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Silicon Valley to Luxury Fashion: Focus on Humans, Not Algorithms

In a fully digitized world, how can we recreate the social contact we crave as humans? The chatbots and emails of e-commerce will never be a substitute for human interaction.

THE WORLD is on a crash course with digital technology.

New York couples are getting married on video. Governments and schools now operate on Zoom. Telemedicine has won over the medical community. In the words of one European innovator, the Covid-19 pandemic has forced the world to go “from 2020 to 2030 in one weekend.”

Predictions abound about how fast and how far the pandemic will accelerate the rush to digital – and this applies every bit as much to the world of luxury fashion. This rapid shift will force us to reflect more deeply on a related point that has received less attention so far: how we use these digital tools and what should we be saying? 

In a fully digitized world, how can we recreate the social contact we crave as humans? The chatbots and emails of e-commerce will never be a substitute for human interaction. As former SVP of retail at Apple and CEO of Burberry Angela Ahrendts said recently: “trust will become the greatest global currency.’ And the way brands talk to customers will be key to establishing that currency. This is where a unique opportunity resides: bringing together digital and human as we adapt to a medium where we are all remote but want to experience the trust of a more intimate connection. 

Research conducted by Edelman during this lockdown found that 77 percent of those surveyed want brands only to speak about products in ways that show they are aware of the crisis and the impact on people’s lives, and to focus on solutions, not selling. More than seven in ten said that they would lose trust in a brand forever if they perceived that a brand was putting profit before people. “Shopping now is as much a moral as a consumer question,’ according to The New York Times‘ fashion director Vanessa Friedman. “Where you spend your money matters.” 

Actions speak louder than words. Some of the leaders in luxury fashion have been at their best in the crisis, rapidly funneling resources into Covid-19 relief efforts for the medical community and employees. LVMH swiftly converted perfume factories to make hand sanitizer. Prada, Versace, Armani and Gucci are all donating to Italian hospitals or making gowns and masks, Ralph Lauren is donating $10 million. Hermes and Chanel were quick to commit to paying employees for several months without relying on government resources. 

The message: People matter.

In addition to getting the tone right, luxury brands need to embrace the conversational nature of digital tools that we are all using. This ensures an ongoing relationship with consumers, which is imperative as questions linger over whether stores can fully reopen. 

As stores – increasingly recognized as places of connection and community – remain shuttered, brands are contacting clients to ask how they are doing. Fashion brands such as Italy’s Elena Miro are getting their in-store personal stylists to help customers with online orders which can encourage e-commerce today and a return to the stores tomorrow. Luxury analysts including Bernstein’s Luca Solca point to a trend amid the pandemic of companies redeploying their retail teams to stay in personal touch with clients using messaging apps or by phone. CB Insights says “messaging tools connecting human experts and shoppers looking for advice are a way for brands to reduce uncertainty”

The outreach by luxury brands reflects how we are talking to each other during lockdown as we look for the most human way to connect when we are not physically together. HouseParty has been downloaded 50 million times in the past month, Zoom has seen daily participants skyrocket to 300 million, and Snap now has 229 million users, up 20 percent. Tech has been an enabler of proximity since the birth of social media, before likes and comments became the reserve currency. We extended our analog friendships to digital, as we moved from writing letters to digital chat. But now, the brands we want to hear from need to interact as friends, with knowledge, understanding and compassion. This is what can lift our day and win our hearts as consumers.

Former US surgeon general Vivek Murthy is urging us to see Covid-19 not as a social recession but “an opportunity to deeply appreciate the role and power that relationships have in our lives.” Murthy has written a book “Together” which looks at loneliness. He says relationships extend far beyond spouses and close friends – “to colleagues and even strangers in the community.”

It’s a moment of solidarity and our new ways to stay in touch are teaching us a lesson about age-old values. As Vogue editor Anna Wintour says, the future of fashion is changing right before our eyes. Let’s embrace her solicitation to “treat the emergency as a catalyst for change.” 

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