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How The North Face is Using a Strong Data-Based Foundation to Create the Best Customer Experience, with Sarah Kleinman,Vice President of Digital Experience

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The customer should always be the guiding light for a brand. Who is your customer? What do they need? What do they want? Where do they live? How do they behave? These are all absolutely critical pieces of information upon which your entire business should be built. That’s Sarah Kleinman’s philosophy at least. Sarah is the Vice President of Digital Experience at The North Face, where she is constantly working to gather information about, understand, and then create experiences for North Face customers. 

On this episode of Up Next in Commerce, Sarah guided me through how she thinks about creating an effective digital experience, and she explains the foundational elements that every brand should be using to ensure that they are set up for the present and can still build in the future. She talked about integration, enablement, loyalty programs, testing, why companies should be paring down their offerings, and so much more. This was a jam-packed episode, so I hope you love it!

Main Takeaways:

  • Integration, Integration, Integration: The success of your ecosystem is dependent on the connectivity of your tools. It’s not enough to build and launch a tool, app, or system, it has to be intertwined with your entire digital ecosystem in order to gather real-time data and create an easy flow for customers. 
  • The Honest Truth: It is critical to create an honest segmentation of your customer base because that is the base upon which everything else can be built. When you know what your customers actually care about, you can create the right products for them, the right marketing and digital content for them, and build out experiences that truly engage them.
  • Back To Basics: People are tired of gimmicks and they want less, more versatile stuff. As such, brands should have a goal to shrink their product offerings and focus more on the value they are bringing to consumers with the most quality, sustainable, versatile products. 

For an in-depth look at this episode, check out the full transcript below. Quotes have been edited for clarity and length.

Key Quotes:

 

“Content exists in order to thrill audiences. At the end of the day, you know what your job is. Your job’s to get a laugh, get a tear, entertain someone. And I think that that, above anything else, that’s the through-line. Like my job at the end of the day is to have people walk away inspired, educated, thrilled one way or another about the experience that they’re having with a given brand.”

“The truth is, the decisions that most brands make so early in their foundational processes, the attributes that are created in your PIM tools, the attributes that are decided there truly determine all the way down the line the predictive capabilities that you can utilize in search, in targeting algorithms, in insights that you feed back into your consumer teams. And so much of that work, it’s incredibly foundational and interesting and I think pulling through consumer experience all the way to the very nexus of the creation of a product has proven for me to be incredibly valuable.” 

 “I think the thing that most brands need to be thinking about, integration, integration, integration. It is ultimately what will determine the success of your ecosystem is the connectivity of your tools. And that is something that everybody loves to say like, ‘Hey, we got this thing, here it is. Boom. Check. We built it.’ Yet the actual measure of success is how easily does data or content flow through to all of the remaining elements of your ecosystem? How real time are those connections? How easy is it for your associates or your consumers to engage with that content? If I were actually to prioritize like two things for anyone starting out in this space I would say connectivity of integration is one and real time data architecture is the second. At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter what and how you’re doing it, there’s no way to create a seamless experience if you do not have real time behavior-based data flowing through your ecosystem”

“We’re all just being bombarded by information everywhere we go all the time in every single medium. And so when I think about the data that is most important, it’s the signal that customers send us. And so that may be responding, clicking through a social media post, that may be typing a search into our site, that may be going into one of our stores. We can play this game all day. But those signals are the best indicators if you are really truly looking at time, channel, context. And when I say context, I mean how does that signal relate to the history of the customer with the brand? Is it in line? Is it an outlier? And when you know that, you can start to really think about what is the best response mechanism for this unique engagement? Because again, it is the customer with their actions truly telling you, ‘Hey, I’m in a city I’ve never been in before and I just went in looking for a rain jacket because you know what? It’s raining and I need it now.’ And what would it mean to be able to offer free expedited shipping to a best customer in that capacity? What would it mean to be able to have a seamless pick up in store experience if a store is in fact nearby? How do you actually take a use case and put it within the context of the history of that consumer and make sure you’re truly serving them and not just bombarding them with the same old, I was going to say crap, but I meant amazing content.”

