Deleted accounts and trips to Dubai. How should brands handle social media during the pandemic?

Love Island's Anton Danyluk in Dubai

At the start of the new year the lights went dark on Bottega Veneta’s social media. Vamoose, it was gone. No explanation and no logical reasoning.

The Italian luxury goods house, owned by Kering, didn’t send out a statement and time-frame regarding the social media outage. Luxury brands have previously wiped their social media clean usually on the appointment of a new Creative Directive or brand refresh, but never entirely.

Brit, Daniel Lee, BV’s current creative director, seems firmly in place increasing both critical praise and sales, leaving many people puzzled by the move. It got people talking.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex too have quit social media citing becoming disillusioned by the “hate” and trolling they have encountered online. An insider said that they are “very unlikely” to return to social networking platforms in a personal capacity.

Deleting social media feels like the modern of equivalent of saying you’re no longer advertising. Is social media still really that important? Could other brands and public figures follow suit? Is this a sign of brands pulling back and toning down from the relentless push on social media channels?

Chloë James, fashion and beauty editor at CORQ, an easy-to-use platform which helps find influencers and understand how to work with brands in the most dynamic way, says: “When it comes to the Sussexes, I think the main reason they’ve deleted social media is because they’ve found other, better ways to tell their story. Their podcast and upcoming deal with Netflix offers their particular brand more freedom than social media, with less public space for hate. Audio and video have seen huge growth in 2020 and will do so going into 2021, so while it’s very possible they could return to social media in the future I don’t think it’s necessary for a brand that describes its main focus as storytelling.

“As for Bottega Veneta, I think the main appeal of deleting Instagram is that they’re one of the first to do it. A big luxury brand without social media is much more compelling than one with social media. Part of the allure of a luxury brand is its exclusivity and this is a clever way to try to bring back some of that mystery. It’s inevitable that others will try something similar but while I think this could work short-term, it’s only a matter of time until that fear of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ creeps in and brands want to be centre stage again. You can’t curate a brand image if that image isn’t even in the game anymore,” she says.

Simon Glazin, social media manager for Matalan with over eight years’ experience, says: “I think the Sussexes just got angry, didn’t they? They had enough of the trolls. To be honest, I’m not really sure why a brand would do that at this moment in time. For many brands, social media is the only thing connecting to their customers at the moment. Stores are closed, marketing activity has changed, but social remains. It’s a direct link with their audience.

“Lush did a similar thing a few years back… they didn’t delete their social media accounts, but stripped it right back, claiming that they didn’t want to pay to reach a bigger audience. Maybe for luxury brands like Bottega Veneta it’s different, but certainly for high street companies, social is vital!” he says.

Bottega Veneta has exited social media

Hayley Hall, multi-award winning blogger and branding consultant, says: “I think the Sussexes have a very disjointed view of the world and social media, and aren’t quite sure how to connect with the wider world; with social comes the ability for instant criticism and feedback, and I think they personally can’t deal with that. I also think their decision is driven financially now they’ve signed a deal with Netflix and Spotify!

“As for other brands, social media plays a huge role in the wider marketing mix and takes a lot of money and resource to implement correctly – if you’re in a premium position whereby you don’t actively need it (because your brand is already so well established) then I can understand stepping away. It’s not always a place for brands to make sales, so if it’s not providing ROI or it’s not working with the rest of their brand strategy it’s a bold decision to remove it entirely. I do think we’ll see more brands do this moving forward as they realise you don’t have to be everywhere and be everything to everyone; just like not everyone utilises TV or press, more will start to choose the mediums that work for them and the audience they’re choosing to target. As our relationship with social media changes, I believe it won’t necessarily be a given to find every brand online,” she says.

“I don’t think other brands will follow,” says Glazin. “Thing is, if it’s temporary, they run the risk of totally losing the trust and engagement from their audience. It’s a risky game. Interested to see what they do though.”

Social media is heavily interlinked with “influencers” who have become an easy target over the past year with even The Guardian piling into them with their trips to Dubai and “working” holidays.

