The Italian uber luxury brand Bottega Veneta is a great one to play ‘guess the absurd price tag game’ in places like Harvey Nichols and Selfridges. Simply point out a handbag, challenge your partner to guess the price and then turn the tag round; “Wow, five hundred quid for a handbag – hold on a minute, there’s another zero; five grand for a handbag! Oh…my…Go…” and then faint.

Just a note of caution; it’s highly advisable not to play the version of game with Bottega Veneta products in which you say “If you can guess the right price, I’ll buy it for you” unless you want a heart attack and a second mortgage.

Bottega Veneta do make some fabulous handbags of course, if you like that kind of thing. Their bags are characterized by being logo free and their signature lattice leather work which, it has to said, is much classier than say Louis Vuitton’s logo laden leatherware which screams ‘look how expensive my handbag was’ with its non too subtle branded all over motif.

It’s an exclusive brand sold only in those in-store boutiques in the likes of Selfridges, Harvey Nichols and Harrods, and is only seen on the arms of those ‘absolutely fabulous’ people in places like Mayfair, Milan or Alderley Edge. But one place you won’t see Bottega Veneta products at the moment is on social media. On the 4th January the brand deleted its Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts with only a since deleted tweet by way of explanation: "What’s missing from 2021? @BottegaVeneta is.” The lack of comment means that, as yet, it’s unclear whether the move is some kind of marketing stunt as a prelim to a digital relaunch or more of a statement about social media by abstinence. Like most brands, and especially those in high fashion, BV has historically put a lot of effort into its social channels with product promotions and use of social influencers like the Olsen twins, building up an audience of millions of followers.

If it isn’t a short term refresh as part of a marketing stunt, then the timing is very strange. Online sales of luxury goods doubled in 2020, from 12% in 2019 to 23%, and this is expected to reach 30% by 2025 when e-commerce will become the primary channel of distribution for luxury goods. Social media is an essential part of every luxury brand’s online strategy, seemingly until now that is, and surveys in the sector do show a growing dissatisfaction with the performance of social media. A recent report in Forbes magazine concluded:

“In the latest survey, Instagram is the best performing social media channel for luxury goods and services companies, but best is a relative term. Only 30% of luxury companies using Instagram said it is “very effective.” Facebook’s “very effective” measure is about half that, or 16%. Pinterest and YouTube are 9% and 8% respectively, and Twitter, Snapchat, WeChat and TikTok’s very effectiveness ratings are almost too small to measure. These social media channels have had consistently low ratings over the last three years. ‘We have not found any marketing tool that produces leads qualified for our luxury products and service’ was among the comments in that survey. And another said, ‘So far nothing is working. Social media is seeing no actual move to act.” Pamela N. Danziger, Senior Contributor, Forbes.

Given the huge budgets invested into social media by luxury and fashion brands, including the millions lavished on influencers to be seen with their products on their social channels, it’s not surprising that the brand owners expected better performance and many are cutting budgets according to the advertising and marketing agencies who serve them. Not unsurprisingly, the agencies have a different view on how well their social media strategies are performing. The same survey in Forbes highlights that over 60% of agencies say that Instagram is ‘very effective’ for their clients and 40% for Facebook. However, the difference of opinions can be ascribed to the different ways the brand owners and agencies measure effectiveness; agencies look at traffic, likes and shares; brand owners look at the bottom line and sales.

There are some clues perhaps, for understanding Bottega Veneta's decision in some of the opinions of their creative director Daniel Lee, the man behind the decision. He is apparently well known for his dislike of all the online noise, in an interview with Cultured Magazine he said:

“I don’t think much of the digital presentations. They felt empty and took so much effort in such emotionally turbulent times, yet in the end, the concepts lacked depth. What’s worse, it hinders rather than aids the creative process. Everyone seeing the same things is not healthy or productive. It doesn’t breed individuality. How can we speak to our audience in a way that works for them because, ultimately, they are the most important in all of this?” Daniel Lee, Creative Director Bottega Veneta.

It would appear that he has answered that question and it remains to be seen if he re-imagines a more creative way to use social media or other digital tools assuming he can’t simply ignore them, given the reach of online especially in a world currently in lockdown.

