Fashion communications should be based on selling ideas not products

I wrote this blogpost after returning from Cannes Lions this year – it was recently published on the all-new Huffington Post UK

There’s no escaping the overwhelming association with luxury in Cannes. Star-studded hotels sit next to boutiques from every designer name you can imagine: Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Gucci, Prada. Balenciaga too, Céline coming soon.

But head inside the Palais des Festivals in June for the world’s most famous advertising festival, Cannes Lions, and there’s barely a whisper of the fashion industry at all. In a celebration of the best in campaigns from around the globe, some of the most creative brands existing, are distinctly absent.

The obvious answer is budget. Traditionally, fashion not only doesn’t do big scale advertising (TV), but doesn’t, of course, work with ad agencies. Who needs a creative director from Madison Avenue, when you have one in Karl Lagerfeld, Marc Jacobs or Christopher Bailey in-house?

Print has always been their home. Seasonal campaigns that tie in with seasonal collections. Bold concepts whittled down to a beautiful aesthetic portrayed through a couple of models and an exotic set. Glossy magazines as premium placement, the odd outdoor billboard and the glittering flagship store.

But advertising has changed. Consumers have changed.

Cannes Lions rebranded for 2011 from the prosaic International Advertising Festival to the International Festival of Creativity, to reflect that. Advertising, once clear-cut in definition, can now encompass anything from an experience to new technology, from the use of social media to an event. More often than not, it’s all those things together.

Proof lies in this year’s winners. Yes, Nike’s epic Write the Future spot took the film grand prix, but it was the likes of Decode Jay-Z with Bing, which had no TV attached to it, that cleaned up.

Taking Jay-Z’s new autobiography and leaking it page by page – printing it in inventive spaces such as the bottom of a swimming pool and a vintage Cadillac Seville car – it then released a series of clues online for a month as to each page’s whereabouts, a ruse which saw fans scrabbling to find them in a Bing-enabled scavenger hunt.

It’s in this integrated realm fashion could do well. On a smaller scale, early adopters are already proving such; taking their glossy seasonal campaigns and using them to spark conversation around the brand both on and offline.

“Content” is the new buzzword, with behind-the-scenes footage, viral teasers and fully fledged online films becoming popular formats.

Prada’s spring/summer 2011 effort for instance, won the top spot on The Business of Fashion’s list of fashion films for the season for its “infectious charm and masterfully executed quick edits”. It also worked wonderfully in the interactive banner space, and translated equally well to print.

Meanwhile, for autumn/winter 2011/12, Mulberry brought its campaign stills by Tim Walker to life in a film created retrospectively through the use of numerous CGI techniques.

And Chanel, one of the masters of the teaser spot, even launched a full 30-minute piece around its cruise collection in May called The Tale of a Fairy.

Then there are the more creative integrations – the cunning of a previous Calvin Klein Jeans billboard inviting us to unlock its censored ads through a QR code; or Burberry’s experiential videos allowing viewers to rotate, pause and change perspective through the use of motion-responsive technology.

But, regardless of such clever executions, the basis for each is still (in the main) that print imagery. Fashion communications remain about print ads selling product over campaigns selling ideas. And that is what needs to change.

Sir John Hegarty, worldwide creative director at advertising agency BBH, told a brimming auditorium at Cannes Lions the future is about doing something different. In a telling demonstration he ran a series of beauty industry ads. With their taglines removed, it was almost impossible to tell which was which.

The same could be said for fashion. By the time you’ve seen the collection, heard about the designer’s inspirations and remembered which photographer they’ll use, you can almost even predict the look of the ads before they’re released.

Hegarty referred to this homogenisation as “windtunnel marketing”, and called for a change in approach.

Denim labels, in that case, offers a lot to be learnt from. Ditching the idea of seasonal ads, Diesel launched its Be Stupid campaign in 2010. Based on taking risk, being spontaneous and saying yes, it’s a philosophy spawned from president and founder Renzo Rosso’s experiences in first launching the brand. It won the outdoor grand prix in Cannes last year.

The tagline has remained since, but the ads – often somewhat risqué themselves – are frequently updated: new models, new product, new multimedia executions.

The same can be seen with Go Forth, the long-term campaign from Levi’s, and the brand’s first global creative platform in its 138-year history. Based on a rally cry for positive change in the world, the latest instalment includes a 60-second film called Levi’s Legacy that was unveiled last week (though has been postponed in the UK following riots across the country).

This kind of big thinking for an apparel brand not only makes a campaign more relevant to different hemispheres when launched internationally, but ties in well with the fact collections are becoming increasingly transseasonal.

Accordingly, while the Cannes Lions rebranding might have taken the focus off traditional formats, it doesn’t rid us of the fact that overarching ideas are what advertising remains about, especially in the new digital age, where execution can overshadow concept.

Fashion therefore – an industry with creativity at its very core – needs to shake off its seasonal collection focus and start thinking instead about campaigns built around big ideas.

A good starting point for inspiration, you could say, is Cannes Lions.