“It all has to start with a certain honest segmentation of your consumer base. Meaning, what does your customer actually care about?”

“Testing is as complicated and as simple as you would like it to be. And at the end of the day, it’s about trials. I’ll take something like rental, before a ski season you choose a market and you say, ‘Hey, here’s free gear at this one store with these loyalty audiences,’ and you see how many people sign up. And if the demand is huge and overwhelming and as a percentage to the loyalty base they are meaningful, you say like, ‘Hey, we might be on to something here.’ And I think that we have to utilize those real world testing opportunities just as much as we do huge large scale statistically significant surveying, behavioral analysis, predictive capabilities. It’s not really one or the other, you have to balance the quant and the qual when you go forward with an activity.” 

“Customers are so sick of all the gimmicks, like people want less stuff. People want less stuff that lasts longer that is more versatile and that they can identify with, that they can feel great about purchasing. People don’t want to fill landfills or feel like they’re ruining the universe. And so I think every brand’s goal right now needs to be actually a shrinking of their offering, a sophistication about the products they’re willing to manufacture, and a precision about what the value proposition is for consumers. Because the days, again, I’ve worked at these brands that have five to 10 thousand products a season. So you build them partially so you can discount them. Those days are done. Nobody is doing that anymore. Quality, sustainability, versatility, longevity, it is about nailing that.”

“We actually went out and talked to, tested with consumers around not only what are the content areas that are most valuable to them, what’s the frame work that they want to be shown that content in? Often times, customers don’t even want to see language. Nobody wants to read a paragraph. Show me scale, show me a bar, warm, cold. And I think we have slowly started to transition our content systems such that we can, A, surface the most important content first, B, present it in the right format and language, and then C, and these are in particular order, but really have that branded conversational tone to how we explain a product so that we’re not alienating our customers with the sophistication that many of the items have.”

Bio

“Sarah is the Vice President of Digital Commerce and Experience at The North Face. In this capacity she leads the brand’s digital business while driving forward the end to end consumer experience across TNF’s digital ecosystem. Her teams are responsible for Digital Marketing, Content, Acquisition, Loyalty, CRM, Data & Analytics, UX, and Technology.  

Prior to joining The North Face, Sarah worked to build best in class digital experiences at Gap Inc, The Linus Group, Active Interest Media, and Smuggler. Throughout her career she has helped organizations embrace the interplay of business, strategy, user experience, and technology to create lasting results within the marketplace.” 


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Transcript:

Stephanie:

Welcome to another episode of Up Next in Commerce. I’m your host, Stephanie Postles, CEO at mission. Today I’m very excited we have Sarah Kleinman joining the show, who serves as the VP of digital experience at The North Face. Sarah, welcome to the show.

Sarah:

Thank you for having me, it’s a pleasure to be here.

Stephanie:

Same. I love all things North Face, so when I saw this interview coming up on my calendar I was like, “yes, finally someone that I use literally every day.” Other than now I’m in Austin so I don’t use it as often, but still, one of my top favorite brands, so super excited. Before we jump into your role at North Face and what you’re doing, I want to kind of go through your background a little bit because you’ve worked at some pretty impressive companies, GAP, Banana Republic, so I want to hear about your path of where were you before getting to your current role?

Sarah:

So I actually love talking about my background because it’s actually fairly squirrelly, like it’s fairly non-traditional. And I think that that’s one of my biggest differentiators, I actually think it’s one of the things that makes this work interesting for me. And so I’ll say I started my career as a broadcast producer.

Stephanie:

Wow, if I knew that I would have hired you. Come on, Sarah.

