Last year, American Apparel, a popular US clothes brand, opened a shop in Second Life with a lot of positive press. Avatars could get for a few L$ relatively faithful replicas of their clothes in SL. Their project lasted almost a year or so, and then, as they finished their experiment, it was shut down (with a promise to return in the feature).
The media interested in reporting all sort of doomsday predictions about SL was obviously eager to know the reasons why American Apparel went away. Was the experiment a failure? Didn’t they reach their goal? Were they really expecting to sell more SL clothes than the popular SL-only brands? What, in fact, was their purpose?
We won’t probably know more than what was officially announced. Still, although I visited the SL shop, I never thought much about it. It was “just another brand”.
For about half a year, we also have Bershka in-world, a similar clothes brand, popular in several European countries. What is the difference in their approach? Will they also go away like American Apparel did?
It wasn’t my first visit at Bershka’s SL shop. The Spanish Mosi Mosi Web Designer and Metaverse Development Company from Barcelona did a bit of viral marketing on Flickr first, then did some launch parties, and continued to promote the shop for a whole semester with several events. It’s hard to catch the public’s attention these days — so much is going on at the same time! — so it’s no wonder that their launch of the Autumn/Winter collection (done simultaneously on the real life shops) was probably missed by most of the fashionista blogs. The latest news I’ve found on Bershka in Second Life came from a RL fashion blog. Quite a lot of blogs posted some news on Bershka’s opening in SL back in June/July, like the one from my friend Ana Lutetia, but they went quiet since then. Ana questioned herself if the power of RL branding would really influence resident’s choices on going to their SL shops or not; a question that has been bothering many fashion designers in SL, of course.
More important than that, to me, was that Bershka’s models were not really discussed/presented/announced. Or were they? Sure, Mosi Mosi did some launches on their events; but besides the Flickr streams, where are the fashionista reviews? What do they recommend? What is Bershka’s best choice for the SL New Year parties? We don’t know, and the fashion blogs and e-zines for SL don’t seem to care.
I asked myself “why”. Bershka, probably much like American Apparel, or Mrs Jones (a brand launched even earlier in SL by Rivers Run Red) — and quite in contrast with Emporio Armani, which started as a major flop, on a shop that wasn’t completed on the launch date and even after a month had nothing there for sale — did create faithful replicas of their clothes and shop design, which are for sale at a low price. The clothes are well designed, quite cheap, but they’re not free; they respected the community of fashion designers in SL and tried to compete fairly (ie. not by dumping their products). But something is definitely missing in this picture. Why isn’t Bershka selling as many clothes in SL as, say, Last Call, Simone, or Pixel Dolls? What do the SL brands do that the RL brands cannot do? Surely it’s not “advertising” (Bershka, as part of the Spanish Inditex group, the largest clothes retailer in Europe, certainly has the ability to spend a few L$ in ads).
Unlike the other clothes brands, I have a strange empathy with Bershka. I never saw a RL American Apparel shop, while there are Bershka shops in every mall in Portugal (and Spain); Bershka is a popular brand, a trend-setter, and usually with a good, appealing, fashionable style — if you like the ever-growing, popular Spanish/European styles. As you can also see from the pictures above, they fit very well into SL’s overall fashion looks, which in the past year has moved a lot from the ultra-trashy, sexy, and erotic (which plagued SL in the early days), to come up with a look which is more fitting to the 21st century. SL clothes popularly sold by the SL brands really start looking like what Bershka (and others) offer on their RL shops; sure, some clothes are a bit more flashy and daring than what most people will wear on the RL streets, but from the very short sample above, you can see that Bershka’s RL clothes can be colourful and splashy as well — and people certainly buy them (a lot!) in RL!
