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IDEAS. STRATEGY. TACTICS. INNOVATION. INSPIRATION.

Sara Tervo, CMO of Express, On Leading a Brand Through Transformation

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.