Sarah:

Oh my god, I know. I started in Los Angeles, and I was really just a creator of content and content exists in order to thrill audiences. At the end of the day, you know what your job is. Your job’s to get a laugh, get a tear, entertain someone. And I think that that, above anything else, that’s the through line. Like my job at the end of the day is to have people walk away inspired, educated, thrilled one way or another about the experience that they’re having with a given brand. And so I just always plug that at the very beginning, and so media, broadcast media, slowly became digital media, and then digital media became digital strategy. And then after working in an agency for a number of years and really just wanting to go home and have dinner with my husband every now and again, the opportunity came up to work at GAP Inc. and there were many things that were really appealing about that. Having a team, creating longevity, all of that. But also, I think one big thing that was a surprise to me at the time was the love of the P&L. Because I think when you actually have a business and you’re able to see the proof points of your investments and experience in the ultimate results in the organization, it’s like a magic coming together.

Sarah:

And so yeah, I’ve continued digital experience work in some shape or form. And the truth is, and I don’t know if this is a topic that … work in the digital space has evolved so, so, so, so much over the last five years, that I think so many brands five years ago would have said, “Oh, we have a digital team, it’s like ecom.” And that world has just been turned 100% upside down.

Stephanie:

Yeah. [inaudible]. So I want to hear, I saw that you have teams that you’re responsible for that oversee digital marketing, content, acquisition, loyalty, CRM, data analytics, UX, tech, it sounds like literally everything. So I was just wondering, I’m very curious about what is your day to day role look like?

Sarah:

So first of all, we are in as many organizations, we are in a matrix organization, so many of these elements are very much shared responsibilities with regions, marketing teams, et cetera. My day to day role is really one that is actually someone flexible. And I say that because based on where we are in any given season or road map, we have different experiences that we’re leaning in on really heavily. So for example, when we’re relaunching a technology like a CDP, we’re really focused on segmentation, integration, work within our MarTech space, work with our marekting partners. Whereas when we’re going to launch a new web platform, we’re really focused on content, content management systems and integration with mobile and store technologies. And that list can kind of go on and on. My team works on technolpgies that span all the way from designing in 3D and communicating with factories all the way through to those 3D images becoming meaningful and useful and hopefully delightful for our consumers.

Stephanie:

Wow. Okay, so tell me a bit more about the 3D experience. What is something that you’ve worked on most recently that you’re most excited about in that area?

Sarah:

Yeah, I will tell you. So this is the space, as I shifted from being committed truly to a regional focused experience related to seasonal calendars, commerce, et cetera, and started looking after the digital ecosystem wholistically, the go to market technolgoies were actually some that I’m probably least familiar with in my background. And it is funny how your eyes open when all of a sudden you pull the string just far enough and you’re like, “Oh wait, this is actually the thing that I’ve been looking for for the past 10 years.” Because the truth is, the decisions that most brands make so early in their foundational processes, the attributes that are created in your PIM tools essentially, some people call it a PLM, some people call it a PIM, whatever, the atrributes that are decided there truly determine all the way down the line the predictive capabilities that you can utilize in search, in targeting algorithms, in insights that you feed back into your consumer teams. And so so much of that work, I don’t know, it’s incredibly foundational and interesting and I think pulling through consumer experience all the way to the very nexus of the creation of a product has proven for me to be incredibly valuable. I can tell you that some of the projects that we’ve been working on, you always have to set up a foundation first.

Sarah:

So first you’re really just teaching teams to design in 3D, you’re making sure everybody has the right capability software. Then you can start to communicate with your factories in 3D, shorten those time frames, really increase the sophistication. And then before you know it, you’re able to do, we actually just did a really cool project where we essentially had a 20th anniversary product. And we did a trend scape in social, designed in 3D, communicated all of our samples in 3D, and had the product in front of consumers in four weeks. So it’s a really, really incredible reduction in time frame when you can utilize those sophisticated technologies.

Stephanie:

That’s cool. Okay, so when thinking about your mention all these go to market technologies that you didn’t even know existed, what are some of these that maybe brands should be thinking about right now to tap into?

