Facebook becoming a “utility” as part of a long-term vision over the coming decades. This is interesting given this is exactly what every mobile phone network operator in the world is trying to avoid. Reflecting on Yahoo’s demise last week, the Financial Times wrote that “the Achilles heel of each new wave of technology is that it eventually turns into a utility”. Teens don’t tend to find utilities exciting, and perhaps then it is no surprise that Pew reports declining usage and engagement with the platform from this age group. For Facebook then, commoditisation is as much a risk as disruption by a new entry.
I don’t think democratic luxury exists. I don’t believe in something for everyone… How can we possibly put these products on the Web site without the tactile experience of luxury?”
– Brunello Cucinelli
The democratisation of fashion took a beating this past week as news reached Zeitgeist that Fashion’s Night Out was to be no more. Spearheaded by Anna Wintour at the height of the global recession, the idea was for a curated evening; a chance for stores to open their doors late, inviting a party atmosphere and focussing spend on a calendar event. The Wall Street Journal wrote that last year, “Michael Kors judged a karaoke competition at his store on Madison Avenue, rapper Azealia Banks performed at the MAC store in Soho and a game night was held at a Kate Spade store.” The evening festivities were replicated across New York, London and other cities.
Zeitgeist happened to be on Manahattan’s Spring Street last September when the most recent FNO was held, waiting patiently for a perenially-late friend who works next door to Mulberry. While waiting, it was absolutely fascinating to see the sheer of variety of people out on the street. While the crowds were mostly composed of women, the groups ranged from college-aged JAPs and the avant-garde to hipsters and stay-at-home mothers. Most gawped excitedly as they beheld the Mulberry boutique, enticed by the glimpses of free food and drink, as well the sultry bass tones of some cool track. One elegantly dressed fashionista strode hurriedly past Zeitgeist, lamenting to her cellphone “Oh God, it’s Fashion’s Night Out tonight”.
Ultimately perhaps it was such feelings among the fashion set that caused FNO to come to an abrupt end. But Zeitgeist got the sense that, while undeniably a celebration of fashion and an opportunity for brands to showcase their attractively experiential side – particularly to those who might usually be deterred by luxury brands and their perceived sense of formality – there weren’t a great deal of people actually buying things. It’s quite possible that the whole strategy of attracting a crowd who would not otherwise frequent such stores backfired; they turned up, sampled the free booze, felt what it must be like to shop at such-and-such a label, then moved on to the next faux-glitzy event with thumping music. This then was a failed attempt to bring luxury to the masses.
On a macro scale, the cause for democratisation is hardly helped by the global financial crisis. Although over four years old, the ramifications and scarring done to the economy are still sorely felt. This is illustrated in the unemployment figures around the world, tumultuous elections and anecdotal tales of hardship. More starkly, they are being backed up by solid quantitative research that proves we as a world are less connected now than we were in 2007. In December last year, The Economist reported on the DHL Global Connectedness Index, which concluded that connections between countries in 2012 were shallower (meaning less of the nation’s economy is internationalised) and narrower (meaning it connects with fewer countries) than before the recession. Meanwhile, just this past week, the McKinsey Global Institute published a report showing financial capital flows between countries were still 60% below their pre-recession high. This kind of business environment hardly fosters egalitarian conduct, and indeed such isolationist thinking was on show at Paris Fashion Week recently, where designers clung to their French heritage as a badge of honour. Exactly at the time when art needs to be leading the way in cultural integration, as emerging markets not only continue to make up a larger part of the customer base, but also develop their own powerful brands, it seemed that designers, like the financial markets, retreated to what they knew and found safe.
Where the ideology of democratising fashion has seen more success is of course online. We’ve written before about how luxury is struggling with the extent to which they invest in e-commerce. One of the principle hurdles is that the nature of luxury – elite, arcane, exclusive – is more or less diametrically opposed to the nature of the Internet – open, borderless, democratic.
Yet the story of Yoox – the popular and, in online terms, long-lasting fashion ecommerce platform – and its founder is one of just such democratisation. (It is particularly stunning to read of the difficulties the founder, a Columbia MBA graduate, Lehman Brothers and Bain & Co. alum, had in attracting VC funding). It also, crucially, points to the importance of recognizing multiple audiences, and how they like to shop differently depending on context. John Seabrook, writing in The New Yorker, reports that when Federico Marchetti set up Yoox in 2000, the world of ecommerce for fashion was regarded as a not particularly salubrious environment. Rather, the magazine compares it to outlet stores like Woodbury Common, fifty miles north of New York. Luxury brands like Prada and Marni could be found there, offering deep discounts on their wares, and it was for that reason – and the lack of control over their own brand – that they didn’t like much to talk about such places. This, despite the fact that they attracted 12 million people in 2011, “almost twice the number of visitors to the Metropolitan Museum”. Yoox was likewise greeted with much trepidation by fashion retailers. The article quotes an analyst from Forrester Research:
“It was a matter of principle with luxury brands that only people who shop on eBay use the internet – and their only interest was in getting a low price.”
Marchetti’s only available source of designer clothing was from last season and beyond, as no brand would sell their current collection. He curried favour with some of them though by advertising the prices without noting the discount customers were getting. Other than that, luxury brands took little or no notice.