American Apparel might have suffered from the end of a “transition phase” — from erotic/trashy into casual-but-flashy — but Bershka is offering exactly the kinds of things that SL avatars are wearing now. And their clothes follow the norm — complete sets with flexiprims and multiple choices, very much like what everybody else is offering. So from a point of view of the product, they fit right in with what’s being offered. The shop, of course, is a curious mix of how a RL shop looks like, and what an SL shop usually has on display. I’ve always found RL-inspired shops in SL to be far easier to navigate; SL shops still suffer from the “web page look”, ie. where you cram as many possible clothes all spread across the walls, like on a web catalogue, with tons and tons of pictures to click. But we SL residents are used to that particular shopping experience, and it’s hard for SL clothes designers to come up with a new model to present their wares, since they basically copy what others are doing. RL brands, of course, have their own presentation rules on how clothes and accessories should be on display, and thus they follow different rules. Is that the major cause of the apparent lack of interest in them? Put into other words, is the way their clothes are on display that scares customers off?
It’s hard to say. Being no expert, I can only watch and observe. And what I figured out was that any designer in SL, old or new, has to enter a very restricted circle that involves fashionista blogs and e-zines, the SL media (which shows off their ads), in-world events and promotion, and word-of-mouth, besides an initial approach of multiple shops, slowly evolving to the megastore on a single island. This seems to be “the road to success” for any fashion designer. Ultimately, the key difference is that people have to hear about them.
One might consider that just having articles on a fashion designer is not enough — I mean, how many people do read the blogs anyway? You might be surprised. We know that SL has about 500,000 residents that are the backbone of the economy: these are the people that buy and sell items every day. But there is an estimated number of 150,000 residents that read the SL media regularly. So, by carefully selecting the SL media where your items get shown and talked about (even if negatively) will have an impact: you’ll be targetting a third of SL’s active population that is willing to spend money on content. And this is more important than many people think.
Throwing events is not so important as it looks — unless you can guarantee that a high enough number of SL journalists will be in the party and write about the event. That way, even if the event only had a hundred visitors, if 5-10 SL journalists might have attended the party, you might get 10-100,000 readers to know about your products. Through word-of-mouth this means that perhaps all the other 500,000 residents will eventually know about you. Do this every month, and you really are going to pick up some traffic.
But you need to be original. Fashionista reporters and SL journalists get invitations every day for all kinds of parties. The fashion experts get clothes to review every day. How will your brand make a difference? How can you “stand out of the crowd”? Or perhaps the question is slightly different: why doesn’t Bershka get any attention from the residents?
I would claim that there are two major reasons for that. First, SL clothiers are developing new products every day (well, at least, every week). I’m privileged to be a close friend of Maria Gherardi — a rather new clothes designer (in the sense that she started designing clothes for less than a year, and came up from “nowhere”, ie. no SL designer studios, but started on her own). Just look at her blog. There is something new there every week. Then take a look at who’s talking about her and how her work is being reviewed. She might be a “very small designer” in terms of SL overall, but she certainly will have way more customers than, well, Bershka. And more attention from the SL media and the SL fashion world.
Bershka “has” to follow the RL model — two collections per year, at most. This never works in SL, where people expect new items every week. Of course, the SL shop does not have the full collection (I’ve desperately tried to look for the models that are featured on their webpage — they are not in SL, or if they are, they’re just partially there. Where are the lovely boots?… I just found two sets of shoes being offered, and one was not for sale), so, in theory, they could — if they wished — release the whole collection, one week at the time, and this would certainly make an impact on the SL fashion world. But they didn’t follow that approach. And secondly, they desperately need the SL fashion world to talk about them. Instead, they seem to rely on the RL press to get them some coverage, and some marginal traffic that way. Clearly it’s not the best choice.
