What is the Role of the Fashion Show in the Digital Age?

“If you didn’t stream the fashion show on Snapchat, were you even there?”

Abstract

The aim of this dissertation was to explore the role of the fashion show in today’s digital age. Reasons for pursuing this study were due to recent technological advances; live streaming shows on websites provided a logistical and cost-saving justification for the business to business attendee to not physically attend a fashion catwalk or trade show. However, attendance continues to rise exponentially, thus incentivising high-end brands to spend at least $1 million per 15-20 minute show (Trebay, 2011). Analytically, the objectives of this study were to: a) explore the elements of the high-fashion show experience, b) determine the perceived benefits and motivations for staging a show, c) determine the perceived benefits and motivations for buyers to physically attend live fashion shows, and finally, d) explore the digital impact on the fashion show. To address this aim and objectives, a literature review was firstly conducted to provide a theoretical framework in the fields of experiential marketing, brand communities, and digital marketing. A gap in the literature was observed, which connected these three themes together.

To bridge this gap, a methodology was conceived to provide an account of the research techniques and an outline of data analysis. The researcher chose to undergo observational research at London Fashion Week and semi-structured in-depth interviews to reach depth and independent views. Data was analysed using inductive thematic analysis. Collected evidence exhibited that the intensity and quality of an experience influences what and how information is exchanged. Exchange between B2B consumers is concluded to be crucial as it delivers valuable feedback, which can be harvested by management. Feedback can be used to improve the overall experience and the product, thus influencing the direction of a brand. Findings are illustrated in the academic contribution of a revised Consumer Centric Model, labelled as The Brand Community Exchange Wheel. As a result, brand managers must stimulate exchange between audience members by pulling them into an extraordinary “flow” event, through integrating strategic experiential modules.

Introduction

The global apparel market is valued at US $3 trillion, employing approximately 115.7 million people worldwide, significantly impacting development, the environment, and social convention (“Global Fashion Industry Statistics”, 2016). Stimulating both global and regional demand for new seasonal apparel are trade shows and catwalk shows, which attract international attention at “Fashion Weeks”. A fashion week is described as a large exhibition of a fashion designer’s work, covered by the world’s press (Entwistle, 2006). The amount of exhibitors has exponentially increased and takes place all over the world. Today, for example, New York Fashion Week presents 300 shows in eight days compared to one show per hour when it started in 1993 (Thomas-Bailey, 2011). This increasingly hectic schedule strains the demands and expectations from both the brand itself and the business-to-business (B2B) attendee – the editor and the buyer- resulting in potential “burnouts” (Staff, 2015).

The technological advances of real time image sharing on social media and live streaming on websites including VogueRunway provide logistical and cost-saving justification for the B2B attendee to not physically attend a fashion catwalk or trade show. However, attendance continues to rise with 116,000 attendees per fashion week (Thomas-Bailey, 2011) thus incentivising high-end labels including Marc Jacobs to spend at least $1 million per 15-20 minute show (Trebay, 2011); the motivation being to produce a sensory experience to differentiate from other competitors and for a social media push (Sykes, 2015) appealing to their millions of brand followers.

While technology platforms allow fashion shows to win a significant advantage of creating a buzz (Blanks, 2015), grab attention and create strong visual impressions aimed toward the end user and brand fans, (Amed, 2015) the focus of this dissertation will explore the role of the fashion show in today’s digital age from the perspective of the B2B consumer and the presenting fashion brand.

“Logistically looking at the fashion show construct, it makes very little sense now,” states Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman (Conlon, 2016). Moreover, key industry media has stated how “irrelevant” and “how ill-fitted the system is to a modern environment” (Campbell, 2016) securing the relevance for this research area.

Such fashion weeks bring together designers, journalists, buyers, and other producers of the “meaning of value” who share the purpose to produce, reproduce, and legitimate the field of fashion and the positions of those players within it through promotional activities (Entwistle, 2006). Gatekeepers foster hierarchy between such players through selective invitations and seating arrangements based upon social capital (Entwistle, 2006). This links to the concept of brand communities defined as a specialised, non-geographically bound community, based on a structured set of social relationships among admirers of a brand (Muniz, Jr. and O’Guinn, 2001). McAlexander, Schouten, & Koenig (2002) expand upon this definition arguing that a brand community is mainly customer centric, where existence and meaningfulness of a community lies within the customer’s experience with the brand, product, the marketer, and other customers.