Sarah:

I think most brands have versions of a PIM or Browzwear, it’s a 3D rendering platform. I think every brand has platforms, has some scope of a foundation in this space. I think the thing that most brands need to be thinking about, integration, integration, integration. It is ultimately what will determine the success of your ecosystem is the connectivity of your tools. And that is something that everybody loves to say like, “Hey, we got this thing, here it is. Boom. Check. We built it.” Yet the actual measure of success is how easily does data or content flow through to all of the remaining elements of your ecosystem? How real time are those connections? how easy is it for your associates or your consumers to engage with that content? Yeah, if I were actually to prioritize like two things for anyone starting out in this space I would say connectivity of integration is one and real time data architecture is the second. At the end of the day, really doesn’t matter what and how you’re doing it, there’s no way to create a seamless experience if you do not have real time behavior based data flowing through your ecosystem. So those have been two big, big priorities for us.

Stephanie:

Wow, that’s great. So when thinking about the data that’s flowing through there, what are some of the most interesting data points to you that are the most powerful ones that you can really make decisions and kind of change the org at the drop of a hat if you want to?

Sarah:

I always say behavior based because I think in this world, everybody’s overwhelmed, everybody has 8,000, I actually don’t, I have zero emails in my inbox because I’m that crazy person.

Stephanie:

Oh yeah. Small flex.

Sarah:

But my husband has like, I don’t even want to know. It’s amazing.

Stephanie:

Air it out here, come on.

Sarah:

Yeah, he has like 14,000 unread emails and I’m like, “Okay.” But I think overall, we’re all just being bombarded by information everywhere we go all the time in every single medium. And so when I think about the data that is most important, it’s the signal that customers send us. And so that may be responding, clicking through a social media post, that may be typing a search into our site, that may be going into one of our stores. We can play this game all day. But those signals are the best indicators if you are really truly looking at time, channel, context. And when I say context, I mean how does that signal relate to the history of the customer with the brand? Is it in line? Is it an outlier? And when you know that, you can start to really think about what is the best response mechanism for this unique engagement?

Sarah:

Because again, it is the customer with their actions truly telling you, “Hey, I’m in a city I’ve never been in before and I just went in looking for a rain jacket because you know what? It’s raining and I need it now.” And what would it mean to be able to offer free expedited shipping to a best customer in that capacity? What would it mean to be able to have a seamless pick up in store experience if a store is in fact nearby? How do you actually take a use case and put it within the context of the history of that consumer and make sure you’re truly serving them and not just bombarding them with the same old, I was going to say crap, but I meant amazing content.

Stephanie:

Yeah. How do you think about engaging with them and giving them useful things? What campaigns or efforts have you put into action where you’re like, “That one was actually surprisingly successful, people love that”?

Sarah:

And by the way, all these things are super hard to do. I say it as if it’s some easy flick of a hat, like sure anybody could do that. But the truth is, it’s like a five year project of foundational architectures and marketing technology integrations and segmentation. However, if I were to give advice to any brand, and I’m happy to talk about some examples that we have, start with the biggest problems first. And so what I mean by that is like one of the best things that we did right off the bat in this space is suppression. Suppression, suppression, suppression. People don’t want to be marketed a product that they’ve bought. People don’t want to be marketed a product that they own. And then you can start to move into more sophisticated spaces. We’re a utility based brand, we’re also a style fashion brand, but at heart really we are a utility based brand.

Sarah:

And so really paying attention to things like weather. Weather is really just so important in terms of the content that you surface to consumers and making better decisions based on a consumer’s location and the channel that they’re in. And so it’s little things like that that we hope in 24 or 48 months to be surfacing personalized offers. We are not there, but by laying this foundation we start to have the infrastructure, the algorithms, et cetera, to know that we can access that type of communication at some point in time.

Stephanie:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). So when thinking about the weather and local indicators, what else do you think brands could be looking at right now to surface more custom ads? Because I always feel like that’s such a big missed opportunity. And there’s so many things happening in someone’s local town, that if you could tap into that and surface opportunities to merge with local campaigns and festivals, and there’s just so many ways to do it, but I don’t see enough brands tapping into that unless their local brands. What do you think a larger brand like North Face or GAP or anyone else could do to see those indicators and then take advantage of them in a way that the customers would be excited about?

