Sara Tervo CMO of Express On Leading a Brand Through Transformation
November 4, 2022
Sara Tervo has served as Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer since September 2019. She joined Express from Justice where she was Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer from 2016 to 2019. From 1998 to 2016, she held multiple leadership positions at L Brands across marketing, creative services and public relations, including Executive Vice President, Marketing for Victoria’s Secret and Senior Vice President, Marketing for PINK.

It's been a wild time, the last few years, for all industries and for everybody managing through. I think doing a brand transformation is challenging work in and of itself, let alone when the macro environment is changing so rapidly. That adds a whole additional element of consideration. But I couldn't be more proud of the work that we've done here and more excited about the opportunity to share with you some of my insights and experiences.

I think the first question is, how do you know if a brand needs a major transformation?

There are usually key signs that it is in need of a re-invigoration. The most obvious signs would be those of business stagnation or decline. Brand tracking measures can sometimes help, which include consumer engagement metrics declining, and or, high awareness of the brand but lower engagement scores. Sometimes, in my opinion, it takes brands a little too long to realize that they need a transformation.

In Express' situation, we're a 40-year + brand. And we had, I would say, 35 years plus of incredible success and growth. And we were very much a brand of the now. And we got very comfortable with how we approach things and how we looked at the business. And for a number of years, prior to my joining, there were small declines year over year and comp performance. There were indicators in the brand tracking work that we do that people would say things like, "I used to shop at Express" or "I don't see myself in Express" or "It's not a brand for me, it doesn't fit my lifestyle." And those are very, very important indicators that it's time to take a deep look at your approach as it relates to product assortment, product offering, how is your customer changing and evolving? And how do you offer things that are relevant to their lifestyle?

Express had been a party and wear-to-work brand for so long. We did it well. But people were evolving and looking for more versatile clothing, versatile wardrobes, and they were looking for something different than we were providing them. And as well, our marketing approach was a bit stale. Some of you who have been in the industry for a while might be familiar with the old way of marketing where you would get a couple great images. And you would use those across every marketing channel. And there weren't that many channels actually. There was a TV ad or a direct mail piece or a print ad. There were windows, and there would be a couple great editorial shots and that would be that. And you would put it across all the different channels, and you would see success, and everybody would be happy. And that's not the case anymore as we all know. We had distorted so much budget into those assets and our approach that there wasn't a lot of money left to come up with new and innovative ways to approach the market. Those are all different indicators that it's time to take a deep look and acknowledge that we're missing the mark.

There are challenges with a brand transformation, lots of them. To approach this with a very open mind, knowing it's going to be hard work, you're going to have to collect a lot of feedback, and you're going to have to listen closely and have a lot of courage.

Transformation is hard.

It takes a lot of courage and risk-taking to step away from a methodology and a strategy that worked for a long time and to try new things and experiment. With Express, and similar with Victoria's Secret, more recently, and Abercrombie is another example, people know the brands. They're very familiar with the brands. They loved the brands, or maybe they didn't love the brands, depending on where they sat. In Express's situation, we heard a lot of, "Oh I remember that store in the mall, the quality went downhill." And we knew that we had to do a very important job of rebuilding our assortment, putting quality back in the product. If you don't have product that customers like, then nothing else really matters. So that's obviously very, very important. But overcoming perception and the legacy perception is very, very challenging. The retail environment is also extremely competitive. There are similar products out there, so you need to differentiate yourself and be authentic. There's a lot of noise, especially on the women's side of the business, where people are seeing similar skirts. How do you pick one brand over another? And how do you differentiate yourself?

Another challenge in a brand transformation is getting alignment across the organization and buy-in on your strategy and the goal, or it's impossible to execute the vision. Once you've defined the vision, it's really, really important to get all the internal stakeholders on board. Some of you may have heard the Thomas Edison quote, that we share a lot here at the office, that, "vision without execution is hallucination." We all know that getting it over the finish line is absolutely critical. At Express, our CEO defined and articulated our corporate strategy as the very first thing. He wanted to make it simple and understandable, so that the entire organization could organize themselves and understand their role in driving profitable growth. He used our ticker symbol, which is EXPR, because we're a publicly traded company, and each letter stood for something. E stood for "engage new customers and acquire new ones." X stood for "accelerate sales and profit." P was "by putting product first", and R was "and also by reinvigorating our brands." So the R stood for reinvigorating our brand.

As CMO, when I took the job, I was responsible for the E, which was "engage new customers and acquire new ones" and the R, which was "reinvigorating our brand," which is a big job. I started in September, and in January, we were to unveil our new brand promise, our purpose, our brand positioning, and all of our new product edit points. So I had about four months to study and identify all of the different ways that we need to think about this, and then announce it to the world in January.

