In 2008, American Brandstand did a study tracking the mentions of brands in American hip-hop songs. Out of the top 50 tunes, luxury brands ranked the highest in mentions with Gulfstream, Gucci, Lamborghini, Patron, Cadillac and Hennessy Cognac topping the list, beaten only by Nike at number one.

From this study alone, Moet Hennessy’s PR firm realized they needed to re-strategize who they were looking at as a target demographic, and turned to social media to do so, making Hennessy synonymous with online ingenuity. When launching their first new product since 1961, Hennessy Black, they reached out to a younger generationas well as their loyal, older fan base.

With an online dance competition for a prize of $10,000 (ending June 14, 2011), interactive Facebook and YouTube pages, and a “see and be seen with your Hennessy” Flickr page, their approach has made them a perfect example of leveraging social media to evolve a company. Senior VP Andrew Glaser stated that, “The campaign followed a two-year slump in cognac sales, but after the social media campaign sales were up in the first quarter and the brand is building on that growth to target younger demographics.”

Though luxury brands used to thrive on exclusivity – making social media a scary prospect for many in this niche, high-end industry – times and demographics are changing.

In November 2007, eMarketer published a report titled “Affluent Internet Users: How the Rich Live Online.” Mashable.com states that in the report they concluded the number of affluent Internet users will grow from 43.7 million in 2006 to 57.1 million in 2011. Marketing software company Hub Spot released findings in 2010 that showed that there were 75 million Twitter users worldwide producing 140,000,000 tweets per day.  Of these 75 million worldwide tweeters, 47% were found to be making over $60K a year (13% making over $100,000 yearly).

Wealth and Wishing

There is still a side to social media marketing that plays into the belief that luxury exists when most people are either priced out of a product or when supply does not meet demand, creating a lust for a product. There are still the worries about brand reputation and loss of control when it comes to company messaging on forums and message boards as well, but most high-end brands are realizing that social media sites are where their customers are now going to research, review and discuss their products.

Numerous social media sites have been created to encourage a sense of distinctiveness with private, invite-only sites and sales including Gilt Groupe (a Groupon type site for luxury products), Rue La La, Ideeli, and luxury social media platform HauteLook- recently purchased by Nordstrom.

But, part of social media and social media marketing / PR is taking risks and, well, being social – even to those who may not have the money in their pockets to buy your product…yet.

In February 2011, the blog Fashion’s Collective posted a great article on luxury brands on Facebook, making the distinction between the two types of audiences these brands need to reach: Aspirational Customers and Actual Customers.

“Aspirational customers…covet and desire the merchandise and have high brand affinity. Outside of Facebook, these are the people who purchase entry level items like accessories, starting with something small….Actual customers…represent the vast majority of purchasers….it is more likely they post and engage when it is related to customer service issues. Aspirational customers represent the actual customers of tomorrow, embody the current youth culture, and have more influence than ever in the digital age.  They also make the actual customers feel special about being in the exclusive group that has the means to attain luxury items.”

Creating Lust and Loyalty

So the question remains: How do you market or publicize a luxury brand on social media to reach both the Aspirational and Actual customers and still give off that air of exclusive, covetable brand lust?

Let the customers lead the way: One of the most accessible brands on Twitter is Donna Karen. @DKNY “DKNY Pr Girl” reaches out daily to over 300,000 followers, asking fashion questions, giving style advice and discussing the ins and outs of the brand. They have created one of the most genuine and helpful personalities on the site and the information they amass on Twitter feeds into the creation of their funky chic, information packed Facebook page.

Mercedes Benz does an equally impressive job of listening to their customers and creating platforms for them to share their stories and interact with other brand loyalists. They created a Super Bowl Tweet Race, a $1,000 Foursquare promotion for the NY International Auto Show, a social media platform specifically for models, designers and fashion fans for NY Fashion Week and numerous other savvy campaigns. Their Facebook page jumped from 1,000 to 500,000 fans in 12 months and then from 500,000 to 1M fans in just 8 weeks. They currently have over 2M fans and growing.

Never lose the core brand…: Louis Vuitton has led the way in keeping the core brand visible and at the forefront of messaging while traversing the social media landscape. The brand’s decadent sophistication is evident in its beautiful digital campaigns and their fan base obsessively follows the brand on Twitter, where LV gives exclusive sneak peeks and hosts extremely high-end giveaways as part of their global product launches.

…But always find a new edge: Ralph Lauren has continued to evolve his fashion line and his social media sites are no different.  They have created two mobile apps, a shoppable animated children’s book, a slew of unique online videos and they boast over two million Facebook fans. Finding a new voice for the brand through social media led to a win as the Mobile Marketer of the Year in 2009 for the company from Mobile Marketer Magazine.

Expand Your Reach: As previously mentioned, you have to be SOCIAL to engage in social media. Coach had a huge success with blogger and web site collaborations during their Poppy Project which created a giant network of over 400 sites all leading back to Coach. They continue to innovate with shopping specific social media sites and open forums for customers to review and discuss the brand.

Give A Reason to Interact: The old saying is “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Well, the new saying should be, “you can lead a person to a social media site but you can’t make them comment.” Brands need to focus on putting out information that makes their fan base want to engage in the conversation.

According to Visibli, “while celebrities tend to have the most “likes” and comments on their Facebook pages and retweets on their Twitter, Audi tops them all with over 3 million fans and over 225 likes per every 100Kfans.” All created through constant contact with their audience and a slew of entertaining, interactive posts.