Sarah:

Of course it really comes down to the business that you’re in. I think it all has to start with a certain honest segmentation of your consumer base. Meaning, what does your customer actually care about? And so let’s take a brand like The North Face. The majority of our customers like to go outside, they like to go be in nature. Some people want to climb Everest and then throw themselves down it on skis, and some people, most people, want to go take a beautiful walk around Central Park with their kids and maybe throw a snowball and yay, they were outside.

Stephanie:

Yeah, that’s me.

Sarah:

And me. No shame. That’s great. You get the same relief, you get the same glorious enjoyment of the outdoors no matter where you exist on the intensity scale. And so we’ve seen that our customers primarily identify on that scale of intensity, some of the best content that we’ve been able to surface has been around enablement rooted in where they fall on that intensity scale. So I probably don’t need to recommend to you a guide on how to ice climb, but it would probably be useful for you to know like hey, what boots keep me warmest for a walk around the city? And I thinK, again, you’re not going to be able to create localized content for every single metro in the United States or globally, we’re a global brand. But you can find those synonymous areas on whatever scale is most important to your consumer base. And so because we’re again sort of activity, outdoor led, we have found that intensity variant to be a very powerful one when we surface content to audiences.

Stephanie:

Wow. That’s a good persona to kind of start developing like what category should they even be in to know what content to give them? I’m guessing it’s not just product that you’re surfacing, content among other things. Like are you showing experiences? What other things are you trying out right now to keep that customer engaged outside of just the purchasing of the apparel?

Sarah:

So I would say enablement is at the heart of our strategy going forward. And enablement means a huge swath of things. I’ll remind a little. We recently launched earlier this year a new loyalty program, it’s called Explorer Pass, it is going to be the backbone of everything we do as a brand. We always say it’s like your past to the best of the brand, but it’s really what we hope will be a pass to the outdoors in so many ways. And we believe that our job is to enable customers to get outside. So I would say there’s absolutely variance in terms of content. Content plays a huge part in enablement, but you can start to imagine, so do things like rentals, or free access to gear when you’re new to trialing snowboarding. You can imagine things like partnerships and access to ski mountains, national parks. You can start to imagine things like access to groups and activities. And so we will use our membership program, our loyalty program, as really the vehicle to start to open up those incremental channels. And again, I don’t want to pretend as if I know which of those offerings are going to be most valuable. The consumer will tell us at the end of the day. So we are actively testing and piloting a variety of these offers to understand, “Hey, where is it most valuable to our audiences and where should we really invest to take advantage longterm?”

Stephanie:

I was just going to ask, like how are you going to prioritize which ones to do first in that loyalty program? How do you go about even testing that if you’re thinking about an experience? How do you go about testing those things and engaging, if that’s the word to go with?

Sarah:

So part of these things, I always think testing is as complicated and as simple as you would like it to be. And at the end of the day, it’s about trials. I’ll take something like rental, before a ski season you choose a market and you say, “Hey, here’s free gear at this one store with these loyalty audiences,” and you see how many people sign up. And if the demand is huge and overwhelming and as a percentage to the loyalty base they are meaningful, you say like, “Hey, we might be on to something here.” And I think that we have to utilize those real world testing opportunities just as much as we do huge large scale statistically significant surveying, behavioral analysis, predictive capabilities. It’s not really one or the other, you kind of have to balance the quant and the qual when you go forward with an activity. And often times it’s about getting a sense, like you try one. I’ll give you an example. We have not had, free two day shipping is something that, guess what, Amazon’s figured it out, everybody knows that, it’s not a surprise. They’re kind of killing it because of it. They’re also killing people. But there’s something there, there’s an ethos that’s chopped up to consumers.

Stephanie:

They’ve made a new baseline of this is what to expect from every brand now. If all these brands on Amazon can do two day shipping, why can’t you?

Sarah:

Why can’t you do it? And if you sell a premium product, I’d say it’s even worse. And so at the end of the day, we are always communicating with and surveying our audiences, and I don’t think brands should be scared to ask customers, “Hey, is this worth it?” So what we ended up doing was, guess what, we asked our customers. “Do you care? Is two versus three that much more important to you?” And they came back with a resounding yes. So we said, “Okay, you guys care about this on a premium product.” And we tested it. We said, “Hey does this actually change our conversion enough to warrant the incremental cost that we have to invest in order to do it?”

