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How marketers are redefining their relationships with customers - and with tech

A roundtable of influential senior marketing industry leaders discuss how they are striding into the post-pandemic era, empowered by savvy data use and working with tech partners on their own terms

The changing brand and customer relationship warrants greater ownership of first-party data, and for marketers to take stock of the value their tech partners provide. That was the consensus of an expert roundtable held exclusively for this supplement.

As Wulfric Light-Wilkinson, general manager EMEA for performance marketing engine Wunderkind says: “There’s been a shift from working with the big platforms by reacquiring users and making it all very transactional, to really owning those audiences and customers and making them ‘vote for you.’ Lifetime value is the most important thing; if you can get that customer in and care for them, and deliver value with a personalised experience, those are the brands that are going to last.”

UK sportswear brand Gymshark, dubbed one of the country’s most recent unicorn startups thanks to an investment deal last year which brought its value to over £1bn, is renowned for growing its brand and customer relationships through its own channels over third-party retailers. “We understand so much about our customer because we are D2C. We know buying behaviors, what they like, what they don’t like, because they interact with us literally 24 hours a day, seven days a week on social media, while in our workout app, we can see when a customer’s trained this week. We’re not good marketers, we’re good listeners,” Gymshark’s chief brand officer Noel Mack says.

Listening closely to customer communities

While Mack described Gymshark’s way of working as a ‘winner,’ he acknowledged that creating a personalised experience at scale remained a challenge but working closely with customer advocates delivered results. Mack says: “The scale comes from understanding the people who are super passionate about the brand, and we’ve built our process so far on addressing what most people want, and through osmosis that works for the rest of the audience. We’re just avid listeners, and the constant feedback loop is amazing. For example, I could see that Sally in Little Rock, Arkansas, tweeted saying that it took seven days to get her leggings. You can dive into that one nugget of information to solve a wider problem.”

Shoe brand Kurt Geiger, meanwhile, has operated both with a D2C and third-party retail partner model, opting to focus more on its D2C channels to better control the customer experience. “We’ve been very careful about who we’re distributing with, to align our core values with the core values of the platform. As we’ve become more focused on having an authentic relationship with the consumer, we don’t want our goods just distributed widely on platforms, who perhaps you don’t fully align to either their pricing strategy or their marketing strategy, or even their core values,” says Gareth Rees-John, the brand’s chief digital officer. “Because the reality is whether or not we own the relationship, the customer thinks we do.”

We know buying behaviours because customers interact with us literally 24 hours a day, seven days a week on social media. We’re not good marketers, we’re good listeners.

The “constant feedback loop” Gymshark leverages is also pertinent for home crafting brand Hobbycraft, which also harnesses customer insights through its 104 local branch Twitter feeds but has also taken things a step further by engaging floor staff in the process. “We have the Hobbycraft Club of about five million customers, and while we look at the data all the time, we’ll go to stores and colleagues to fill in the gaps. We will walk a store with customers to get direct feedback on something that we’ve picked up in the data. We’ve got a group of ‘artisan colleagues,’ who are entrepreneurial crafters, who also give ongoing feedback. And it feels more like we’re part of a community, than we are this retailer just selling a product,” says Katherine Paterson, Hobbycraft’s customer and e-commerce director.

She adds: “Having worked on bigger brands, I’m far closer to my customer in this business. You might start with a smaller budget, but you just need to test a concept. Walk a store with the customer, get the feedback from store managers and colleagues, then you can evolve your solution.”

Aligning big marketing decisions to business strategy

Generating such a wealth of data and insights from multiple customer channels has prompted Kenyatte Nelson, chief brand officer, of fashion and homewares retailer N Brown, to analyse technology platforms and partners with greater precision. “We have a portfolio of brands with different customer bases with different needs. And there’s been a massive proliferation of media channels over the last decade. That poses some challenges for us because you need to be in more places. So as a result, there are parts of our marketing tech stack that we might look at and say we want to own this, we want to build it or buy it. And others we might say we want to ‘rent’ this or use a third party,” Nelson says.

He adds: “One of the most important things any marketing team can do is be clear about what makes the business different. Then ask, what do we want to ‘major’ and ‘minor’ on, whether that’s content creation, social media amplification, influencer communication, above the line, bringing digital teams in, which we’ve done at N Brown.”

Both Kurt Geiger and Gymshark have made important decisions around how they work with big social media platforms. Kurt Geiger boycotted Facebook for a month last year, while Gymshark is part of an Instagram advisory board. “It was a way of making a point. We feel uncomfortable about certain data and privacy values, and whether it gives platforms to people we wouldn’t want to be aligned with as an organisation. So as the second biggest channel we spend money with on a week-to-week basis, to completely pull the plug on that was really brave,” says Rees-John. “It made us a lot sharper about how we use these platforms, and how we can go back in with a clean slate.”

Conversely, Gymshark’s strategy to get closer to platforms like Instagram is so it can share its best practice experiences directly, says Mack: “These platforms are so big even they don’t really know what they have on their hands sometimes and it’s hard for them to figure out best practices themselves.”

He adds: “We’ve been to Instagram’s Menlo Park headquarters, and got on first name terms with them, showing them that, because we have so much data from our audience, here’s the pressure that our community is putting on us. So what are you going to do? How are you going to help us answer these questions, so we’re always shining light on the dark corners of their platform?”

Ultimately, Nelson says, marketers must figure out how to make their own brand channels and propositions “really sticky,” so brands can become less reliant on big tech platforms for customer acquisition and take ownership of the whole customer life cycle.

To create this ‘stickiness’, Light-Wilkinson says, requires “doing the basics really well – convenience, price, quality and so on – but also treating the customer as an individual, with digital experiences, on-site and across all marketing touch points, that reflect their preferences and behaviours. Brands can only deliver these types of considered, 1-1 experiences by having a really good first-party dataset – and the right tools to leverage it.”

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