Provocation as a Marketing Strategy-Will It Work for Fashion?


During the recent couture week Daniel Roseberry, the American designer at Schiaparelli, send shockwaves across the internet; for his choice to send down the house’s Couture Spring-Summer 2023 runway, realistic-looking imitations of wild animals positioned on the shoulder of dresses. The animal heads and parts were shockingly realistic imitations by artisans using delicate embroidery and paint. This type of couturish “faux-taxidermy” caused a stir across the internet and fueled debates online. In a split of second, Schiaparelli had become a topic of discussion among fashion and non-fashion media, Twitter and Discord. Dubbed “Inferno Couture,” the collection was inspired by Dante’s “Inferno” according to the show notes .but no one took notice; everyone was talking about “the Schiaparelli animal heads”. Marketing mission accomplished

Fashion is by no means strange to provocation. Vivienne Westwood was dubbed “The Queen of Provocation” for creating the sartorial guide for the punk rock movement of the 70s. Alexander Mc Queen created show-stopping collections that dealt with controversial topics such as rape and colonization. Thierry Mugler’s sexual futurism aesthetics felt strange to many. Recently, Balenciaga became the fashion house laying down the blueprint of a provocation-as-a-marketing strategy. The brand is no stranger to dividing the internet with imagery choices that evoke poverty-chic or pedophilic references. just to name a few. Matt Klein, a cultural researcher and writer of ZINE, a publication analyzing trends, believes provocation and commercialism are inherently incompatible-but, not impossible.”Mass marketing’s aim is to effectively segment and resonate. Controversy is a thrown wrench in the machine, sharp instigation undermining any attempt to win over the masses. That’s not to say audiences can’t be challenged, nudged, or prompted—in fact, many times, they should be if a brand’s seeking engagement. However, subverting expectations is only one step removed from disrespecting and belittling” he concludes.

There is a catch though. Nowadays provocation seems to manifest in very different ways, that, quite often, just offend consumers rather than spark clever debates. Creative provocation asks daring questions and often solicits an answer through a creative format. If fashion has an art element, it’s the one that sheds a light on the otherworldly and the unexpected through inspiration and creativity. In that structure, provocation is the outcome, not the aim. Provocative thought can bring about a radical change in society and creates a discourse, Stirring emotions online without the creativity filter is a sign a brand is doing provocation marketing using unbeknown to us, the whole internet as their marketing funnel. “Challenging society’s norms has always been art’s work, notes Klein. Marketing certainly has an opportunity here, but for as long as provocation has a purpose. If it’s a stunt for stunt-sake, it likely won’t fly. In our socially progressive climate, stimulation can work for as long as it’s with prosocial intent and direction: where can I place this energy? If there’s no place to direct that roused spirit, it will likely fall back upon the brand negatively.”

But are consumers more open to provocation today? For Bryce Quillin, Ph.D. and Co-Founder of It’s A Working Title fashion strategy agency, provocation in the consumer and retail sector has long been a technique of brands eager to attract consumer attention. “The age of social media and the creator economy have accelerated the tendency of consumer marketing and advertising towards sensationalism to the point where the boundaries of taste almost disappear. If it feels like provocative campaigns are more the norm, it is because brands are competing with individual creators for consumer attention. For fashion brands, provocation in and of itself can be a viable marketing strategy if it is vision-centric and purposeful and acknowledges its own limits. For instance, a sex-positive approach can be a smart strategy but it needs to be married with inclusive messaging to work effectively.”  he notes

“I don’t think we can say consumers are more open to being provoked today. adds Klein. Cultural norms consistently evolve: what was a norm a decade ago, is taboo today, and what was stigmatizing and off-limits then, is now tolerable. With this, provocation is a moving target. However, there will always be something that will offend. We’ve gotten quite good at that. For some, virtue signaling is a sport.”Perhaps the greatest change in provocative marketing is that today, everyone is the audience. Despite the presumption that we’re each in our algorithmic bubble, served bespoke content, when something strikes a nerve, our networked lives can ensure everyone sees it instantaneously. The good, bad, and most likely of it all: the ugly. Something provocative can be deemed acceptable by the intended audience, but when viewed by an un-intended audience, we get a mess. The balance between marketing for niche, and inadvertently reaching all is a complex beast. You’re inevitably going to get people commenting on the creative strategy of a luxury brand who can’t afford it anyway… consider it cultural checks-and-balances.”

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