The goal here as I looked at everything and studied and defined clear goals was how do we establish customer file health and brand health? And one way that we all know is incredibly important, and a lot of you work for brands that have this, is defining a brand purpose. Express didn't have necessarily a deeper attachment to a purpose, or emotional connection. It was simply a store in the mall. And so the idea was, how do we transform from a store in the mall to a brand with a purpose, which is "to create competence and inspire self-expression." The reason we grounded to creating confidence and inspiring self-expression was because that all came from our customers. They love fashion. They want to look and feel their best. They're ambitious. They're hard working. And clothes can make you feel more confident.

I don't know about you, but when you put on a great suit or a great top, great pair of jeans, and you look good, you feel good, you're going to have a better day. I also have days when I put on something that doesn't fit right, and I don't feel confident. I don't feel good. So how can our brand serve a greater purpose in people's lives. With all the brands you work at, I know each one of you think about that, and how you can further differentiate and define yourself and connect more deeply. The more deeper relationships you have, the more loyalty you have. And that's incredibly important.

Once the corporate strategy was defined and our organization got really clear on their role in delivering the brand purpose, you have to think about how to get customers to take another look at the brand. There was a lot of legacy perceptions. We also did have a core group of customers that loved us. How do you think about moving forward, stay true to the core of the brand, and change perceptions for those that have either fallen away from the brand or just feel that we don't fit their lifestyle. We had to look across all different aspects of our company and how we go to market. We looked at our product and versatility and ensuring we're catering to lifestyles that are more relevant. We had to evolve our creative projection. We had to get our brand purpose to all of our associates, including all of our store associates, so that they can feel connected to the goal, that they're coming to work at our store to create confidence in their customers and help them look and feel their best as they conquer their goals in life. How do we get that to click with everybody across the organization and have passion around that.

As I mentioned a bit before, laying the foundation is key. And making sure everybody's aligned is so so important. If I got further ahead or was detached from the rest of the organization that touches product, or our customer in some way, or executes our e-commerce site, then I would be running on my own track. And that doesn't necessarily cut through and drive a full brand transformation. Along the journey, I dug deep in our archives. I looked at what was working. I studied, and then I met with customers. And I felt very, very confident that we had a clearly articulated strategy and purpose that was as articulated by our customers. And that now it was time to work cross-functionally and collaboratively so the elements of the transformation are reflected across all touch points. I would say one of the things that I'm proud of here is the cultural transformation that occurred as part of that.

Prior to our transformation, I would say, we worked more in silos, and everybody was running and doing their thing, but there was little collaboration and connectivity, which is not good. And you can feel and see that in how the customer experiences your brand across any of the different touch points. An example might be that our marketing team would shoot a beautiful red dress that looked amazing editorially, but it was only available for sale in 10 stores and sold through in a week, and then we had a bunch of products in the store that didn't reflect at all the projection.

So how do you really truly connect with your product team and make sure that you're bringing to life those ideas in a truly effective way? Those are some of the key components of re-invigorating and thinking about how to start the process. Second, we move to how, and I called it re-approaching. Uncovering every opportunity to get your brand back in front of the customer in its new and improved way. And it is hard work, I will say. First are all of the internal considerations. We worked on defining our purpose, going through the archives and being true to who we were. And then we had to align our organization and our talent to support that. So we had to evaluate our go-to-market process, all the different touchpoints across the organization, as well as within my function, like the org structure. And do we have the right talent? And if not, what is the right kind of talent to get us where we need to go? And how do we create an internal culture to support this transformation, renewing everybody's spirit around innovation and curiosity.

Transformation is emotional, and it's hard.

With restructures, you lose talented people and it's important to make sure that you keep everybody energized and focused on why and how and that they can share their perspective and create a culture of curiosity and innovation. Or hire people with that kind of spirit. You also need to make sure that you keep an open door, and that you are listening and understanding from different vantage points what's working and what's not working, because not everything will work and that you have to be willing to be agile and evolve and learn as you're working through the transformation. In marketing's instance, we completely revamped our creative projection, as well as our marketing budget, top to bottom. So with that, there's risk because there were things that were working. The idea was how do we stay in front of customers, pay attention to data points and insights, and keep evolving, keep moving, and support that agility and courage? If you keep an eye on those things with a purpose and an edit point, you're able to make better decisions and keep moving forward thoughtfully.

Then there's the external approach. The world as we know it has changed so dramatically, and how you connect with customers also continues to change so rapidly. Externally, we always are mining for fresh and innovative ways to attract lapsed customers as well as new customers, so they can engage with our product and our brand proposition. We've tried lots of things from live-stream shopping to revamping our loyalty program. We rebranded it, we re-architected all the hard and soft benefits, knowing that's key to keeping existing customers engaged, and we listened to all the things they wanted and delivered on that. We saw that user generated content was delivering much greater engagement rates than some of our brand content, as it turns out, so take money out of our campaign imagery and push it into UGC and expanding those sorts of assets. We also launched a community commerce program, a social selling program, where we invited customers to come in and be brand ambassadors for us. They not only can do direct-selling through affiliate links, but they can also host in-store events, and create content for us across all of our different channels and do live-stream selling and those sorts of things. We've unlocked a lot of magic in how the digital community connects in real life in our stores. As these community commerce sellers are hosting events in stores, we're seeing great increases in sales and engagement from our customers as well as from these style editors.