I’ve talked with the very, very friendly people from Mosi Mosi, half a year ago, when Bershka was launched in SL and I was really excited about their ideas. They’re quite open to do experiments, and the Inditex group gives them good backup and support on novel approaches. This is positive, since there is no other way to deal with how SL works (and changes!) and tailor their marketing approach to this specific world. It’s like entering a new country — some rules have to been observed; some cultural barriers have to be overcome; some adaptation is needed. Bershka seems to be open to all of the above in order to continue to be around in SL. Well, it’s time they enter the competitive SL market just like anybody else. Mosi Mosi should get in touch with one of the SL fashionistas and get some serious advice. The few tips above are pretty obvious — anyone just watching how SL works will figure them out on your own — and all they need to do is to convince Inditex’s marketing department to go for it. The only budget change they need to approve is to replicate the whole of Bershka’s collection, and release it a week at a time — and then make sure that people (the half a million people who are the backbone of the consumer community in SL) know about these releases.
It’s hard to forge a receipt for success on a long-term project in SL. There is still a slight reluctance from the immersionist community in SL that really doesn’t “like” the idea of RL brands in SL, although things are changing: residents tend to see that most RL brands are clueless about how they should present themselves in SL, and thus aren’t really “competing”. And they (sadly) are right. Even the best intentioned projects might fail if they don’t assimilate the SL culture — which, granted, is not widespread, but still strong around the half million regular consumers. This means mostly that they need to experiment with what works; copy the best ideas; and integrate themselves into the complex environment and culture that SL offers. International RL brands are used to adapt themselves to local conditions; SL, in this regard, is “just like another country” — it’s like MacDonald’s opening shop in India and remembering they can’t offer hamburgers made out of beef, or that Coke in Morocco is ok but offering beer is a no-no. Once RL brands start deploying things in SL just like any other SL brand they will have success. A good example is that Bershka, as a brand, might be unfamiliar in the US or the Far East; together, these represent 40% of the SL population that has no clue if “Bershka” is a real brand or not. So far as they “play by the rules” — i.e. does the same thing as any other SL brand — they will be accepted as “one of them”. RL brands have a huge advantage: they can afford long-time projects and experiment with what works (their budget is big enough for that), while SL brands, with little investment, need to give a ROI almost immediately (after a month!) to be able to pay tier — so they can’t experiment a lot but need to be immediately profitable.
Then again, Bershka might not be interested in selling “a lot of clothes” but might have different purposes in SL. This leads to the other topic: “managing expectations”, which is different for every company, and often not easy for SL residents to understand. For instance, most SL residents don’t understand that real life projects often have a beginning and an end. When the project finishes, it closes and shuts down — and this is normal, not a catastrophe, or an assumption of utter failure. RL companies might support a project (say, a charity) for six months and never do anything again with them — that’s usual, they might have an agreement with a PR company who presents them a budget for half a year, and when these six months have elapsed, the support is removed from the project and placed somewhere else (and an analysis of the impact is made). Just take a look at American Apparel’s page on SL again: it’s quite clear that what they wanted was media splash, and this they got. Media splash can be measured with precise metrics, and they can be used to evaluate the success and ROI of a specific project and/or campaign.
SL residents, however, measure “success” by looking on how many green dots are on a specific island. This doesn’t mean much for some RL companies, but it’s the way the SL talks about it, and, indirectly, some of the more clueless RL media too. When a company “leaves SL”, everybody immediately thinks that they are a failure, or that SL is a failure, or both. But this is simply misunderstanding the expectation management done by those companies.
However, one thing is certain. The era of creating a virtual presence in SL just for the media splash is now over — there are simply too many companies, too many organisations, too many universities in SL. As anyone could have predicted, being the #25,459 company to enter SL is no news. Marketing experts, media agencies and PR reps now need to work much harder if they want to continue to gather the media’s attention.
But there are alternatives. Bershka is a good example. Although they’re a well-established RL brand in Europe, they could very likely become a well-established SL brand, too.
All they need to do is to “play by the rules” 🙂 which they seem open-minded enough to do.
Credits and disclaimer: All Bershka models where taken from their website for the purpose of writing this article; Gwyn’s dressed in a black dress offered on sale on the SL Bershka shop; Gwyn’s poses are by Ana Lutetia.