Stephanie:

I’m going to say no.

Sarah:

You think it’s no?

Stephanie:

I think it would be no. I think everyone’s going to say yes when you ask them, and then when it really gets down to it it’s like no.

Sarah:

So our results were different. We actually saw enough of a lift in conversation to substantiate the incremental cost to ship to consumers. I will say, because of our distribution network, a huge percentage of the country was already accessible to us within that two day window. So we could do it. We were really only expediting a really small percentage.

Stephanie:

Okay. Maybe those people already got two day from you. Those answers are skewed, they’re already like, “I’m used to two day from you, I’m a current customer, of course I’m going to say yes.”

Sarah:

It’s a party trick. It’s literally a checkout party trick. But it was important, and so again the audience members that we are going to make sure always, no matter what, whether we do have to expedite or not, will receive it. That’s a benefit that now we’re working on building into our loyalty program. But the rationale is there because we know the customers care about it, we know that they see value and we know it’s something that is feasible for us as a brand.

Stephanie:

So is there anything surprising that has come from testing different things within the loyalty program that you’re building up where you’re like, “I really thought that was going to work and it didn’t,” or that backfired?

Sarah:

I try to withhold judgment these days. And I try very hard because the truth is, I have been proven wrong so many times in my career that I’m like, “I don’t know what people want.” And I’m of course exaggerating some, but it is really interesting, I’m trying to think of a recent example that was really meaty or meaningful. One of the benefits that we had really put that again were rooted in enablement and one of the partnerships that I had been really excited about had been one with a trail app, I won’t name it.

Stephanie:

Okay. I got it.

Sarah:

And we were really excited to get this premium versions of this trail app for all of our consumers. And I was so sure the usage was going to be so high because I use it, I use the premium version, I think it’s important when I hike, which I do all the time. I thought it was just going to be a home run. And guess what? It wasn’t. And it turns out that people are totally happy with their basic features and they don’t need to download a map and nobody cares about a compass or how far they’ve walked or anything, elevation gain.

Stephanie:

A compass. They’re like, “I don’t care.”

Sarah:

Yeah, like nobody cares about elevation gain. And I was like, “Darn.”

Stephanie:

Those are not my people.

Sarah:

And I think that’s what’s important, like back to we even presume so much abour our consumers around what they care about, every brand. I’m sure if you go to Bombas, they’re like, “The stretch in the toe box of the sock is like …” And then you go talk to the customers and they’re like, “No, I don’t know what a toe box is. No, I don’t notice that.”

Stephanie:

Yeah, they’re soft, I like them.

Sarah:

Yeah exactly, like, “I like your branding.” And I think that is an important lesson. Don’t assume even within the same space that you understand what your customers care most about.

Stephanie:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, I love that. That’s great. Good story. So the one thing I want to ask you, since you have a great budget to probably try things and experiment and see what’s working, I want to hear about any secrets that you’re uncovering right now where you’re like, “Ooh, I think this is good, I see where the world’s headed. We’re so far ahead of everyone and I’m going to keep this to myself.” What’s going on at The North Face that you’re not supposed to share?

Sarah:

I’m trying to think of something that’s really a secret. Because I actually think as a result, we can talk a million times about all the results of COVID and everything else, but I think this is actually a time that is one of back to basics in a lot of ways. I think customers are so sick of all the gimmicks, like people want less stuff. People want less stuff that lasts longer that is more versatile and that they can identify with, that they can feel great about purchasing. People don’t want to fill landfills or feel like they’re ruining the universe. And so I think every brand’s goal right now needs to be actually a shrinking of their offering, a sophistication about the products they’re willing to manufacture, and a precision about what the value proposition is for consumers. Because the days, again, I’ve worked at these brands that have five to 10 thousand products a season. So you build them partially so you can discount them. Those days are done. Nobody is doing that anymore. Quality, sustainability, versatility, longevity, it is about nailing that.