An underlining assumption of the customer centric model thus draws upon theories in the field of experience marketing, which include sensory experiences (SENSE); affective experiences (FEEL); creative cognitive experiences (THINK); physical experiences, (ACT); and social-identity experiences (RELATE) (Schmitt, 1999). If successfully implemented such experiences can lead to narrative transportation proposed by Green & Brock (2002). Narrative transportation is defined as the act of being transported into a story world as a result of becoming involved in a tale (Phillips and McQuarrie, 2009). In a digitalised world, such experiences along with their stories, rituals, and traditions are communicated to a wider audience through the direct involvement of social media platforms, which present new opportunities and challenges for the marketer (Kaplan and Haenlein, 2010).

Not only in the context of the fashion industry is there a significant gap in the academic literature which links together these concepts of brand community, experience marketing, narrative transportation, and digital marketing together. Therefore, the “Customer Centric Model” is particularly relevant for further research.

The aim of this dissertation is to explore the role of the bi-annual fashion show in today’s digital age, in relation to the “Customer Centric Model” of brand community. Analytically the objectives of this study are to: a) explore the elements of the high-fashion show experience, b) determine the perceived benefits and motivations for staging a show, c) determine the perceived benefits and motivations for buyers to physically attend live fashion shows, and finally d) explore the digital impact on the fashion show.

In the context specific to the fashion industry and in today’s digital age, an expansion of the “Customer Centric Model”(McAlexander et al. 2002) is anticipated to lead to a unique framework. The role of the B2B fashion show attendee will be implemented as the “Focal Customer” thus resulting in a forecasted academic contribution of understanding the value of marrying the theorised concept of brand community with that of experience marketing, narrative transportation, and digital marketing. Such an academic contribution is expected to firstly provide potential managerial implications in practice, suited for the benefit of fashion marketers in order to capitalise on perceived benefits and motivations for attending the fashion show, as well as to understand the value of relationships within the brand community and within social media.

This dissertation will firstly discuss the relevant corresponding literature of experience marketing, brand communities, and digital marketing. Frameworks and theories will be explained and analysed from contrasting academic viewpoints. Chapter three shall outline a detailed account of the used research methodology in order to fully address the aim and objectives. A description of London fashion Week will be included, along with an explanation for qualitative research techniques and data analysis techniques.

Based on inductive thematic analysis, chapter four will present the data collected from observational research and interviews based on research objectives. A following discussion will link the analysis to the literature review explored in chapter two, through a revised and expanded “Customer Centric Model”.

The final chapter will reflect upon the entire research process followed by an explanation outlining whether aims and objectives have been reached and if an academic contribution has been offered. Also, limitations will be stated along with recommendations for further research based upon the managerial contributions reached in this dissertation.

Discussion

The purpose of this chapter is to critically discuss main findings observed in analysis. Relevant excerpts from interviews and observational research will be analysed in relation to the literature review in the context of a modified illustration (Figure 5). Figure 5, illustrates the ‘Brand Community Exchange Wheel’, which is the main academic contribution of this research study. This model was inductively developed from the data gathered and builds on the consumer centric model by McAlexander et. al (2002) (Figure 4), Muniz and O’Guinn’s (2001) brand community triad (Figure 3), and the traditional model of customer brand relationships (Figure 2). Additionally, this chapter provides potential managerial implications as well as recommendations in order to make the fashion show experience more efficient and applicable to the digital age.

5.1 Experience

Point 1 in Figure 5 refers to the actual experience happening within a brand community, for example a fashion show. This experience was described by participants to be “pure entertainment” and a superficial world far from reality, likened to that of a “bubble” or “a zoo, where everyone is watching you”. Such shows were considered to be “spectacles” corresponding with the description offered by Evans (2001). Extraordinary experiences stimulate multiple senses, through strategic experiential modules, and by carrying out narrative transportation through spatial elements observed in frame analysis.