Online shopping though would prove to be “one of the largest disruptions of the luxury-goods industry since the birth of the department store”. There are three kinds of online store today; those that sell deep-discounted goods on end-of-season wear, those that sell in-season clothing, and those that have flash sales of small numbers of clothing or accessories. It turned out there was an audience for all of these types of website. Bridget Foley, executive editor of WWD is quoted in the article saying “[T]here has been a sea change in attitude… I think [it] surprised the fashion industry… Just because you love clothes doesn’t mean you love shopping“. This struck Zeitgeist as one of the more important insights in the lengthy article. Though retailers often harp on about the importance of the retail environment, the need to touch the product, to be in an atmosphere where everything has been curated down to the finest detail, online neutralises all of that. This idea threatens those in the luxury sector, as the thinking goes that any such premium on products may seem less justifiable away from a Peter Marino-designed armchair and a nice glass of champagne. Such ideas are being challenged though. Not only is the nature of the store changing – from robotic sales staff to customers as models on the catwalk – but so is the view of the luxury customer as a homogenous, static group, devoid of context. Zeitgeist was at a Future of Media summit at the Broadcast Video Expo last week, where, as behavioural economics suggest, MD of Commercial, Online and Interactive for ITV Fru Hazlitt insisted that consumers had to be targeted in ways that were pertinent to them, not only as demographic groups, but in ways that recognised the context of how approachable they were likely to be at the time, given the programming they were watching. Fru admitted that in years past, broadcasters like ITV had seen advertising as “space to rent out”. Now they were thinking deeply about how and when is the right moment to reach their target consumer. It is the same in fashion. There is not one single way to reach the consumer; buyers of luxury goods do not want to be solely restricted to being able to buy your wares in a physical store.
Behavioural economics played a role in Marchetti’s initial framing of the audience for the website as well. He hired pedigreed fashion writers, as well as artists, architects and designers to make special projects that lent the website an air of curation, of something more special and rarefied that what one might find – or more importantly the way one might feel – at an outlet mall. Marchetti wanted the customers “to see themselves as connoisseurs, even if they were really just hunting for bargains”. The New Yorker article goes into some anecdotal detail about the way people shop on Yoox, which crucially differs not only from the way they would shop in-store, but also from other e-tailers. For online shopping in general, the experience is one where you can purchase ten items, and return nine of them with very little hassle, with credit for multiple rather than a single brand, and certainly no raised eyebrow from a pretentious shop assistant. Regarding specific sites, Yoox, unlike Net a Porter, for example, does not try to force a set of looks onto the user. Behavioural economics tell us that people irrationally value something more when they’ve been made to work a bit to get it. Such is the case now shopping for luxury items, which makes clothing not in-season (i.e. not currently in every shop window), both cooler and cheaper. It’s an act not to be discouraged. A Saks representative says customers who shop online as well as in store buy four times as much merchandise as customers who shop only in the store. What will worry retailers though is that the convenience of the online store outweighs the experience of the physical boutique. The New Yorker quotes a shopper: “I’ll never buy a dress at the Prada boutique again after getting these really amazing ones on Yoox.”
As well as setting up the Yoox website, Marchetti’s company now also powers the online stores of more than thirty fashion houses, including Armani and Jil Sander. Last summer, PPR joined in too, after conceding that their in-house expertise was not up to snuff. The latest development is making designs available to any customer as soon as it hits the runway. Burberry, as well as separate sites like Moda Operandi, have spearheaded this innovative change, which is effecting editorial as well as buying methods previously seen as unshakeable. The demand for this type of instant purchasing seems to be fueled by a niche – albeit a sizable one – that is not representative of the majority of luxury shoppers. The accessibility of a brand and its products is a tricky one to tread, one which Zeitgeist has written about several times before. Tom Ford performed a volte-face this year, after debuting his womenswear collection with no press and VIPs only, relented this year at London Fashion Week by letting bloggers write about the show. Chanel still steadfastly refuses to fully engage with online shopping. The tension is keenly felt in the New Yorker article, where Amazon’s new entry into the world of fashion is referenced. The CEO of Valentino is unconvinced: “Valentino is high luxury… People going to Amazon are not going to Valentino“. This smacks a little of pride and ignorance, for they most assuredly are, though perhaps not with luxury purchases in mind… yet.
It comes back to the idea that there are myriad types of luxury consumer. The industry has not fully acknowledged as of yet that the buying behaviour of a descendant of the ancien regime in Paris is unlikely to buy in the same way as a newly-minted businessman in Shenzhen. They may know that these types of buyers exist, and they may even create different products for each. Importantly though, they are not recognising that these people may go about purchasing in a different way. It’s not just a purchase journey that has changed massively in recent years, as McKinsey’s consumer decision journey illustrates above. It’s also, as ITV’s Fru Hazlitt insists, about recognising that different people shop in different ways, wholly dependent on context. Though Fashion’s Night Out may be on permanent hiatus, and though the global economy may be sputtering along in second gear, the opportunities to leverage deep insights into consumer purchase preferences are there for the taking. Yoox, along with a deeply complicated algorithm, are trying to tap into just this. But the process must start with realising that yes, actually, someone might want to pick up that Valentino dress while surfing on Amazon.
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