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Express bets on storytelling to turn around its lagging holiday sales

December 5, 2016 03:24 PM
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The start to the holiday season hasn’t gone well for Express Inc.

“We just completed Black Friday week which was disappointing and reflected an intensely promotional retail landscape,” said CEO David Kornberg last week on a conference call with analysts. Those early results drove the multichannel retailer, No. 99 in the Internet Retailer 2016 Top 500 Guide, to issue comparable store guidance (which includes e-commerce) in the "negative low double digits." "While the majority of the quarter is still in front of us, and we believe we have the right assortment and marketing plan, we are taking a cautious stand which is reflected in our guidance," he said, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript.

Despite that lackluster start to the holiday season, Jim Hilt, the retailer’s chief marketing officer, believes that storytelling—in particular, its efforts on Instagram and Snapchat—will help it “connect to our core customer set, it will give them a taste of who we are,” he tells Internet Retailer.

Express’s holiday campaign focuses on what it calls “#ExpressLife,” which “celebrates the optimistic attitude and dream-big mindset of amazing people,” the retailer says. Among those people the retailer is highlighting in posts across different social networks and other channels are model Karlie Kloss, as well as several other brand messengers that it calls “Expressionists,” including Erica Domesek, founder of the do-it-yourself (DIY) lifestyle brand P.S.- I made this…, beauty vlogger Deepica Mutyala and chef and environmental advocate Gabe Kennedy.

“We’re not just looking to sell products, we’re looking to show how our products are a part of how these people live their lives,” Hilt says. “We want to authentically connect these people to the brand.”

The retailer aims to do so primarily via its two Instagram accounts (it launched the Instagram account @expressmen earlier this year for its men’s apparel), Snapchat, as well as on its website and app. “We have to find ways to connect to our customer set and give them a taste of what we’re about.”

On Instagram, for instance, the retailer  recently posted a video featuring Domesek decorating her home with her DIY ethos. It then shared decorating tips on Expressexpress.com/expressionists. On Snapchat, Express rolled out a series of five Black Friday and holiday-themed national Snapchat filters throughout the day after Thanksgiving. When a Snapchat user took a Snap, she could swipe left or right to see the available Express filters and add the overlay to her snap.

“We want to connect with our audience who is in their mid-20s and highly engaged on Snapchat,” Hilt says. “We want to be where people are having fun.”

Those efforts aren’t about driving direct sales, Hilt says. “The question we’re asking ourselves is, ‘Are we engaging customers in ways that we didn’t before? Are we getting impressions? Are we seeing engagement with Express outside of Snapchat?’ Without a specific ROI to share, I think it is working.”

In part, that confidence stems from some other advertising efforts that seek to drive consumers from Snapchat or Instagram to Express.com. But the retailer is also happy to find success boosting its brand awareness, which Kornberg noted last week on the retailer’s earnings call.

“We are increasing our social media while continuing to communicate through influencers and brand ambassadors,” he said. “We've been very pleased with the expanded efforts we've taken in this area and continue to see a positive Impact from our immediate distribution strategies across digital and social channels from an owned and paid perspective. Total brand impressions across these efforts grew significantly in the third quarter, leading to meaningful increases in purchase intent.”

By putting a human face on Express, the retailer aims to reverse its lagging sales; Express’ sales declined 4.5% throughout the first nine months of its fiscal year. In the third quarter, however, e-commerce was a bright spot for Express, as its online sales grew 14.9%, reversing the trend from the first half of the year when Express’ overall sales fell 2.9%—a slight improvement over its e-commerce sales, which were down 3.6%. 

But the question remains, will sharing Expressionists’ stories resonate in a way that builds loyalty and, ultimately, sales? Hilt says the retailer has no choice but to pursue its current path.

“The only way to connect to people in real ways is to connect the brand to their lives,” he says. “That means we have to communicate that in a way that feels real. If there’s one thing that people can see from a mile away it is when brands aren’t being real. We have to be real.” 

 

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