6 content marketing lessons from the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show

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If you invested in a $2.5 million bra, you’d want the world to see it. Preferably on a supermodel like Alessandra Ambrosio.

Victoria’s Secret has taken its annual fashion show from a simple showcase of everyday lingerie to an orchestrated spectacle of fantasy costumes — such as the 2012 Floral Fantasy Bra with more than 5,200 gems and a 20-carat diamond all set in 18-karat gold.

And, boy, do they get their money’s worth out of that bra.

According to Chief Marketing Officer Ed Razek of Limited Brands, the parent company of Victoria’s Secret, online sales increase substantially both the night the show is taped and the day after it’s broadcast. We’re talking tens of millions of dollars here, at least. With that kind of money at stake, and after 18 years of practice, the company has the event’s marketing nailed.

There’s a lot content marketers can learn from lingerie. Here are six lessons to start:

1. Focus on your audience.

What Victoria’s Secret does:

Take a guess—do more men or more women watch the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show? If you guessed more men, you’d be wrong by a long shot.

Two-thirds of the show’s viewers are female, not too surprising for a company where most executives and 98% of its customers are women. That means the show must appeal to women, especially young women, an important target demographic for the company. No doubt that’s why Justin Bieber was one of this year’s musical performers.

Justin Bieber at Victoria's Secret Fashion Show 2012

We can guess why Justin Bieber was picked to perform, but we have no clue why he’s dressed this way.

What content marketers can do:

Have you done a basic demographic analysis of your audience? Do the demographics change depending on where you publish and distribute your content? Are there any demographic surprises?

When you know even simple details like gender about your audience, you can tailor messages accordingly. Filter those details by things like age, and you can hone your message even further. What cities, states or countries are they from? If most hail from a particular geographical location, you could emphasize examples or anecdotes from that region in your content. Find out what medium your audience prefers—mobile versus online sites, HTML versus plain text emails—and you’ll know what kinds of design and formatting styles to include in your content.

That only scratches the surface of ways you can identify and target your audience, but it’s a good start.

2. Have consistent themes.

What Victoria’s Secret does:

This year’s fashion show had six themes: Circus, Dangerous Liaisons, Pink Is Us, Silver Screen Angels, Angels in Bloom and Calendar Girls (one costume for every month of the year).

It’s standard for runway shows to have collections, where each look is carefully crafted to belong to a theme without being identical to everything else. Anything that doesn’t perfectly align with one of the themes is edited out of the collection.

Victoria's Secret Fashion Show July Calendar Girl

What content marketers can do:

Once you’ve established your audience, make a list of the broad topics most likely to interest them and create content only for those topics in your blogging strategy.

For example, on the Raven blog, we established these categories: SEO, social media, content, PPC, tools and marketing. If someone has a great content idea that doesn’t fit into one of those themes, then we don’t invest time on it, or we offer it as a guest article for a blog where it does make sense. Regardless, we make sure we have original, non-repetitive content for each theme on a regular basis. The consistency helps readers know what to expect, and the variety keeps them coming back.

Your themes can be as specific to your audience’s needs as necessary. For example, a website with an already narrow focus, such as wedding cake baking, might have even more narrow categories, such as trends, recipes, baking advice, tips for working with clients and bakeware reviews.

Try not to have more than a half-dozen themes, though. It’s easier to plan a consistent editorial calendar, and you’re more likely to stay on message for your audience overall. It also helps you evaluate guest content offers more quickly: if it doesn’t fit, or if it would take too much time to make it fit, say no quickly and move on.

3. Start a tradition.

What Victoria’s Secret does:

Victoria’s Secret added the angel wings to its show in 1998. Every year since, the angel wings make an appearance — getting more elaborate, intricate or interesting every time. Now they’re a highlight.

Victoria's Secret Angel Wings

Angel wings can weigh upwards of 25 pounds. Her poor, poor back.

Then, Victoria’s Secret started another tradition, the annual Fantasy Bra. For the past 12 years, the fashion show has featured one spectacular and spectacularly expensive bra. (The most expensive Fantasy Bra cost $15 million and wasn’t even worn down a runway.) The supermodel chosen to wear it is akin to the supermodel chosen for the cover of annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition: very special and highly anticipated.

What content marketers can do:

Consider starting a content tradition — and no, I’m not talking about publishing annual reports here. Think wacky holiday contests, unique annual surveys, fun weekly polls… you get the idea. What all of these things have in common is a regular time element that you can plan for and readers can anticipate. Speaking of anticipation, you’ll need very special, compelling content to keep people coming back time after time.

What’s great about annual or reoccurring events is that you automatically have older content you can link to, sometimes as-is or with only slight freshening. Instantly, a single story can become a four-story package with photo galleries. People love to compare things over time — especially contest winners or visually compelling content — and they’ll stick around your site longer than they would have.

