Who ultimately “owns” the marketing strategy of your brand or organization? Who is pulling the strings? I believe any marketing leader would ultimately like to respond to those questions with the answer, “I am.” Based on my own personal experience, that's not necessarily always the case.
Merchants in Control
I’ve worked for a number of large, omnichannel retail organizations and have discovered more often than not that merchandising holds a significant role in governing the marketing messages that get delivered to consumers. I’ve seen merchandising actually own and drive the marketing strategy. Unfortunately, in those instances, the marketing team may actually become more of a service provider to the organization as opposed to a more appropriately intended strategy provider.
If you're a marketing leader and feel as though you're operating in a situation similar to this, you may ask yourself, “Why?” The better question to ask would be, “Is my company product or customer driven?”
Merchants are product experts and are typically compensated based on the performance of the merchandise categories they're responsible for. They’ll likely get pressure from vendors to focus on specific brands the company offers, and executive leadership will definitely challenge the merchants daily. Product revenue and margin is relatively easy to measure and financial reporting is built around these product performance metrics. A major measure of a company’s success is revenue growth — driven by the products it sells.
As a marketing leader, how would you respond to the company focus question? I would hazard to guess that many marketing leaders would provide an answer similar to this: “My company is product driven and I’m challenged daily by multiple merchants to feature the products they're responsible for in marketing communications.”
If this is how you answered, then your challenge is how to convince the merchants and the greater organization to focus on the customer first. It won’t be easy and it will take time.
Drive a Paradigm Shift
In my most recent marketing leadership role, I entered into an organization that was very product-centric. Merchants were primarily in control of marketing communications — i.e., driving messaging featured in marketing communications from print to digital. The marketing department was simply there to “take orders” and deploy communication materials. Marketing was a service provider, not a strategy provider.
My personal goal was to alter the course by shifting the organization’s focus from product to customer. I realized this would take time, significant effort and major behavioral changes, but in the end believed that a holistic, customer-centric approach to customer communications would result in even greater revenue for the merchants and the overall organization.
How did I drive such a paradigm shift? By leveraging the following:
- Partnership: Alignment is key and it starts with building a strong, open and honest relationship with ALL levels of the merchandising team. Merchants know the products more than anyone in the organization, and you’ll need their insights and knowledge to craft the optimal messages you intend to deliver to the right customers. It starts here. If you don’t communicate with and develop a strong rapport with your merchant team from the start, all of your other efforts will be for naught.
- Education: Convey your point of view with respect to the optimal marketing communication strategy. You’ll need to convince the merchant team that your perspectives and theories regarding the importance of a customer focus in marketing communications is critical to success. Involve the merchants in customer-specific research efforts — e.g., the development of questionnaires and focus groups. Provide opportunities for merchants to see customers express their needs and desires with respect to new and existing products.
- Insights and Data-Driven Decision Making: Data is difficult to refute. Leverage actual analytics and insights related to customer behavior and your marketing communications to support your hypothesis and convince the merchant team of the value of a customer focus. Involving and partnering with merchants in the development of marketing performance reporting will further solidify the strength of associated results.
- Process Development: Practice makes perfect. Change the status quo and implement processes that reinforce the partnership, communication and rapport you have established with the merchants. Set up regular (weekly) meetings with the leaders of the marketing and merchandising teams to discuss new communication strategies for the next month, as well as what worked and what didn’t with last week’s website and email marketing. Don’t forget, however, to include all levels of the merchant team in one way or another, either through a separate meeting or at least some form of weekly communication (email, memo, etc.). You’ll need ALL merchants in lockstep with you for overall success.
Patience is key. You won’t be able to change the world overnight. Remember that money is a major motivator and merchants are compensated on the performance of the product categories they're responsible for.
As a marketing leader, your goal is to engage the customer in the most effective way possible to drive satisfaction, loyalty and, ultimately, greater revenue through optimized communications and experiences. You’ll also need to convince the merchant team that your team’s value will not only drive overall brand revenue growth, but it will also help them personally win.
Have you had a similar experience in your career? What did you do to address this challenge?
Kevin Metz recently served as chief marketing and digital officer for Stuller, a large international manufacturer, distributor and retailer of fine jewelry and associated products, services and software. He's currently seeking his next leadership opportunity in branding, marketing, digital and/or customer experience.
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Kevin Metz recently served as Chief Marketing and Digital Officer for Stuller, a large international manufacturer, distributer and retailer of fine jewelry and associated products, services and software. He was responsible for the company’s branding, marketing, digital, events, sales and customer experience strategies and programs. Prior to this, Kevin held marketing leadership roles with a number of large omni-channel retail brands including ULTA Beauty, Yankee Candle, The Limited and Bass Pro Shops.
Kevin is currently seeking his next leadership opportunity in branding, marketing, digital and/or customer experience. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.