Social media doesn’t know Victoria’s Secret

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In the age of Twitter and Facebook, the US-based intimate-apparel chain uses Mad Men-era style marketing strategy to rake in record $6.1b sales this year

Limited Brands’ Victoria’s Secret is thriving using a marketing strategy that seems more Mad Men-era than from the age of Twitter.

While other big brand retailers try to hone their social media skills, the intimate-apparel chain is creating excitement with a network TV holiday fashion show featuring young women wearing Swarovski crystal-decorated lingerie strutting down a runway in six-inch heels. The show, in its second decade, serves as the cornerstone of an efficient marketing machine. Last year, the special received its highest rating since at least 2002, with 11.5 million viewers. Most viewers are women.

The approach is paying off. Victoria’s Secret’s sales have risen seven per cent in the past three quarters to $4.33 billion after posting a record $6.1 billion in revenue for the year through January 28. It’s the biggest of Columbus, Ohio-based Limited’s brands, followed by Bath & Body Works.

The TV show is “essentially an hour-long commercial, and really, that is unheard of,” Erika Maschmeyer, an analyst at Robert W Baird, said in a telephone interview. “There are a lot of places to buy intimate apparel, but there’s no other place that has such a strong brand connotation to it and I think the fashion show is definitely a part of that.”

The lingerie chain’s marketing approach is in sharp contrast to industry trends. Retailers, which may see online sales grow to 16 per cent of $586 billion in revenue this holiday season, have increased digital efforts at the expense of more traditional advertising. Gap, the biggest US specialty apparel retailer, has added to social media and moved away from television and print ads, while department-store company J C Penney exited its catalogue business last year.

Viewers can’t buy much of what the models wear in the fashion show aside from Victoria’s Secret’s bras and panties, as elaborate costumes range across themes such as “Circus,” “Calendar Girls” and “Silver Screen Angels.” Silk jewelled corsets, feather bustiers and wings of all types were styled around the underwear to create the lingerie-clad version of a tiger in one walk to a Native American chief in another.

“As soon as this one finishes they start working on the next,” said supermodel Miranda Kerr. “There’s so much attention to detail in the underwear, everything is hand-stitched.” The chain does use Facebook, Twitter and email to draw web traffic and build excitement around new collections and events such as the fashion show. Web and catalogue sales rose four per cent to $1.56 billion in the latest year, a quarter of the business, while revenue at Victoria’s Secret’s 1,000-plus stores rose 14 per cent to $4.56 billion.

Still, the internet doesn’t drive a lot of “emotional content,” chief financial officer Stuart Burgdoerfer, said in a presentation to investors on October 17. Victoria’s Secret and Bath and Body Works emphasise the product and in-store experience above all and aren’t aiming to be leaders in technology, he said.

Victoria’s Secret spends about $220 million a year on the catalogues sent to customers’ homes each year, including postage, creative, printing, paper and circulation, the biggest expense of its direct business, according to a job posting on its website.

The company’s 15 per cent stock gain this year trails the rallies at specialty retailers Urban Outfitters, which has added 28 per cent and Gap, with an 81 per cent rise. It has beaten both in the past five years, as well as the Standard & Poor’s 500 Retailing Index by more than doubling to $46.48 as of November 9.

Limited chief executive officer Les Wexner, the longest-tenured CEO in the S&P 500, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, has spun off apparel brands including the Limited stores, Abercrombie & Fitch, Express, while keeping Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works.

“He truly views intimate apparel and personal care as more attractive categories,” Maschmeyer said. Victoria’s Secret is the biggest specialty retailer for intimate apparel, mainly competing with department stores for business, and created demand for items like push-up bras and colourful underwear in the way Lululemon Athletica has helped create a market for trendy yoga wear, she said.

Victoria’s Secret’s models, known as “Angels,” are a major part of the brand’s image, appearing in the fashion show, catalogues, stores and advertisements. The website features a VS All Access section for learning more about the group, which includes Adriana Lima and Kerr. Unlike brands that hire celebrities to market their apparel or design new lines, modelling for Victoria’s Secret launches careers. Alumni include supermodels Tyra Banks, Gisele Bundchen and Heidi Klum.

Under Wexner’s direction, the brand sought to create celebrities, rather than use them as spokespeople, said Marcie Merriman, director of brand strategy and planning for Victoria’s Secret from 2001 to 2003. “They would never pick known models or ones that are already out there, because the brand is stronger than that,” she said. “The models chosen are very specifically ones that women can relate to or feel comfortable around and have personalities,” she said, pointing to Klum and Banks, who have both hosted television shows, as examples.

One model wears a multi-million dollar bra gift set in the show each year, an illustration of the event’s opulence and the brand’s aspirational nature. This year’s set, valued at $2.5 million, was made with more than 5,200 precious gems, including sapphires, rubies and diamonds, in 18-carat rose and yellow gold.


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