Feudalism or futurism - What happens when the top 1% use the bottom 1% as marketing collateral?

By Jon Bains

April 24, 2013 | 9 min read

Luxury fashion brands were a comparatively late entry into the digital world, which was no surprise given the typical profile of marketers in the sector, and the fact that they weren’t always the most digitally savvy folk in the world; it’s scary the number of times I've heard 'my women don't do digital'.

Gucci's Chime for Change

They have been historically at best strategically aloof (sorry exclusive) and at worst arrogant ('everybody is like me, I know best’) in their belief about their audience behaviors. In marketing we are very much what we eat, and if you have a steady diet of glossy print then it’s not very surprising that things turn out the way they do.

However, the sector seems to be changing, and whilst not often discussed, I think it can largely be put down to two things: the rise of Pinterest, which provides a platform for all the pretty things, and most importantly the advent of the iPad.

For the image conscious it was the first digital device that provided a 'luxurious' digital experience that didn't alienate the technophobe elite. Gestural navigation resonated with the audience, and without making too many comparisons, if a two-year-old can get their head around it then so can the typical reader of Harper's Bazaar.

Cartier and Burberry lead the charge and have delivered some sophisticated and surprisingly accessible initiatives across a number of digital channels, making it IMHO more 'fashionable' for conservative luxury brands to take more risks, and look at life beyond catwalk shows and glossy fashion magazines.

The big question is what happens when you combine this with the world of social and political change? I've also spent a great deal of time working in the Third Sector - most recently working on a campaign about weaponised rape in the Congo - and as such appreciate how fraught many of the issues can be once connected with brands.

What's the story?

Gucci, in tandem with Beyonce, Salma Hayek and Frida Giannini, have founded an NGO called 'Chime for Change', a socially led fundraising and awareness campaign, which aims to put women's rights on the world stage.

This sits on top of a white labeled 'Catapult', which is essentially Kickstarter for causes, with many user suggested initiatives. Each of the three spokeswomen covers a different topic - Education, Justice and Health - which are curated via Catapult's main site, i.e. you can't actually propose a new initiative yourself, just support the vertical subset selected by the three expert philanthropists.

As far as I can tell the communications campaign consists of activity on Facebook and Twitter, plus a bunch of videos of famous people (probably wearing Gucci, but hard for me to tell with an untrained eye). This all leads up to a concert at the Twickenham Stadium on 1 June, with the headliners including Beyonce, Florence & the Machine and Ellie Goulding.

So what were they thinking?

• Establish credibility in the social space

• Tie together CSR and brand marketing

• Build a stronger connection with a new younger aspirational audience

• Show the brand to be caring, and respond to negative associations with the '1 per cent'

• Leverage the combined social media status of brand and celebrities to inspire wider traditional media support


Results are scarce, as its still early days (the campaign was launched at the end of February), but in the social world so far it's been a bit of a surprise. They have gained some 100,000 likes on Facebook, but only 3,000 Twitter followers so far. Given the combined social and celebrity status of all concerned I am sure they expected a far bigger impact. I didn't see many of the projects approaching their funding objectives, and those that were doing well were from large one-off donations. However as I said, it is still early days.

What is going well?

• Big names, and not necessarily ones that you would expect to link up with Gucci

• A solid, safe cause

• Piggy backing on existing platform (didn't try and build their own as many have tried and failed)

• Minimal, dare I say, even sensitive Gucci branding

What could be going better?

• I had to go to the site a couple of times to actually work out what the whole thing was about. When I first looked I assumed it was a ‘Live Aid’ type fundraising gig; on looking further I was confronted with navigation that didn't actually seem to do anything, before eventually finding the projects and getting the gist of it. And frankly there weren't that many clues on their Facebook page either. I even watched some of the videos and still didn't get a clear sense of what it was and what I was supposed to do. I would have put it down to me being a bit thick if it hadn’t been for two other bright folk, who I referred the campaign to, saying they didn't get it either. Basically the communication flow is broken.

• Is the lack of clarity why there are so few followers?

• Have they just walked into internet cause wear out?

• How long have they committed to this?

• 'Little Girl, you too can be President and buy Gucci' feels a little bit hollow!

• Why no matching funds? Surely, given the comparatively low funding targets surely the brand could help out a bit more directly? Of course the reason for this is simple. They don't control the projects - so by simply facilitating the funding of, as opposed to putting cash in, they protect themselves from any controversy down the line. Which frankly would probably get targeted at their celebrity advocates as it makes for a better story.

The jury is out on its usefulness as a channel for positive change, but it's certainly a brilliant move for Catapult as a platform. I do applaud the effort, even with the underlying conservatism, given the industries historical complete risk aversion.

Considerations when entering the charitable side of marketing:

1. People spot a fake a mile off. It's got to at least feel genuine. Modern consumers are a cynical bunch and unravel hidden agenda's very quickly, and if they don't the bloggers will.

2. These kinds of activities can have a very negative impact if dropped mid stream. Plan your exit before you begin, that could mean setting and communicating a time frame or knowing who you will pass it on to.

3. One of the harder parts is ensuring that both Brand and Partner NGO behaviour are in sync. There needs to be coherence to the proposition and shared vision and rules. Otherwise you end up with, well, our government.

4. Share the idea across the business not just in the marketing department. Assuming you are doing it for the right reasons you should celebrate it.

5. Make sure you can make a tangible difference, regardless of how small. Set achievable KPI's and checks to see how the activity is working in terms of public perception and on the ground.

6. Be ready to devolve some control and prepare for some unpleasant surprises. Given the kinds of non-commercial organisations that you are working with the margins for error are pretty large.

7. Obvious, but be careful that you don't alienate your core audience in order to reach a new one, unless of course you've been disrupted and already lost them!

8. Don't shoehorn Product or Brand in where it doesn't belong. Wearing Prada whilst doing a photo shoot of the Congo is a sure fire way of getting noticed for all the wrong reasons.

9. If you have a celeb in the mix, beyond contractual obligations ensure that they genuinely support the cause and are passionate. Again, make sure there is a coherent brand fit for their audience.

10. The bigger the gap between the Cause and Brand, the bigger the risk.

Am I being too harsh or not harsh enough? Is this the way forward for the elite to whitewash their checkered history?

Jon Bains is a partner in business futures practice Atmosphere

Jon Bains is a partner at business futures practice Atmosphere

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