Glazin says: “Lots of influencers have been flying off to Dubai and other places, plastering it all over their social media channels. I think it’s very out of touch with not only their audience, but just life right now. I would LOVE to see their inboxes!

“With brands it’s a fine line… it’s hard to constantly think of things that are going to entertain/inspire your audience. The first lockdown was all about tips and tricks for working at home, home schooling, home baking etc. Now we’re in lockdown number three, the mood has changed. It’s all about funny memes now that are relatable to the tired home-schooling parents or the bored and over-worked working-from-home person,” he says.

“I think it’s been difficult for influencers to find the right tone in the current climate. It’s tough for audiences to stomach complaints about lockdown restrictions if an influencer is simultaneously documenting trips to Dubai or luxury shopping hauls,” says CORQ’s James.

“That‘s so far away from the pandemic experienced by most of their audience and it feels very disingenuous. People like Victoria and Patricia Bright have navigated this really well and handled their privilege without compromising their usual content, managing to turn luxury content into moments of real joy and indulgence over the past year. Others have tripped up a bit. The most recent example I can think of is lifestyle vlogger Fleur De Force, who handled the situation admirably in 2020, but received a lot of backlash over the festive period when she was spotted in Dubai and later forced to confirm she’d taken a trip despite her local area being in tier 4. I think what really disappointed her followers was the idea that they’d been duped somehow — while Dubai seems to be mostly inhabited by British influencers at the moment, the root of most of the backlash against Fleur is that she hadn’t announced the trip and had spent most of last year in solidarity with those struggling in lockdown,” she says.

Fleur de Force apologised for a trip to Dubai

Blogger and consultant Hall adds: “The world of influencer marketing and content creation was born from a need to reconnect with people that were ‘just like me’. The reason the industry grew so quickly was because we love to connect with communities where there’s similar interests or passions, but as these influencers have grown (and so has their bank balance) many have lost touch with what it’s like for the majority of their followers. Living in a huge house, with a huge garden, surrounded by everything you could ever need is a privileged position – so then showcasing a new Chanel bag, or flying off to Dubai for a holiday just jars against those who may be struggling during a pandemic.

“Attitudes have changed over the last 12 months, and although people still want to buy things to make themselves feel good, it’s less of a given and more of a considered purchase; the way influencers and brands position themselves needs to be adjusted accordingly,” she says.

“The amount of influencers in Dubai over Christmas and into the new year is just inconceivable; even if you’re technically allowed because you flew out the day before lockdown, just why would you? When key workers are falling apart under stress and people have been locked up in their houses for months while shielding. It’s baffling to me. Set a good example and use your influence for good,” Hall adds.

Which social media channels are seeing the most engagement and action at the moment?

“Tik Tok has changed the landscape once again. It’s grown exponentially and come at a time when people are consuming more social content than ever before,” says Matalan’s Glazin. “It’s doing the job that Instagram set out to do – be irreverent and fun. Instagram isn’t really that place anymore. It’s all about #ads and money and greed. However, working retail side, Instagram has been a lifeline to connect with our customers. There was a record number of Live feeds over the first lockdown, which bought people closer to brands, seeing more of a personality. One thing is for sure though… influencers are still influencing!”

James adds: “The influencers thriving on social today are totally different to those on top this time last year. Without the grandeur of press trips and travelling, it was so easy for an influencer’s content to go from engaging to dry overnight once the first lockdown hit. I think it’s put social content under a microscope and those who’ve come out on top are the ones challenging themselves creatively, particularly when in terms of video and audio.

“2020 was the year of TikTok and the majority of exciting new content creators are born on the platform. At the same time, social media users are growing more conscious of their own power on social media. With so many big brands and influencers making major social faux pas in 2020, audiences are increasingly shifting their support to those who align with their own values and either taking it away or using it to denounce those who don’t. Overall, I think the most draining year ever somehow also became one of the most entertaining thanks to social media and I probably would have lost all sanity months ago without TikTok,” she says.