Stephanie:

Yeah, North Face has done that well. I’ve owned the same jacket since probably like high school. And it’s still there in stores, it’s still a number one seller I’m pretty sure. Either my style was fantastic back in high school or –

Sarah:

Timeless.

Stephanie:

Yeah, timeless, I’m timeless. But how does a brand start thinking that way? Because I still see a lot of fast fashion right now and brands trying to pump things out really, really quickly. And yeah, I definitely see that shift in consumer behavior wanted to buy things that last and even spending more money than they probably ever would have a couple years ago, how should a brand start thinking about this a little bit differently?

Sarah:

I think that you have to, again, figure out what the core relationship is that you have with your consumer. What’s that nugget at the heart of everything? It’s so funny, we talked earlier about being flooded with content, just everything, and I think what it is now, it’s about clarity of communication to help consumers understand why, what is the value of this given product? What makes it meet their objectives, meet their needs? And I think sometimes there’s a real simplicity. Again, it’s so weird, I think we’re in a backlash of, again, those back to basics of just like show me what makes this better than all of the thousand other choices that I have out there. Put it in words I understand. Of course there is a certain level of sophistication that customers expect because the marketplace has gone there.

Sarah:

So we talk about things like 3D, yes, a customer wants to be able to see the measurements of every aspect of a $500 jacket. A customer’s going to want to be able to potentially even spin it, and we can debate that. But a customer wants to be able to see it on different bodies, shapes and sizes. Yes, all of those things are true. But at the end of the day, what people really want to know is, “What is this thing going to do for me? And why is it better or different from the other things?” And I think you just have to be able to release your branding and just be a human with consumers too.

Stephanie:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). How have you adjusted messaging at The North Face to try and attribute for this, because I’m thinking when you are on mobile you’ve got such a small area to sell a four or five hundred dollar jacket. Desktop, very different. How have you had to shift your language to connect with the consumer today?

Sarah:

Yeah, we have done tons of work in this space. And I will say, we have tons of work left to do. This is an ever evolving, again with a catalog that is so large, again I remember I talked about those PIM tools, with product specs that are really complicated, this is along range project. But we have ultimately done a content audit and a content analysis and really created the content strategies around shifting the communication with consumers based on the details that are most important to them. So we actually went out and talked to, tested with consumers around not only what are the content areas that are most valuable to them, what’s the frame work that they want to be shown that content in? Often times, customers don’t even want to see language. Nobody wants to read a paragraph. Show me scale, show me a bar, warm, cold. And I think we have slowly started to transition our content systems such that we can, A, surface the most important content first, B, present it in the right format and language, and then C, and these are in particular order, but really have that branded conversational tone to how we explain a product so that we’re not alienating our customers with the sophistication that many of the items have.

Stephanie:

Yeah, I always found it funny when, not too long ago you would look at a shirt or something and be like, “Oh yeah, the bust is this and the waist is this,” and I’d be like, “I don’t know how to measure those things. Where am I actually supposed to be measuring?” Finally, some brands started coming out with a picture of like, “Here’s where your hips should actually be measured.” And I was like, “Oh, good to know, many years later.” I never understood that metric and it’s so simple but there’s a lot of education I think that needs to happen when buying clothes online, and just now I see brands leaning into this more and being like, “Well, let me just make this simple for you. Either A, here’s a person who looks just like you, probably just get her size. Or B, here’s how to measure it in an easier way without having to think too hard.” And I’m hoping one day I can just stand in front of the screen and be like, “Measure me, tell me what I am.” For anyone who can’t see, I’m holding my arms out and acting like I’m getting measured virtually.

Sarah:

Yeah, and I wonder, we even like, it must have been at CES four or five years ago, everyone was like, “That’s happening now. Everybody’s going to upload an avatar of themselves. That’s going to be commerce.”

Stephanie:

Yep, virtual reality try ons, augmented reality sessions, yeah.

