It used to be that the only way you could show the world you liked BMW cars, Burberry trench coats or Ralph Lauren blazers was to buy one. Now, all you have to do is click the “like” button on a brand’s Facebook page.

Luxury brands came late to the social networking party, but they are making up for lost time, and have added millions of fans to their Facebook pages over the past year. The brands are using social network sites to connect with high net-worth individuals as well as millions of others who wish they could afford brands such as Gucci, Chanel and Porsche.

High-end brands have woken up awakened to the power of social media because of some compelling statistics. “Households earning over $100,000 a year are on the Internet 23 hours a week and on Facebook six hours a week,” said Bernie Brennan, co-author with Lori Schafer of “Branded: How Retailers Engage Consumers with Social Media and Mobility.” And 80 percent of households with annual incomes of more than $240,000 use social networking, primarily Facebook, said Brennan. Luxury brands now realize “there’s a new way to communicate and if retailers or brands are not engaging in social media, they’re missing an enormous market opportunity,” he said.

BMW North America, based in Woodcliff Lake, has more than tripled its Facebook fans, to more than 348,000, since December, through contests, live chats and links to its popular BMW channel on YouTube. The global BMW Facebook page has more than 5 million fans.

Trudy Hardy, manager of BMW Marketing Communications and Consumer Events for BMW North America, said the Facebook and YouTube postings are designed to engage both BMW owners and non-owners. “We certainly look at everybody as a potential customer in the future,” Hardy said.

To connect with current and future customers, it’s important “to create a two-way dialogue,” Hardy said. Fans are encouraged to post about their driving experiences, and to react to commercials and new products, “so it’s not just [BMW] giving information, but we’re also receiving information back,” she said.

So far, no one has quantified whether more likes mean more sales. Most of the luxury brands are using social media as a new form of advertising, and a way of reaching consumers they know like the brand.

Burberry, the British fashion brand most famous for its raincoats, has boosted its number of fans or “likes” to more than 6 million by promoting new bands on its Facebook page and by encouraging fans to submit photos and videos of themselves modeling Burberry products.

“The most successful brands engage,” said Abe Kasbo, chief executive officer of Verasoni Worldwide, a Fairfield-based marketing firm that specializes in helping clients expand their online presence. “Your Web reputation is your reputation these days, so building a presence that indicative of the depth and breadth of your clients is crucial,” he said.

Gucci, with 4-million-plus Facebook fans, or “likes,” in the new terminology of Facebook, does a good job of engaging current and future customers, said Kasbo, whose company does not do marketing for Gucci. “If you go on their site, it’s incredible,” he said. “You might see 5,000 interactions as soon as they put up a handbag,” he said. While many of the brand’s fans may be teenagers who can only dream of shopping at Gucci, “If I’m Gucci, I’m thinking that I would like to expose people to my brand as soon as possible,” he said. “Because if people are immersed in my brand at 17, after they graduate college and have a good job they may become a Gucci customer.”

Still, Kasbo cautioned, having 4 million Facebook fans or more doesn’t amount to much unless the online interactions also boost the bottom line. “Ultimately, this is about social commerce,” he said. “Social networking is nice, but social commerce is much better, and that’s where we need to get to.”

Connecting Facebook fans and YouTube viewers to mobile applications that either bring customers into stores, or allow them to purchase online, is the next step, said Brennan.

Until recently, most luxury brands have focused on building their fan bases on Facebook or increasing their Twitter followers, and are now looking at how they can turn more fans into buyers.

Pam Danziger, president of Steven, Pa.-based Unity Marketing, whose specialty is researching the shopping habits of affluent consumers, reported in a study released in March that the top reason wealthy consumers connect with a new brand is through something posted by a social media friend. “Social media might be a luxury brand’s best friend, especially when it comes to attracting new customers,” Danziger concluded in her report.

Danziger also said in January that luxury shoppers are becoming increasingly likely to buy online. The number of luxury shoppers who made an online purchase within the past three months increased to 83 percent in January 2011 from 68 percent the previous January, according to Danziger. Young affluents, those ages 24 to 44 with incomes of more than $100,000, were the most likely to use mobile applications to connect with brands.

Maria Cucciniello, chief executive officer of The Hip Event, a Montclair-based public relations and special events company, said the right use of social media can amplify the impact of exclusive, invitation-only events that luxury brands host for their best customers. Cucciniello, who did public relations for Neiman Marcus at The Mall at Short Hills, and Hugo Boss, recently organized an event at Teterboro Airport for Paul Miller Bentley of Parsippany that gave selected Bentley customers a chance to see rapper/fashion designer Sean “Diddy” Combs’ new Bentley Continental GT, and tour luxury jets operated by XO Jets. The next day, photos and videos of the event were on the Paul Miller Facebook page and posted on other social media.

“You really have to combine what we call the on-the-ground piece, the events piece, with the social-media piece,” Cucciniello said. “Everything we do on the ground, we then give it legs with the social-media piece, whether it’s live video blogging or a video stream of the event,” she said. “The next day after the event is as important as the day of the event.”

“We don’t only do the event, but we create their Facebook and we manage their Facebook. We’ll make sure that there are blogs written about the event to give it that online presence as well,” she said.

By publicizing exclusive events, brands reach the aspirational customer as well as the actual customer who attended the event. And an aspirational Facebook friend of a brand could indirectly lead new customers to the brand, Cucciniello said. “Even though I might not be able to afford the brand, I might have six friends in my network that can afford it.

“That’s the beauty of the social network,” she said. “You’re not only touching the person that’s in your group, you’re touching their friends as well, because once they like your page, it’s on their news feed, too.”


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