Goffman’s theory on frame analysis (1974) correlates with undertaken observational research, outlined in the Zandra Rhodes presentation. Here an underground basement was recast from something “meaningless into something meaningful”, (Goffman, 1974, p.21) “through the use of infrastructure, props and technical equipment” (Skov, 2006, p.7). Examples include “extremely loud party music”, a “belly dancer” and a “bedazzled open bar,” thus “setting itself apart from the outside world” (Skov, 2006). Regulations of tightness and formality were also displayed due to invitations requesting a formal dress code.

This unique consumption experience exhibited strategic experiential modules (Schmitt, 1999), engaging multiple senses. Sense marketing included 1) smell of a heavy perfume of mint and spice evoking a connotation of the Moroccan souk 2) sound of heavy base music 3) and the sight of opulent decoration. Act marketing was displayed as consumers participated in the event by dancing, ordered mixed beverages, and mingled with each another and with the performers. Relate marketing can also be applied as consumers were inspired to dress like the models and other audience members, therefore triggering aspirational desires.

Overall, the total customer experience can be said to capture interactions and relationships, the physical event, the products on display, and the communication shared by management. This suggests the experience is concurrent with the product, as each element creates a connection with the customer as cited in Schmitt (1999).

This adopted view however contradicts the theory of Pine and Gilmore (1999) as evidence shows that the “event” captures elements which cannot be staged: in particular the interaction between audience members. The audience places an active role throughout the event through valuable exchange of knowledge and information. Therefore, managers should not “view themselves as theatre producers” when staging an event, but should instead focus on generating experiences which tap into strategic experiential modules, stimulating an exchange between members. This perspective on experience marketing thus justifies the work of Lasalle and Britton (2002) who claim experience marketing is an interaction, which can be made stronger through an engaged brand community.

5.2 Focal Customer Relationships

One of the defining factors of a brand community is the ability to share essential (McAlexander et. al, 2002) resources including expertise and information. This exchange had been described by Participant 1 as “the key purpose at the end of the day”. As proposed by McAlexander et al. (2002), relationships between different parties make up a brand community. At a fashion show, the focal consumer- in this case the buyer- interacts with the marketer (Point 2), the product (Point 3), the brand (Point 4), and other buyers (Point 5) and audience members constituting four general parties within a brand community. It has been concluded the relationship between the focal customer and each party is reciprocal and dependent upon the overall experience.

The (2) buyer- marketer relationship consists of buyers providing feedback to management, while management can also share information to the buyer. Marketing management can also provide memorable experiences, ideally by achieving narrative transportation through audience involvement.

Narrative transportation was particularly relevant with the experience of Participant 1 who described a dinner in an “old ball room in London” for a luxury fashion brand. The collection was “presented in between courses, [where] models didn’t just walk through like a normal runway but… acted normal,” thus integrating the audience into the story. In contrast with the definition presented by Csikszentmihalyi (1990), this example of a flow experience is more apposite to the characterisation presented by Schouten et al. (2007): the dinner can be described as a transcendent customer experience (TCE) as this activity was a separation from the mundane and connected to a larger phenomenon outside oneself. Moreover, this experience encouraged self-transformation as new trends were presented, sartorially influencing the audience. The event also gave the brand an opportunity to share its DNA, which has been found as essential.

Research gave evidence of a web form of community (Fournier and Lee, 2009), as members described one to one relationships, exchanging similar or complementary needs. This was exemplified by Participant 5:

A big customer can give certain feedback… Those are influences where a big client can really impact the market whereas a small customer cannot… we would give them always the best things because they would buy the most.

Hence, a brand community is created by members with different roles, with different offerings, with different levels of information, creating hierarchies. Some members “seem more qualified for new product development than others” (Fournier and Lee, 2009). Therefore, “lines [can be] drawn in the community” (Fournier and Lee, 2009) with in and out groups, where the “in” groups provide the greatest offering.

For example, observational research showed “celebrities” and “brand ambassadors” (Fournier and Lee, 2009) were seated in the “front row”, most “given clothes to wear” from the marketing managers. When in these roles, members reciprocate the favour, offering the brand “a worldwide advertisement… photographed 3 million times” on multiple channels providing a cheaper advertisement than traditional marketing channels.