Sarah:

Totally. And I think if you look at the marketplace, that’s actually a great example of where we’re ahead of ourselves a little here. Often times, and see this more and more, especially as the world is mobile, especially as everybody is pressed for time and energy, people engage with brands because of great content of some kind of another. Like maybe it’s a great brand story, maybe it’s great product content, maybe back to the broadcast media days, people don’t actually want bells and whistles for bells and whistles’ sake. They want things that add value to their lives. And so it is just important as you sort of look at your investments, I’ll tell you, I think The North Face right now has spent a few years really, really focused on foundation, I’m sure to the aggravation of many people in the organization who are like, “Where is the fancy thing on the front?”

Stephanie:

And you mean foundation as in the tools and integrating things together and actually making sure everything’s working seamlessly.

Sarah:

And the process and the resources. It is so much more important to create a sustainable ecosystem right now, now more than ever before. I feel like 10 years ago I was able to create some whiz bang thing on the front and be like, “Look at this cool thing we made, it’s duct taped together in the back, but the customer doesn’t really care,” you cannot do that anymore. Customers want to be able to text and chat and tweet you about their orders and ask questions about products in real time. And if you do not have a connected ecosystem where you have a very sophisticated customer service team on the other end pulling all of that through together, if you aren’t arming your store associates with all of that robust detail, you’ll walk away with a really dissatisfied customer and often times in your most flashy, most important launches, that’s not where you can be creating, spinning up these one off things.

Stephanie:

Yeah, that makes sense. So then after you get the foundation built, it sounds like you guys are almost there, what are you most excited about in the next couple years or when that’s in place?

Sarah:

Yeah. Luckily, we’ve talked about some of them. So I’m super excited about real time behavioral based journeys and triggers. Super excited about that, I think that’s truly going to add value to people’s lives. The potential of loyalty and our membership ecosystem for me is just so … I think it’s the future of brands, to be honest with you. I think that people want to engage with brands who know them, who know their history, who enable experiences. I think about this all the time, I’ll give you an example. When you’re actually doing backpacking and stuff, all of your equipment, it gets so dirty and gross and cleaning a backpack, like do you know how to clean a backpack?

Stephanie:

No. Washing machine? Or do you mean while I’m out in the wild?

Sarah:

[crosstalk] shake it outside or something. But of course that doesn’t actually work. And I think the funny thing is, I see a world where our membership ecosystem truly solves those extra irritants in people’s lives and truly adds value, and that’s how you build long lasting relationships.

Stephanie:

That’s good.

Sarah:

So I’m excited about that. I would also say, I’m excited about the speed that all of innovation enables us. Meaning precision around product details and the color and material, but also all of the predictive capabilities in terms of scale, so less waste. We don’t want to need to have outlet infrastructure at some point. At some point, we can make just enough for the demand, because it’s actually based on a predictive pulse of the marketplace. And ultimately, being more sustainable as a result. And that’s something we owe our consumers, it’s one of the handshakes that they have made with our brand. So making good on that is exciting.

Stephanie:

Yeah, I love that. We had a company, Kornit Digital, on a few weeks back, and it was just so cool hearing about how they were thinking about it’s demand first then supply, that’s how the world’s shifting, we’re not doing it the other way around anymore. And I was like that’s changing the game if that’s how every brand starts to operate.

Sarah:

And slowly but surely, I think that will be the reality, especially in global marketplaces, you see this now with our supply chain circumstances, these are very complex webs that we are all navigating. And so I hope the world moving in this direction is the accelerant we need to get there.

Stephanie:

Yeah, I think it will, but I’m also a positive Penny, so everything has an upside to me, it might just take a while to actually come to fruition. But it’ll be here some day.

Sarah:

For sure, there’s no question.

Stephanie:

Well Sarah, this interview has been great. Thank you so much for coming on here, spending time with me, hanging out. I’m pretty sure we did not get you fired, so I think we did our job. Where can people learn more about you and The North Face?

Sarah:

I will say, last pitch for sign up for Explore Pass. It’s free to become a member, there are so many perks, and really unlock, whether it’s the best of our products, the best of our experiences, it is the place to really know us best. So I urge everyone to join and have a fantastic day.

Stephanie:

Awesome. We will link that out. Thanks, Sarah.

Sarah:

All right, thank you so much.

Episode 175