TikTok
TikTok is increasing in influence

Hall says: “The move towards Instagram has been exponential over the last twelve months, primarily due to their continual development of new features that encourage different forms of content and continual scrolling. We’ve definitely seen a move away from static imagery to more snappy video-based content, driven by the growth of TikTok, as our patience for digesting long form content reduces and our desire for fun and light-hearted content increases. During the pandemic we’ve used social media as a way to connect like never before, but interestingly the style of content has changed from being all about selling to enriching lives and providing inspiration; it feels uncomfortable to be pushing for sales when many people have lost their jobs or are worried about their future.”

What makes people unfollow/disengage?

“The wrong content, untimely content, insensitive content. I think the minute someone feels they can’t be inspired or trust a brand or influencer, you’ve lost them,” Matalan’s Glazin advises.

CORQ’s James agrees: “Audiences hate feeling deceived in any way, whether that’s over a trip to Dubai or an influencer’s beliefs, interests, likes, dislikes, etc. Younger audiences in particular can sniff out a rat a mile away — on TikTok especially they won’t hesitate to call out those who’ve been dishonest with their audience.

“For example, over Christmas it was only thanks to a TikTok video calling out a trio of fashion influencers (Rachel Leary, Hannah Renée Hadfield and Madison Sarah) for hosting a New Year’s Eve party in Tier 4 Manchester that forced the three to issue apologies. They’re even more likely to pick up on disingenuous ads. The age of a generalised lifestyle blogger who endorses five different fake tan brands a month is over — when it comes to ads, people want quality over quantity and will immediately disengage with anything that seems fake. On that note, influencers should be more worried about disengagement than unfollowing. A lot of people will gladly hate follow content creators they don’t enjoy,” she says.

Hall adds: “When they feel like they can no longer relate, when the content makes them feel bad or brings them down, or their moral standards are compromised. We’ve seen a lot of people vote with their ‘unfollow’ button this year, and I think that will continue.”

How do you see the future of social media?

Glazin says: “Tik Tok seems to be the new kid on the block, but it seems every few years a new channel comes about that people just love. They usually start as a slow burner, but then people just ‘get it’.

“Influencer marketing doesn’t seem to be going anywhere either. Brands are spending big cash with influencers to push product. It’ll be interesting to see how Instagram evolves though. There has been talk for a long-time to roll out the ‘shop now’ feature to influencers far and wide which will be a game changer. And there has also been talk of potentially charging people for their accounts. Not sure that will ever pass, but interesting all the same,” he comments.

James says: “The content creators coming out on top will be multi-disciplined, with more skills in audio and video than before. Anyone who can’t master video is, quite frankly, doomed. When it comes to fashion and beauty, short-form video content like TikTok is the future, with audiences tuning less into tutorials and hauls and more into snappier, more creative formats. Also expect a lot more purpose-driven content. Audiences and influencers are engaging more with issues such as sustainability, which will have a huge knock-on effect on the world of lifestyle influencing in particular.”

“It’s a tricky one,” says Hall, “as you never know what’s going to happen from month to month. I think we’ll become more edited about who we follow and what we engage with, and won’t be as afraid to question or call out anything we disagree with. I also think for a lot of brands social media won’t be a priority platform, as they move away to creating more engaging real-life experiences and building their own channels and networks.”

Bottega Veneta has done something very simple yet feels extremely radical in 2021. Brainwashed into thinking that social media is everything, the idea of deleting it seems entirely alien to the majority of people. The brand is already established and has a physical presence showcasing itself worldwide so it is in a different position from those starting out. It will be interesting to see how it promotes its new product moving forward, but, as consumers, we’re open to radical changes at the moment.

“Influencers” are an easy target, and it only takes one to tarnish the entire sector. These are individuals and, as such, are all different. It’s a very insecure industry and it’s this insecurity which perpetuates bad judgements. 2020 would have magnified this for many of them. There is also something of the green-eyed monster with much of the vitriol aimed at them, but they are only as powerful as their perceived audience who will quickly point out their mistakes and indiscretions. Brands don’t want to associate themselves alongside individuals with poor judgement especially if they’re paying handsomely for it.

It looks like Tik Tok is having its day in the sun, but usually when the brands move in, the audience moves on. Social looks like it is all about making people laugh and feel good going forward, not just pushing “Buy Now” and we all need that right now. Just how you monetise that will the big question.