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America's next top model? You


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It’s that time of year, when all of the tabloids have that section entitled "Best and Worst Beach Bodies." Even though I know this is an odious practice (heaven forbid anyone take a picture of me in swimwear) and a detriment to women’s rights, I always read the section and feel a kind of evil glee when I discover that Catherine Zeta Jones has cellulite, too.

Maybe this craving to see that other people have normal bodies is what’s inspiring retailers like Coach and Lululemon to use photos of real customers in their ads and on their websites. Companies are encouraging customers to upload photos of themselves wearing their products to special websites, often using special hashtags, like Coach's #Coachfromabove, which features photos customers have taken of their feet in Coach shoes.

Jen Drexler, a consumer behavior expert with Insight Strategy Group, says this a great way for brands to make a very personal connection with their customers.

“One of the things consumers really get out of this experience is being acknowledged,” she says. “If you Tweet to a designer that you’re wearing their clothes and they Tweet you back, that’s a big moment. It’s the same way people feel if a celebrity Tweets them back.”

Real photos have been working for Modcloth. The vintage-inspired online clothing retailer started incorporating customer photos into its site after management realized customers had set up a Flickr site dedicated to women wearing Modcloth designs. Now, Modcloth has an iPhone app that people can use to upload photos to a special style section on the website. If you click on one of the DIY images, Modcloth will take you to the page where the product being featured is sold.

Eric Koger, CEO of Modcloth, says this has proven wildly popular with customers, who often go so far as to share their proportions and give their opinions on which body parts certain dresses and shirts tend to flatter.

“From a pragmatic perspective, it’s nice to know that you’re not seeing a Photoshopped image,” says Koger. “You’re seeing what the product looks like on someone who might be a similar height or body shape.” Koger says products sell better when they have appeared in a real photo on the site. More than that, he says, the body honesty and style sharing has created a community of Modcloth customers. “We’re sort of like the hosts of the party,” he says. “We’re helping to make sure that everything goes well, but ultimately it’s about her and the customer and the fun she has in the community.”

Drexler says this kind of social interaction can really enhance brand loyalty. “If a brand manages this new friendship really well, the sky’s the limit on the deepness of the relationship they can create.” Drexler does see a potential downside to using these photos, especially for established luxury brands like Coach. “It’s a balancing act,” she says. “Brands have to be careful that these images are in line with the brand’s image.”

About the author

Stacey Vanek Smith is a senior reporter for Marketplace, where she covers banking, consumer finance, housing and advertising.

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