Luxury’s Social Media Challenges

My interest in luxury brands’ social media challenges started last year. I was doing some research on how brands are handling customer service interactions in social channels, and in covering the broad swathe of retail verticals, I ended up on Hermès’s Facebook page. The company was getting slammed by PETA activists, mostly over some video footage of a crocodile farm in Texas. Can’t have crocodile-skin bags without killing some crocodiles, and the farm had been the target of a lot of criticism for mistreating the animals.

There’s nothing wrong with protesting when someone feels there has been a wrong. But, wow, Hermès was getting hammered. Every post, at least five or ten people came in and drowned out anything anyone else might have to say about the brand.

Hermès responded to this pounding with… silence. Silence seemed to be the general policy on the brand’s Facebook page, with absolutely no responses to anything, positive or negative. Customer service issue? Nope. Kudos or fan love? Not for that either.

The problem with this complete lack of response is that it comes across as tone deaf. For someone new to the brand (definitely it was the first time I had actively sought out Hermès as a brand), the brand seemed very tarnished, and the company paralyzed about what to do about it. As a potential customer, I found it very off-putting. And as Millennials force more social consciousness on companies, Hermès’s lack of response wasn’t just off-putting, it was dangerous if they ever hoped to attract the next generation to the brand.

Couple that with the whole “why are you trying if you’re not really going to engage here?” dynamic. The point of Facebook is to share stories and/or have conversations. Hermès was doing neither. For all anyone knows, it could’ve been a bot just picking random images from Hermès’s website and throwing them up on Facebook with randomly generated hashtags. #AsleepAtTheWheel.

I’ve been wondering ever since, do other luxury brands have this problem? It’s one thing to talk to your customers when you’re an elite, 1-percenter kind of brand. It’s another thing to hold those conversations in the general public square, where protest groups and angry, economically disadvantaged consumers are ready and able to carry the same weight and voice as any target customer. It’s easy, through location analysis, to welcome target customers and even aspirational brand fans who enthuse but don’t buy. It’s a lot harder to appear welcoming when all the people with pitchforks and torches show up and crowd everyone else out.

I just recently caught this article, talking about how dangerous it can be to fixate on social media sentiment. Social media sentiment is not consumer sentiment. And no matter what people say, they often do something completely different. That’s been a challenge for in-person focus groups for decades – they’ll tell you all kinds of things in person, but when it comes to their buying habits, what they say may actually be a fantasy.

At the same time I saw Hermès with a Facebook page on fire, I also was looking at Starbucks’s Facebook page. One thing that struck me about the coffee chain’s Facebook strategy is that they respond to almost every comment. Positive, negative, everything in between.

They quickly provide links to route people who have complaints, along with sharing links to recipes, gift ideas, how to share a store-specific kudo, and more. There is definitely a conversation going on here.

So, when I saw the NYT article about whether brands should be paying attention to social sentiment or not, I decided it was high time to revisit this question about luxury brands in particular.

I went out and found a list of the top luxury brands online. According to that list, curated by PMX Agency, the top 10 luxury brands online are Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors, Coach, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Chanel, Burberry, Hermès, Dior, and Louboutin. These top 10 brands represent over 80% of luxury market share. And, the “online” part of the top luxury brands online is important, because if they’re big online, then they should be paying close attention to all of their digital channels, including Facebook.

Why Facebook? According to the PMX study, Facebook drives nearly half of all social media traffic for luxury brands, and social media traffic accounts for 7.4% of total traffic to brand websites – which is up a full percentage point over 2016.

I don’t have space to go through all 10 here, so let’s look at the top three – Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors, and Coach – and, just because I picked on them, Hermès. What did I find? A lot more silence. All four brands appear to be completely non-responsive to comments that people share on company posts.

Coach was the most active of the four brands, having posted twice in the last 24 hours. Looking at an earlier post, one that had time to gather some comments, it turned out most of them were not positive.

Coach has been featuring bags designed to appeal to a younger crowd, and as you can see, the reception was not positive. Just these three reveal one customer service issue, and two people saying how much they love the brand but hate the products featured. Coach’s response? Silence. The customer service issue should’ve been routed off the social channel into a private interaction to resolve it, and the two people complaining about the products featured should’ve been routed to products they might’ve liked better – which would have surfaced those products to anyone else who had commented, along with anyone scanning those comments.

Ralph Lauren, the top online brand, was the least active on Facebook. Their last post was on 9/12/17, which happened to be just after Harvey and in the middle of Irma. The responses were overwhelmingly negative.

By the way, the replies were from other people, not from Ralph Lauren. Ironically, Ralph Lauren had actually issued an appeal to its customers to donate to the American Red Cross for hurricane relief – on the same day as the post that garnered this reaction. But the brand didn’t share that on Facebook. And while all of these negative reactions sit there and stew, the brand has not added anything new to its Facebook page to push the offending post further off the page.

Hermès has managed to ditch the angry PETA people, at least in recent posts, according to comments against their last post from 10/19/17.

Two customer service issues, and one revved up (I guess?) fan. Also zero responses from Hermès, though the company has now activated Hermès Messenger, so when you go to the Facebook page, a Messenger window immediately pops up. This is a great diversion strategy for customer service issues, to take them into a more private chat rather than letting them end up as comments on posts. But in both of these service complaint issues on the post above, Hermès should have responded, again, by sending them to a place where their complaints can actually be handled.

The Bottom Line

It’s true that social sentiment does not equate to customer sentiment, and in fact, it can be dangerous for brands to respond to social sentiment as if it were literally true. But it’s also true that brands who remain silent in the face of social channel criticism risk looking out of touch and irrelevant.

I think this is especially true of luxury brands, which supposedly are differentiating themselves in part on excellent customer service. There is no “excellence” being displayed on these brands’ Facebook pages. In fact, what is being displayed is a complete lack of customer service. It’s a sad state of affairs when Starbucks provides better customer interactions than Coach.

But that appears to be the state of affairs in which we live. The lessons for all retailers and brands are clear:

  • Create a link where you can send people who have customer complaints, so that those complaints can be captured and resolved off of the public forum of social channels. Sharing that link with comments that contain a complaint also show to other people that you’re being responsive, and that you take these complaints seriously.
  • Respond to every comment, even if it’s just Starbucks’s simple “We love you too! Thanks for sharing!”.
  • If you find a negative trend in responses, as Coach was getting around their product choices that they were featuring on Facebook, then either prepare a post that responds to that, or provide curated links to product recommendations that might be a better fit. A simple “Is this more like what you like?” goes a long way towards making a customer feel appreciated.
  • Up your game on social media. There were very few stories shared in the Facebook posts of these brands. Design inspirations, curation decisions, behind-the-scenes, invitations for engaged fans to participate – none of these things were happening on these luxury brand pages. It makes their current Facebook strategies look like a waste of effort.

Article written by: Nikki Baird