This addresses the objective of why a brand stages a fashion show: “to reach as many important people in a short period of time” to “pull in some attention” and to create hype where “normal customers just want to have THAT”.

“THAT” is the product (3) which is legitimised by the buyer based on hype. The product in turn gives the buyer an identity, inspiration and most importantly inventory. The (4) buyer- brand relationship also allows a buyer to legitimise the brand for being good or bad, while a brand can legitimise the position of a buyer based on the brand’s segment, direction, and connotations it delivers.

Thus, when members exchange information, this creates a strong and loyal brand community which can add great value to the marketer, due to increased loyalty, lower costs, and by authenticating a brand’s meaning, where Participant 2 stated:

They make it what it is! They hype it or they don’t hype it.

It is important to note that today, this exchange can take place virtually anywhere due to mass media and social media platforms, emphasising a community liberated perspective (Wellman, 1979).

Within the context of the audience, the (5) buyer- buyer relationship is about exchanging “information, social support, or influence” (Haythornthwaite, 1996). Such exchange determines the fate of the marketing, the brand and the product: as the result of a buyer-buyer relationship has the power to create ‘hype’ about the brand (through potential sharing on social media) or the power to de-legitimise a brand. They influence vital decisions of whether or not to attend, to buy, or to promote a brand.

Evidence has shown when consumers communicate about a product, they are able to influence each other through this interactive process by sharing opinions, expertise and knowledge. As “you see the same people…10 times in 2 months” exchanging valuable information can “justify [one] as a trustworthy person”. If this is misleading, a negative reputation is built through word of mouth and can “destroy your entire business.”

Due to the presence of hierarchy in the brand community, one of the main motivations of going to the fashion show is to “to sell yourself as a brand” and in becoming “credible”:

It would be impossible if you would wear something from last season…You need to present yourself in order for it to be believable.

This symbolic source of self-expression (Keller, 1993) not only supports the idea that a community prompts an identity, but it leads to influencing member perception and action by being “believable”, and increases one’s own and other member’s knowledge. Such influence occurs through rituals and traditions, which have been exemplified through socialising with customers and competitors “at dinner or drinks” outside of shows. This reiterates the relevance of “occupational connections” and “a deep interpersonal connection” where members gain substantial benefits through reciprocal exchanges of value (McAlexander et al., 2002).

Evidence indicates the most significant element of brand community is consciousness of kind complimenting Gusfield’s conclusions (1978). This sense of belonging and “we- ness” (Fournier and Lee, 2009), was highlighted as the fashion show audience was described as mostly the same group of people, where participants labelled themselves a “fashion family”, implying a high degree of familiarity and trust, comprised of relationships. One can make a comparison between this consciousness of kind with a strong social network made of relationships between actors, where “information, social support, or influence” (Haythornthwaite, 1996) is exchanged.

The more relationships actors maintain, the more reciprocal the relationships, the more long-lasting and the more personal the relationships, the stronger the tie. (Haythornthwaite, 1996)

5.3 Digital

The intensity and quality of the experience influences what and how information is exchanged, potentially on social media. An example being at each show at LFW, the audience received leaflets (Appendix 4.5) introducing the context of the show, thus pulling the audience into the event. During catwalk shows, it was observed the audience, playing a more passive role, recorded the collection on their smart phones and shared the content via social media platforms under a hashtag of the given brand (Appendix 4.4). Therefore, one could argue a correlation between the amount of “sharing” and the intensity of a “story” suggested by Sloan, Bode and Gyrd- Jones (2015).

The digital economy allows a brand to reach a wider audience though entertainment, interaction, trendiness, and customisation (Kim and Ko, 2010). Social media addresses the restriction of time, place, and medium beneficial to many members as observational research showed that it “wasn’t logistically possible” to attend each show due to a tight schedule (Appendix 4.6), suggesting social media can benefit members to take part within a community.

Through digital platforms (6), exchange can be shared on social media. This type of feedback can be harvested by management and can be implemented to improve future experiences thus improving the future product. Through the lens of seeing the product and experience as one, they set the tone, identity and the direction of a brand, thus evolving its brand personality. Hence, this updated brand image influences members throughout the brand community and can reach even new members.

