CMO of the Week: Shannon Smith, Former VP of Loyalty and Retention Marketing at J. Crew

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In partnership with The CMO Club, The CMO of the Week series profiles CMOs who are shaping, changing and challenging the world of modern marketing. For Drew Neisser’s complete interview with CMO Award Winner Shannon Smith, click here.

Aside from some improbably proportioned humans walking this earth on whom even a potato sack looks glamorous, the rest of us are inevitably doomed to much trial and error when it comes to building a wardrobe. Then again, there’s that thing called tailoring. Taking ill-shaped garments and transforming them into a second skin, reducing the number of items needed in the closet in the first place, a good tailor is valued by anyone who treasures not only his or her clothing, but also efficiency.

Perhaps no one knows the concept of tailoring in a marketing sense better than Shannon Smith, former VP of Loyalty and Retention Marketing at J. Crew whose resume also includes beauty retailer Sephora, another brand where personal fit is of core importance and can make or break the sale. I chatted with Smith during the recent CMO Awards, where she was recognized as a Rising Star by her peers at The CMO Club. A little bit into her mind here as she covers some of the basic tenets of tailoring marketing communications to the customer, from her own experience.

The Tailor: A Noble Profession

J. Crew has changed over the last few years, and many have taken note. Far from the days of turtlenecks and khakis, the brand has recently turned over a fresh look that’s both versatile and keeps a finger on the basics. Call it a re-branding, if you will, although Smith credits the pivot of the clothing itself mostly to the design and merchant teams, “supported by the creative positioning of the marketing.”

When it comes to effective communications, Smith says, her initial perspective on the role of the marketing team was crucial. Smith saw her job as not merely a messenger of J. Crew, but as matchmaker between the company’s new offerings and the customer. A digital tailor, we’ll call her, in keeping with the theme of this article. “My role in this endeavor was constantly striving to deliver more relevant, personalized marketing communications to our customers,” Smith says.

Whether pitching new women’s arrivals or providing information to men about an additional suiting option, Smith’s team sought to better pair the “what” with the “to whom” under her tutelage. To find the line of best fit, Smith took several different approaches. “I worked towards this in our email marketing program, our catalog versioning and our rewards program, the J. Crew credit card,” she says.

Fitting Phase 1: The Catalog

While Smith and J. Crew were driven to increase sales, she also says that the company was constantly working to improve the customer experience “from the design and fit of the clothes to the services offered in stores to the website functionality.” And whether the average customer senses it or not, direct marketing has a role in this experience. Like I mentioned in the opening paragraph, sifting through thick catalogs and in-store racks for the right item is fun for virtually no one, and Smith saw the role of her direct marketing team as facilitating the match — getting “the most relevant product in front of the customer.” This meant different versions of catalogs for different customers, and a happier customer with more time (and likely more impetus to buy) on his or her hands.

Fitting Phase 2: Email

Because a good marketing department today relies just as much on listening as it does on speaking, Smith says that customer feedback was an essential component of the changes she saw during her time at J. Crew. If “feedback” conjures up thoughts of suggestion boxes or the random customer survey, think again. Smith’s reaction-gathering journey took the company into the age of bigger (and smarter) data, to a new email platform called Responsys, which was later acquired by Oracle and integrated into their Marketing Cloud.

“They are a best-in-class service platform,” she says, “enabling J. Crew with a much more robust set of capabilities around customer segmentation and targeted marketing campaigns.” Smith remarked that the company’s email system was one of the best digital tools she and her team had at their disposal. “Our email segmentation strategy is now capturing not only customer purchase history, but also website browse and email engagement behavior (opens, clicks, etc.),” she says. “In addition, we have launched a series of email triggers, including Abandoned Cart and Category Browse campaigns, that are driving millions of incremental dollars in email revenue.” In other words, Smith and the marketing department were able to gauge real interest in the products and feedback about how effectively they’re being communicated, and adjust the hems as needed.

Fitting Phase 3: Loyalty & Rewards

For the third layer of personalized marketing, Smith discusses the value of a loyalty program for communicating with consumers. While J. Crew runs a rewards program via its credit card, Smith changes her spool of thread here and makes reference to her time at Sephora, where she led the launch of the VIP premium tier and new point-level rewards in its loyalty program, which is still going strong. “The Beauty Insider program,” Smith says, “has been invaluable in that it enabled the company to build a customer database and personalize marketing communications to their enormous base of retail customers.”

Outside of Sephora, Smith believes that loyalty programs can offer real value to a company, “particularly when many retailers are selling the same products and competing for customers, like department stores.” However, she makes this recommendation with a word to the wise. While direct marketing and email are two communication-tailoring tools available to the average brand, embarking on a loyalty program may be a method best reserved for masters of the craft. “I always caution a company considering a loyalty program to be very thoughtful and clear on the strategy for their program, how it aligns with their brand and how they will drive value from it,” she says, “because it’s going to be a big investment.”

CMO of the Week is an exclusive Social Media Today column published every Thursday

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