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Burberry leads the way in moving luxury online

Burberry’s decision to use Brooklyn Beckham as the photographer on its latest campaign rather than Mario Testino, with whom it has worked for more than 15 years, certainly drew the ire of some of the photographic community.

While Beckham junior has developed his own photographic style on Instagram, some professional photographers criticized the move saying that he had failed to learn his trade or the skills that would normally be crucial to take on such a high-profile task.

Of course whether Beckham was actually responsible for setting the complex variables – such as the lighting or the shutter speeds – that professional photographers normally undertake is as much a sideshow as the gripes from the professionals. The announcement wasn’t about Beckham’s photographic skills – it was a way of connecting Burberry with his Instagram fan base in a bid to attract a new and younger audience.

On Burberry’s part it’s a brave move – although one that is consistent with a strategy that was introduced by its former CEO Angela Ahrendts, who is now vice president of retail and online stores at Apple. Ahrendts realised that in order to capture a more youthful and connected customer base it would have to talk to them on their terms – and that meant online.

Having debuted collections through Snapchat, streamed its London Fashion Week show online and launched a store on Regent Street that it claims is the physical manifestation of its digital world, the brand is in many ways a pioneer of luxury retailing online. This puts it very much at odds with other luxury brands, which have struggled to ‘break’ into the online space.

The reasons its rivals are sometimes more cautious are apparent – and it largely comes down to control. Some things, such as browser or speed of internet connection, will always be beyond a brand’s control. Equally online fails to provide the personal touch or the sense of exclusivity and theatre that shop assistants are able to provide offline.

Burberry has cast aside this traditional approach to luxury retailing and has acknowledged that it must be conversational and transparent with its target audience – it knows that in order to be contemporary it must act as a publisher almost as much as a designer. Further evidence of this desire to meet the demands of instant gratification is shown by its announcement last week that it would eschew the traditional biannual Autumn/Winter and Spring/Summer release of its clothes in favour of making them available as soon as they’ve been seen on the catwalk.

Initiatives, such as Burberry’s Art of the Trench microsite, for which customers can upload images of themselves or other people wearing Burberry’s famous trench coat, have developed a level of intimacy further still. The company has shown that it is possible to promote and sell a luxury – and therefore aspirational – product online by producing content that satisfies their dreams and aspirations.

While Burberry has been an early advocate of the shift to online publishing among luxury brands, it is not alone – for example Ralph Lauren’s registered business name is Ralph Lauren Media, which speaks volumes about its intentions. However rival brands such as Hermes, which only sells its cheaper products online, still seem to be grappling with what they see as the conundrum of making the online experience feel as luxurious and exclusive as they can manage offline.

Given that Burberry has rigidly stuck to this strategy and continues to innovate suggests that it is committed to the cause. If it can translate this into sales, while continuing to maintain its brand equity, then there’s no reason to think that others won’t follow suit and 2016 could finally be the year that luxury moves online.