As platforms such as Instagram continue to shape the way consumers shop, products garner frenzied attention on social media – but what is behind the pieces that go viral, and how is the phenomenon impacting the way brands and retailers function?
Be it a sold-out high-vis jacket from PrettyLittleThing, a pair of luminous yellow platform Crocs that stomped down the catwalk at Balenciaga’s spring 18 catwalk show, or a pink tiger-print Rixo dress that had customers desperate to buy it six months before it was even released – some products are catnip for social media, especially Instagram.
When a product picks up traction on social media, there are obvious benefits: popularity online often equates to a spike in website traffic or even sales.
A product’s potential viral impact is something brands and retailers are considering more and more. Some pieces go viral for their unusual, eyebrow-raising, designs – such as a pair of clear plastic “jeans” from Topshop that launched in 2017 – while others take off as a result of a deliberate build-up of customer demand. Advance previews to create demand, deliberately provocative design designed to gain attention – if not necessarily sales – and instant imitation of influencers are among the tools at retailers’ disposal to send their products to prominence.
“It may be that a celebrity, prominent influencer or editor has endorsed a particular piece, it could be that it’s a unique product or trend that no other brands have bought into, it could simply be it’s just a fun piece that captures the attention of the public,” explains Anthony Cuthbertson, global design director at Topshop.
We can detect if a certain buy seems too small for the demand
Anthony Cuthbertson, Topshop
“We can see early signs of items trending through data from the Topshop website,” he explains. “We might then look to our digital channels and observe how the pieces have resonated with the influencer community and see if editors have picked up on the style in the fashion press. We’re very close to the sales data, so we can detect if a certain buy seems too small for the demand and we can address this by restocking pieces.”
As a recent example, Cuthbertson highlights a satin, bias-cut midi-skirt from Topshop, which retails for £35. The retailer capitalised on customer demand by introducing new colours and prints.
Bethany Rowntree is a former buyer and merchandiser at Mulberry, Matchesfashion and Anya Hindmarch, and founder of womenswear ecommerce site Studio B, which stocks brands such as Rixo and Stine Goya.
She explains that Instagram previews of products are one element that can help send an item viral: “Having a social media build-up, creating a wait list, a limited edition nature and basically building demand before the product is released makes people desperate to get it.”
With Instagram allowing customers glimpses into the behind-the-scenes parts of the fashion industry in a new way, and catwalk shows, presentations and even trade shows and buying appointments showing new product on social media six months before it hits the shelves, demand for key items can slowly build to a frenzy.
Rowntree highlights the Rixo Emma pink tiger-stripe dress as a recent example of this: “The dress was featured in Rixo’s September 2018 Fashion Week presentation and was photographed by almost everyone who attended, so had been all over Instagram. Even from my own posts on Instagram at the September presentation, I had people wanting to put their name down for one, even though it wasn’t coming in for six months.”
When the dress eventually went on sale at the start of February 2019, it sold out on Studio B in one day.
Believe the hype
Rowntree notes that some brands are building their entire businesses on this “hype and demand” model: using high-impact pieces to drive interest, but in reality taking most of their sales through other items as interest trickles down. As examples, she cites brands such as Supreme and Yeezy, and designer Molly Goddard, whose show-stopper catwalk dresses are balanced by a more muted commercial collection.
“The majority of brands include pieces in their collections for marketing purposes. They look good in campaign imagery, and create a buzz, but aren’t actually commercial,” she says. “Working for brands in the past, we’ve always had the pieces we pretty much know won’t sell, but have been used for marketing purposes.”
From one of her previous roles, she highlights a £1,000 scarf that was “knitted by Scottish grannies”. It was used in the campaign shoot, but a £95 wool blend scarf, and a logo T-shirt were the top-selling items from the collection.
“It’s more of a marketing tool, it’s the pieces that get people talking, the pieces that sometimes shock. Would customers really want to wear them? Maybe not, but it gets people talking about the brand, which can’t be a bad thing,” she says.
As far as shocking designs go, footwear brand Crocs’ designer collaborations with luxury labels Christopher Kane (lead image, above) and Balenciaga are some of the most prominent – and unexpected – creations of recent years. In this case, the unexpected nature of the products help to drive the viral reaction to them.
Michelle Poole, chief product and merchandising officer at Crocs, explains that the collaborations are an effective marketing tool, and bring new customers to the brand.
“We’ve recognized that if you collaborate with the right partner and bring something new to the table, you can benefit from the ‘1+1= 3’ effect,” she explains. “So, while some collaborations have the opportunity to drive revenue, the creativity of the projects is what’s most critical to their success, and we’ve seen that a co-ordinated and bespoke marketing effort has really helped to build anticipation and generate buzz.
She continues: “Brand collaborations, including those with Christopher Kane, Balenciaga, [rapper] Post Malone and others, play a meaningful role in the development of your brand, and in the marketplace, because they bring something fresh and unexpected to the consumer. Cumulatively, these partnerships have helped to elevate the brand’s positioning and relevance.”
The viral product phenomenon is making an impact across the fashion industry, and one sector that is well geared to capitalise on this is fast fashion.
Thanks to their rapid supply chains, nimble retailers are able to cater to the instant demand for viral products and replicate the micro-trends that prominent influencers and celebrities can spark with a single post.
Customers want what everyone else is wearing now
Bobby Samari, Femme Luxe
Bobby Samari, founder of online women’s fashion brand Femme Luxe, explains that if an influencer posts a particular product on Instagram that gathers a lot of buzz, it could conceivably have a similar product on its website within a week, far faster than a conventional brand would manage.
“We’re able to take a lot of the market [spend] because we are very reactive,” says Samari. “Other big corporate brands are already designing for next winter, but customers want what everyone else is wearing now.
“The Kardashians post something neon on Instagram, and suddenly it’s a micro-trend. With something like that, you have to be reactive. You phone your factory and get the fabric, then make sure you can get the product on the site and selling. Micro-trends like that are really good for fast fashion brands like us.”
He notes that tapping into the trends and products that go viral has a wider positive impact on the site, too: “We get products online really quickly, and that has an overall positive effect on traffic. We’ve got the item in really quickly, and people want to know how we did it. It won’t be just for that product – it will bring traffic onto the website in general and it’ll promote our other clothing as well.”
Fast fashion brands’ influencer-imitating approach has not gone unnoticed. After Kim Kardashian wore a revealing vintage Thierry Mugler gown, etailer Fashion Nova had an almost identical style up for pre-order in less than a day. Kardashian took to Twitter to say: ”I don’t have any relationships with these sites. I’m not leaking my looks to anyone, and I don’t support what these companies are doing.”
Fashion Nova then put out a statement on Instagram, which said: “We have not worked with Kim Kardashian West directly on any of her projects, but have been driven by her influential style.”
Whether an intentional attention grabber, or a product that garners vast popularity through a build-up of hype or a flurry of purchasing customers, the trend for viral products is a powerful force within the fashion sector. Social media continues to affect the fashion landscape, and trends, marketing and business models are all shifting to respond to the demands of the Instagram-driven shopper.
Products that gained a viral buzz
PrettyLittleThing’s high-vis jacket, Topshop’s clear vinyl “jeans“, Never Fully Dressed’s Jaspre leopard print skirt, and Y/Project’s collaboration with Ugg all lit up social media.