Kamel Ouadi, global digital media director of Louis Vuitton and EVP of NOWNESS, tells us why traditional advertising models never fully answered the core objectives of the luxury market
It has been just eighteen months since NOWNESS was launched by LVMH. The independent content platform was designed to represent a new generation of digital media and cover the full spectrum of luxury and the art of living. The purpose, as identified by creator Kamel Ouadi, was to “enable emotional engagement with users, through the development of bespoke and exclusive content”, challenging the traditional dictative relationship of advertising and attempting instead to foster conversations with luxury enthusiasts.
The launch coincided with a period of immense change within luxury communications. Zeitgeist power fuelled an exodus of employees from print to digital media, shifting the monopoly that print magazines had to influence consumers to new shoppable editorials produced by online retailers. Bloggers moved to the front row of fashion shows; advertising became more consistently referred to as ‘branded content’; luxury brands developed in-house editorial teams; and everyone posted everything on customised Facebook pages.
Perhaps the most surprising move during this period was by LVMH, the world’s largest luxury goods powerhouse, which launched an experimental-looking digital media website, lacking in obvious revenue streams, which was e-commerce dis-abled. Why, when online retail was proving to be such a lucrative money-spinner for luxury brands, would the world’s biggest manufacturer develop an online glossy?
“ there was a lot of noise in the digital world and we wanted simplicity ”
“The online market for fashion and lifestyle blogs and websites was overcrowded,” remarked the global digital marketing director of Louis Vuitton and executive vice president of NOWNESS, at the time of launch. Discussing the opportunity he identified with fashion retailer and online resource Dia Magazine, Mr. Ouadi went on to explain that “there was a lot of noise in the digital world and we wanted simplicity. We realised that we needed to create a luxury digital brand that added value and would be interesting to the user.”
His experience as international vice president of L’Oreal group, and his previous focus on customer strategy, becomes particularly evident in his repeated references to putting the user at the heart of the operation. Mr. Ouadi may be responsible for the artistic direction, content production and digital operations of two significant global brands, but he is unwavering in his commitment to serving the needs of readers, to create a functional, engaging and bespoke experience.
He has long been a believer that digital is a natural fit for luxury as “luxury is a visual thing”. Furthermore he expects that up to 80% of web traffic in the coming years will be to access video or interactive media, and was therefore surprised by the lack of space available to tell the story of luxury, in keeping with its necessary codes.
Mr. Ouadi was confident that NOWNESS could fill a market niche, shifting the traditional advertising paradigm for both the benefit of brand and consumer. A more desirable solution to a traditional digital advertising model, which the Institut d’Administration des Enterprises MBA graduate felt didn’t fully answer the core objectives of the luxury market.
The luxury industry has been somewhat slow to embrace the lofty digital endeavours and radical spirit espoused by the likes of Mr. Ouadi. Preferring the clear and established ways of measuring return on investment that print advertising affords, new media long took a back seat to the pages of Vogue and the Robb Report. Digital media has presented a completely new and ambiguous challenge to executives wondering how best to allocate their communications budgets, but as the idea of communication moves from driving purchases to pure experiential engagement, who is going to pay for what, and with which expectations?
Responding to whether brands are paying for content to be hosted on the NOWNESS site, Mr. Ouadi is unsurprisingly enigmatic. Choosing not to outline any specific revenue strategies, he refers to the media as “a custom publishing model”, driven by the quality of its content. His current ambitions are to grow both the traffic and user base, continually improve the offering and effectively open luxury up to the digital age.
“ we leverage state-of-the-art technology, capable of assessing interests, and tailor our recommendations to reflect user preferences ”
His focus rarely strays from ‘content as the star’, reiterating an editorial strategy driven by exclusivity in production and distribution, optimised for mobile and tablet devices, re-imagined for various social media channels. The intention is to give brands time to express their rich DNA and for users to discover something to take away – conversation starters, if you will.
Reluctant to use the word advertising, Mr. Ouadi does concede that if a story is interesting enough and reaches a large enough audience, maybe it can be considered as advertising. He agrees that a good story will influence a purchase, but his challenge remains to tastefully balance the dichotomy between the two. More confidently, he describes the platform as a media, simultaneously incorporating a “creative production company, producing films for brands, with the support of the best creators.”
Measures of success remain similarly qualitative, where he identifies the site’s ability to “provide a chic, pure, sophisticated and relevant digital space for brands” as the main objective, whilst best serving users with a passion for luxury and lifestyle. As far as key performance indicators are concerned, Mr. Ouadi seems to believe that brand image and the quality of editorial content far outweigh any kind of quantitative monitoring.
Discreet and circumspect though he may be about many of the business’s operational details, what he will enthusiastically talk about is the platform’s ability for users to create their own profiles, customise their experiences and, ipso facto, create a NOWNESS community.
“The centre of NOWNESS is definitely the editorial, the personalisation service and the community. Editorial because we have the chance to work with the best creative minds, which enables us to anticipate trends, but also because we have a point of view on luxury and lifestyle agendas.”
One might argue that socialisation, networking and personalisation are all necessary components of the new digital generation, but in terms of quantitative data, the collection of such user preferences obviously offers NOWNESS insights into what enthusiasts of the luxury world are reading, watching and how they are engaging.
“ if a story is interesting enough and reaches a large enough audience, maybe it can be considered as advertising ”
“The personalisation service is the most important part of the experience for users, as we leverage state-of-the-art technology, capable of assessing their interests, and tailor our recommendations to reflect their preferences as they browse the content. The community comes from our ability to spot the best of the best creators across the globe shaping the future of luxury.”
And this may be something valuable not only to enthusiasts but also to luxury executives, in particular those working for the brands of NOWNESS’s owner, LVMH.
But again, Mr. Ouadi defends the editorial independence and purity of the site, maintaining that the ability to collect what must be highly valuable trend data from users’ preferences is merely a part of their on-going commitment to enhance the user experience of the site.
“The intelligence is shared with our editorial team to analyse the performance of our stories with the main objective to better serve our online users and fans. This idea of giving back intelligence to our users is key, we love to use creatively the data shared. For example, in the explorer section, the most loved stories by the community are spread on a map and you can spot immediately the most loved story in China, in Japan and across the globe.”
NOWNESS has more than established itself as a serious player, in the information age of ‘content as king’. That said, in the mere eighteen months since its launch, the playing field has drastically changed and, with it, consumer expectations have too.
Gucci and Burberry customers can now shop directly from video campaigns; Net-a-Porter will launch augmented reality functionality within their advertising for the fall season; and Style.com will retail selected pieces from various fashion weeks, available to ship immediately after the show.
Commerce and content are increasingly intertwined – and sometimes the relationship between the two can seem paradoxical. Just when Tumblr asked brands to pay for New York Fashion Week content, for instance, a print magazine was also launched where all content is secured from emerging and established bloggers, stylists and photographers – for free.
Whilst NOWNESS, and indeed Mr. Ouadi, surely tend to move at their own pace, it can only be a matter of time before they throw their next hand in the ever evolving ring.