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Log In / Register | Apr 24, 2014

Retail Adventures in Social Networking

Social Networking builds brands. Whether or not a company experiences direct and measurable ROI from this brand-building exercise is still under debate, but last week I observed old and new ways retailers are building and re-building their brands.Rather than start with the newest: Crowdsourcing and Social Curation, let’s go old-school and talk about a cooking demonstration.

Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden is one of Miami’s treasures. There’s always something happening there – from winter art installations by artists from Dale Chihuly, Roy Lichtenstein and Yoko Ono to festivals of all sorts. This weekend: The Food and Garden Festival featuring the 32nd annual Spring Plant Sale.  Saturday, I attended a cooking demonstration of Indian food as part of that festival. As the demonstration began, the audience was reminded multiple times that the food being prepared had been donated by Whole Foods Market.

What I found most interesting (apart from learning of an Indian spice I’d never heard of before, “curry leaves”) was the display of Whole Foods products. Even though there was lots of talk about local sources, the displays were all of Whole Foods private label product offering: 365 Everyday Value Product. I sat next to a woman I didn’t know, and we spent our time talking about Indian cooking techniques, local restaurants, and good sources for food. I left with new product knowledge, a deeper imprint of Whole Foods’ private label offering, and a new acquaintance. It was an experience of Social networking and brand building all at the same time.

Next, it’s time to talk about a staid brand reinventing itself in a new way. Bergdorf Goodman is a singularity. Although it is now owned by Neiman Marcus, the company operates one store (technically two, across the street from each other) in Manhattan. Growing up in Brooklyn, I always thought of Bergdorf as a place for doyennes to shop. Since leaving New York, I’d never really thought about it again. Much to my surprise, last week I found out Bergdorf was crowdsourcing a new handbag on Facebook. I immediately “liked” the retailer’s page, and participated in what was more or less a rudimentary color selection. On one level, I felt the company could have done a lot more with available technology, but it got me curious. I went to Bergdorf’s web site and discovered the store has gone very modern and edgy. Who knew?

Over the past few days, I’ve started paying attention to the Bergdorf brand. The company posts something once a day or so that shows up in my newsfeed and I actually read them. Will I shop there? There won’t be any ROI from me tomorrow, but I’ll bet I at least stop by next January, when I’m at NRF’s next Big Show. And if Nikki and Steve are hosting another retailer store tour, I’ll definitely ask them to put the store on their list. A New York institution has gone 21st Century.

AdWeek introduced me to WhereToGet.It,a site currently in beta, billing itself as ‘the Shazam of Fashion.’ The concept is quite cool. See something you like on the street? Or something you’d like if it was just tweaked a little bit. Post a photo on the site, and members can give you tips on where to find it. The home page lists photos with captions like, “shoes exactly like this but under 100 euros please,” and a photograph of Emma Roberts with the question “Where to get her corset? Or that kind of corset?” And people respond with where they saw it, and the price you could expect to pay. Much like my conversation with my neighbor at the cooking demonstration, people who don’t otherwise know each other form a community and provide tips and suggestions to each other.

Jean-Marie Bonthous, CEO of SeamlessSocial introduced me to yet another new version of crowdsourcing – this called “Social Curation.” And while I’d like to say there’s just one of these sites, there are in fact, a bevy of them about to launch. As described in newsletter the Business of Fashion, it’s designed to put the human touch back into product searches. The contention of investors in these technologies is that searches have gotten far too algorithmic, and could generally use the human touch to help seekers find the best “stuff.” In fact, the goal is to eliminate the “noise” generated by Search Engine Optimization tools, and actually find things people you actually respect like. I imagine these people extend beyond Kim Kardashian and Snookie into the worlds most of us actually inhabit. As Jean-Marie pointed out, these sites have the potential to be the most disruptive of all, since they take what has become clinical and return fashion to its rightful, more emotional place. These sites might well be the next generation of social networks, where brands are made and broken.

I was left with my head spinning. On one level, we’re reaching some stage of hype that promises to lose some investors a lot of money, but on another level, we seem to be taking the best from all worlds and incorporating them into our social purview. Social Networks really do build brands. I would never have thought of Bergdorf again and wouldn’t even have known 365 Everyday is Whole Foods’ “bargain brand” without social networking. Like any form advertising, it may be hard to tack a specific measurement on the investment return, but it’s certainly less expensive than a Superbowl ad, and probably more effective.

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