There's a whole ecosystem. Our associates are excited because they have somebody in the store that's hosting a party and it just changes the energy level and the experience in stores. The idea of bringing different components of our community together in new and innovative ways and leveraging who we are as a brand and our purpose, is unlocking some really powerful potential for how we engage on our brand purpose and drive reconsideration. I know you guys all probably agree with this, that nothing's better than having a friend or somebody tell you about it versus a brand trying to tell you to try it. So that continues to be a big opportunity for us.

We also take an omni-channel view across everything we do. We want to make sure we're consistent across all of our channels. We spend a lot of time with our merchant team in the early phases, as well as within the marketing team, to content strategize and plan and optimize. Then we also have an extremely agile social team that's monitoring current trends and optimizing on a daily basis. We create a lot of content volume, and then we're continually monitoring and optimizing across the different channels. So with all of that said, I am not sure if the next video is gonna work or not, since we were having some technical difficulties, but I thought what I would do if I can just share with you a video that debuted in early 2021, that shows how we took Express, that was a popular brand for decades but very elite and not connected to community and diversity, and evolved it from a party and wear-to-work brand to a more versatile player driven by our community

When I was considering the job at Express, and the job to be done, I really thought about the challenge of how to create a relevant brand and how to cut through the noise. A lot of people sell clothes, and the question is, why would they come to us? Thinking about the what and the why. If we can create confidence and inspire self expression and help every customer go about their day feeling like their best selves and be a part of important moments in their lives, whether it be a job interview, or rehearsal dinner, or graduation or different aspects that will be a part of their life, and we will make them look and feel their best at all these different moments across their daily lives. So if we could do that, we would surely get them to come back and be a brand advocate and share their experiences. Having a why really helped us align and galvanize our organization to a greater purpose. The tough part sometimes is staying relentlessly focused on your customer and what's resonating, paying attention to what's relevant and appropriate. I, sometimes, am guilty of having lots of ideas. And not everything should be done, even if it's a cool good idea that you're seeing out there that could provide some inspiration. It's about editing and staying consistently focused on how your brand shows up and that you're being true to your purpose. And not only that, it's about how candidates go through the recruiting process and the experience they have. Not only for your customers but also for your employees and every little touch point that you can think of across the board.

One of our key sayings here is "fostering dialogue, not monologue.

At Express, it was a big unlock for us to bring our entire community together, whether it be the community commerce program and customers, to our sales associates, to our headquarter associates, to our customers and insiders, and the magic and the fun that you can have with fashion and the inspiration and competence that can be created through those interactions to me is incredibly powerful and a differentiator. Our community is our community and not necessarily duplicatable, across different brands, so developing meaningful relationships definitely makes it more fun and can be our differentiator. The next video is a video that exemplifies how we are working on hopefully making progress against transforming from a store in the mall to a brand with a purpose powered by a styling community, illustrating how we place our styling community at the cornerstone of every decision we make and the power behind that. I'm going to bring her home here so I can answer some questions. I see some in the queue, so I'm excited to get to those. As it relates to measuring success, we threw a lot out there with our remix of our marketing budget, creating unique content for all the different channels, and then trying to glean insights and optimize on a continual basis. We certainly evolved on our ability to read and react, whether it be micro insights and data points or broader trends. We have dashboards for our customer file and the health of that. And we study that on a weekly and monthly and quarterly basis. Underneath the covers, where are we driving health, and where do we have opportunity to improve. And across our marketing channels, we truly have an expert team back to tallying the org structure that are sneeze in their area and are monitoring constantly the performance of their channels and the different ways to bring insights back, and actionable insights, so that we can continue to optimize and get better.

We also make sure that our goals as a company are united, and we share a common goal of nurturing our community and supporting our purpose. We were able to have everybody in their objectives this year speak to how their role would support the health of our community, which is huge, because it can't just be marketing's effort. It has to be the whole company. And we will do the best we can from where we sit, but we definitely need everybody aligned to that. That's also been a good breakthrough for us.

Transformation takes time. And it's hard. I'm still, everyday, challenging myself and the team. The transformation is certainly a long journey, and never really ends because the world and the customer are evolving constantly, but maybe it is the magnitude of change that stabilizes as we continue to evolve. I do truly believe, and I'm sure all of you do too, that authenticity matters. The customer can see straight through things that are not authentic, and will call you out on it. It's not a good recipe. And that customer centricity is absolutely the answer every time. The answer sits there.



/*video overlay play button*/