“The idea of a billion-dollar brand existing without social media is titillatingly original. Perhaps the Bottega deletion is the ultimate act of stealth luxury—it will now be a brand that travels strictly by word of mouth. If only the fans of a brand are posting about it, perhaps it will move like a secret throughout the industry, with It items popping up organically, by dint of consumer taste (imagine that!), instead of beaming down like a mandate from the corporate account.” Rachel Tashjian, GQ Magazine.

Luxury brands obviously do value authentic word of mouth to deliver quality leads, the kind of people who go to Harvey Nicks and can actually afford the stuff. But aren’t those 'high net worth' people usually very busy? Aren’t they over-marketed to as well? Have they got the time or inclination to spend hours on social media? And if they can be bothered to look, can you really make a luxury brand rise above all the noise on social media? The stream of cats falling off ledges, Grandma’s home cooking recipes, pictures of the kids' school projects, the conspiracy theorists’ rants, oh and here's a five grand handbag? And does a brand like Bottega Veneta even want to risk appearing alongside such trashy content, or worse. There's a reason why they spend a fortune to be in those in-store boutiques in Selfridges rather than on the high street, unless it's Bond Street, Knightsbridge or the Via Monte Napoleone in Milan where they know their neighbours will be the likes Balenciaga, Gucci and Tods.

High net worth individuals typically “expect the luxury brands they do business with to understand them, to be respectful of them and to personalise every interaction. Bombarding them with irrelevant posts on social media is not how to do it.”

Bottega Veneta could be the first of many luxury brands to re-evaluate and possibly leave social media. Without an explanation of their actions it’s difficult to know whether this is a marketing stunt or if it’s a longer term strategy. It could also signal a renewed focus on print based media. Reading fashion magazines like GQ, Esquire, Vogue or Harpers Bazaar provides a totally different user experience, with beautifully photographed full page glossies, compared to smaller than post-card-sized images on a mobile screen. The magazines also act as curators for those busy people with disposable income who haven't got time to endlessly scroll web pages. Whether you share the editors' tastes or not, they at least earned the right to present it, unlike most influencers on social media.

Whilst luxury brands like Bottega Veneta are obviously in something of a bubble given their exclusivity, and their target audiences are not necessarily representative of the majority – it could be argued that social media is ‘mass not class’ – their decision to buck the trend by opting out of social media as a marketing channel comes at a very interesting time in the evolution of the short life of social media itself.

The decision raises a broader question about the value of social media as an advertising channel which, tied to selling user data, is ultimately how it makes its money of course and has been previously been brought into question by other brand owners including mass market ones like Unilever.

There have also been serious questions about the manipulation of data and of users on social media, from Russia meddling in US and UK elections to Brexit and the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

There is growing criticism of social media's failure to effectively manage misinformation and hate speech, including radical and fanatical content, and the role this may play in society so devastatingly illustrated in the recent events on Capitol Hill in Washington DC.

Misinformation and divisive content has seen proactive interventions from Twitter and Facebook who initially started to censure some of President Trumps posts for example, as ‘not factually accurate’. His incitement of the riot since, has ultimately resulted in his permanent removal from the former, and a temporary one from the latter.

In turn, this raises the question of censorship and of prevention free speech as Trump has somewhat inevitably claimed. You could argue that all the banning of people has achieved is to move the radical voices, including the likes of David Icke, Katie Hopkins and Piers Corbyn, to even more fractious platforms like Parler. This only serves to further deepen divisions and the propagation of misinformation to a willingly isolated audience who feed each other more and more radical content in a downward spiral to provide the tinder which starts fires and leads to events like the riot in America.

These issues and more have forced Governments to put legislation in place to regulate the sector. In the UK, recently announced new rules are backed up by multi-million pound fines for companies failing to control harmful content. This was quickly followed by the EU’s ‘Digital Services Act’ which again threatens large fines for companies that don’t remove illegal content including hate speech. Finally, in the US, anti-trust hearings held last year started to question the power and influence of the big tech companies and whether they are anti-competitive which is seeing moves by the Government over there to threaten to break them up for being monopolistic.

The pandemic has perhaps accelerated the evolution of the use and abuse of social media, with an inevitable increase in the time spent on our phones, tablets and PCs. And Covid has spawned a whole new breed of conspiracy theorists who seem to have nothing better to do than spread rumours and lies ranging from the role of Bill Gates to the downright bizarre - pigeons are in fact cameras and the lockdown is about replacing their batteries? But there are many, many factors contributing to this evolution bringing matters to a head and making 2021 a pivotal year for social media.