4. Invest in production.

What Victoria’s Secret does:

In 1995, the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show had a budget of $250,000. This year, the show cost more than $12 million to produce. In 1995, models wore sexy, attainable lingerie down a not-specially-lighted runway in the Plaza Hotel. This year, models wore sexy, outrageous costumes down a blazing runway — accompanied by live music from chart-topping artists Justin Bieber, Bruno Mars and Rihanna.

The interesting thing is, even that first show was called “the lingerie event of the century” by newspapers, though only a handful attended it in comparison to today’s event. Still, as the production values increased, the audience got wider. People in more than 200 countries will see the show this year.

The goal? “We want a beautifully produced show; something that is compelling and interesting,” Mr. Razek said.

Rihanna at the 2012 Fashion Show

This photo of Rihanna might be what you call “smoking hot.”

What content marketers can do:

In this visual world, how you present your content can be as important as its message. It doesn’t even require a lot of money at first. Just learning whether your story is best told in words, in a photograph, in a video or in a chart is a good first step. Figure out what works best with your audience and what doesn’t, based on traffic, social sharing and conversions.

After you gain experience with a variety of formats and know what works best for your audience, you can start investing in high-quality production. A talented writer, photographer, videographer and/or graphic designer can help expand your content and your audience exponentially.

One note of caution, though. Don’t let your art overshadow your message. Ask yourself, does this presentation enhance or clarify my message, or am I just trying to dress up some words? The latter is decoration, not design. It adds little value. Actually, ask yourself, do I even have a message? If not, spare all of us the overdesigned, complicated and unnecessary infographics content.

5. Use multiple distribution strategies.

What Victoria’s Secret does:

This year, the fashion show happened before a live New York audience on Wednesday, Nov. 7. There was plenty of news coverage just before and especially immediately after the actual event. But that’s not all.

There’s much, much more, but you get the idea. Factor in press releases, advertising, emails, and other marketing, and Victoria’s Secret has promoted the show nearly every way possible — just in time for the holiday shopping season.

Interestingly, Victoria’s Secret isn’t promoting the fashion show very much on its online channels for PINK, its loungewear and underwear brand aimed at teenagers and college students. PINK isn’t ignoring the fashion show — in fact, the Justin Beiber segment takes place on a PINK set for the Pink Is Us theme — but reminders about the show are few and far between compared to PINK’s holiday shopping promotions. It must be a calculated decision with a good reason, especially when the company knows that one of its key target demographics will be watching the show.

What content marketers can do:

If you have millions to spend on online marketing, go spend millions. Otherwise, start with a) your website and b) another way/place to promote your website’s content. Do those well, then add a third, a fourth, and so on.

Here’s the truth: All those things Victoria’s Secret does to advertise its fashion show, which costs $12 million to produce and let’s randomly guess another $8 million to promote? That $20 million is nothing. It’s not even a priority.

Victoria’s Secret spends about $220 million a year on the catalogs sent to customers’ homes, including postage, creative, printing, paper and circulation. Bloomberg News as published by the Chicago Tribune, Nov. 20, 2012

Talk about doing one thing well and then diversifying.

As far as what content marketers can learn from PINK’s lack of promotion of the show… the point is, it’s okay to skip a distribution method, as long as you have a good reason. Be sure to test your hypothesis over time, taking note of how it affects the bottom line. Then revisit the decision later as you have more time, money, content or staff.

6. Be prepared for disappointment, even failure.

What Victoria’s Secret does:

Not every fashion show runway look is a winner. Some are average. Some are weird. And some are just What the…? failures.


Sexiest Halloween Costume in Victoria's Secret fashion show

This manages to be the UN-sexiest Halloween costume we’ve ever seen.


Weird pinwheel at victoria's secret

This is our backup choice, because the costume we thought was the weirdest was so inappropriately childlike it didn’t seem right to show or link to it. Nevertheless, we can start the “weird” conversation on this one with the pinwheels.

What the…? failure:

Victoria's Secret failure

No comment.

This last one was, in fact, a complete failure, as Native Americans criticized the headdress in print and online. Victoria’s Secret apologized and pulled the costume from the broadcast and marketing of the show, though they said they meant no offense.

What content marketers can do:

Not every blog post or piece of content is a winner. Some are average. Some are weird mashups of ideas poorly communicated. And some will, despite your best intentions, end up completely failing.

Take heart.

With experience, failures will be rare. Weird misfires will disappear. And what was average last year will become your new bare minimum this year.

Emphasis on bare.

3 Responses to “6 content marketing lessons from the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show”

  1. Andrew Cunningham

    Bread, books and bourbon? Hello!!!!!

    Fantastic article. So simple, yet so clever. Follow fashion. And if you’re doing to do that, follow the best in Victoria’s Secret. Thanks!