A digital platform invites a virtuous cycle in connecting all of these parties together, with particular power given to the relationship between the B2B audience members as they are responsible for the success or failure of the brand, product, and marketer.

However, with a surplus of information on social media platforms, it was stated that members today do not need to be physically present at shows because “Now I have a show 365 days a year.” This saves money and time in order to prioritise current “wicked problems” facing the industry including global terror and the refugee crisis. Also, evidence suggests pure digital exchange can be misleading, as motivations to share on social media involve “self-promotion,” as “we live in a celebrity culture with likes and follows.” This is especially relevant to the fashion industry where, “Here it’s a different world. Here everything is made to be beautiful.”

If the fashion show is solely about creating hype and is “all about the photos, you miss that conversation” which is concluded to be the most important element of the fashion show experience, and must therefore be supported. As Participant 2 eloquently summarised, “[People] are addicted for conversations which are still real.”

Therefore, this dissertation proposes that direct human exchange between audience members affects each party of the brand community through a virtuous cycle, beginning at the (5) buyer- buyer relationship, through sharing feedback (6), ultimately connecting together experience and digital marketing to brand communities.

5.4 Consequence

However, based on the evidence, the current system shows symptoms lacking authenticity and high stress, where valuable information exchange is becoming difficult to achieve. This leads to no or poor feedback. This presents a huge managerial problem where this virtuous cycle is disrupted and is in consequence, damaging the parties of marketing, product, and brand. Collected evidence exhibits why fashion shows, described as “very fake”, “laughable” and a “joke” are anticipated to drastically change in the short term. While the fashion show is concluded to still be very relevant in ‘exchange’, the current system is essentially not sustainable in the long term. One could argue that the fashion show has become repetitive and impersonal thus becoming a “nothing” instead of a “something” generating no long term value.

As participants lamented “there is no time to digest the information” given at a show, it is recommended managers must stage a show which boasts “something” qualities, by becoming more personal, authentic, and unique through capturing the story of a brand. Moreover, management must stimulate conversation and exchange between audience members by pulling them into the event and by integrating SEMs, succeeding narrative transportation through an extraordinary experience. Only creating hype and publicity are regarded as short-termed benefits and fail to provide management with quality feedback.

Conclusion

The purpose of this dissertation was to explore the role of fashion show in today’s digital age. Analytically, the objectives of this study were to: a) explore the elements of the high-fashion show experience, b) determine the perceived benefits for fashion marketers to stage a show, c) determine the perceived benefits for buyers when physically attending fashion shows, and d) explore the digital impact on the fashion show.

To address these objectives, a literature review with particular focus to experiential marketing, brand communities, and digital marketing was firstly presented to provide a theoretical framework for the addressed research question. This was followed by a methodology explaining the researcher’s overall approach when collecting data as well as reasoning for choosing qualitative research. Also, the data collection techniques of observational study and semi-structured in-depth interviews were described along with their advantages and disadvantages, research sampling procedures, and intended data analysis processes.

An analysis presented the collected data through an inductive coding process, where the following discussion chapter critically discussed main findings in relation to the literature review resulting in academic contributions and managerial implications.

Expanding upon the Consumer Centric Model, an academic contribution has been reached exhibited in Figure 5, labeled the The Brand Community Exchange Wheel, which connected experience and digital marketing to brand communities. It is concluded, the intensity and quality of the experience influences what and how information is being shared in person and on social media. This valuable exchange provides feedback which can be harvested by management and implemented to improve future experiences, thus improving the future product. Through the lens of seeing the product and experience as one, they set the tone, identity and the direction of a brand, evolving its brand personality. One can argue there is a virtuous cycle connecting the audience with the marketer, the product and the brand, thanks to social media platforms.

Without this exchange between the audience members, there is a break in the cycle, damaging to other parties. As participants expressed “there is no time to digest the information” given at a show, it is recommended managers must prioritise stimulating conversation and exchange between audience members by pulling them into the event, through narrative transportation, offering an extraordinary experience.