I had the privilege of moderating an exceptional panel of brand leaders for the CMO Club summit in New York this month. The panelists— Pepper Evans, VP of Branding and Member Engagement Marketing at Plenti, Josh Lesnick, CMO of Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, and Amanda Tolleson, Interim CMO at Birchbox— all provided insight into the challenges brands are facing today and the aggressive responses they take in tackling such challenges. Although they represent three very different brands, in my mind, five consistent themes emerged from our conversation:
1. Customer Experience is Paramount
Today’s successful brands recognize that customer experience is key. For example, Birchbox arguably created the subscription box category 10 years ago when it recognized a vacant space in the market. It serves the beauty majority, a term it applies to the underserved segment of women who are not avid “beauty hobbyists.” All messaging and services are thoughtfully directed towards this woman, with product innovation and design executed through the lens of her experience. The Birchbox brand is more than just an identity that appeals to the “beauty majority;” it is an experience created for them.
Plenti emerged in a similar fashion. It is the fast-growing rewards program launched by American Express, whereby members can accumulate points from purchases at a range of merchants (e.g., Macy’s, Exon Mobil, AT&T) and then redeem the points they earn at any of the merchants across the network. As a coalition loyalty program, the brand experience is largely in the hands of the frontline representatives in the many partner locations.
Evans conceded that there are challenges associated with translating the brand through so many partners, insisting that her priority and the brand’s success have come from the consistent application of the brand across all locations. The brand moves with the transferable currency between each retailer, ensuring a cohesive and recognizable experience that truly puts the customer first.
Similarly, Wyndham is faced with the challenge of bringing each distinct brand to life within its wide-ranging portfolio of hotel brands – including Days Inn, Ramada and Wyndham Grand Hotels and Resorts. Lesnick explained that when it comes to experience, guests do not differentiate between economy and midscale brands. Even if they are paying less, guests still expect a high-quality experience. In knowing that, Wyndham focuses on the guest experience in all of its properties and strives to deliver to high standards everywhere.
2. Brand Strategy Begins with Rigorous Insight
At all three companies, the brand experience is anchored in rigorous insight and strategy. Birchbox was founded following thoughtful market analysis that revealed the majority of women are not avid beauty connoisseurs in search of innumerable products and complicated regimens. By simplifying the experience of buying and using beauty products through the delivery of curated boxes, Birchbox effectively “challenged non-consumption” and anchored its positioning in a purpose founded on market insight.
Plenti’s brand proposition also came from a thorough analysis: Before it launched as the first American coalition rewards program with a payment-agnostic, single rewards currency, its architects engaged in diligent market analysis to determine what was missing from existing rewards programs – and what members wanted. Responsive to the customer’s desire to compress the earn-and-use cycle, Plenti was engineered to stand out.
For it’s part, Wyndham’s approach is rooted in a comprehensive strategic approach to preserving and maximizing the individual equity of each hotel brand. Rather than focusing exclusively on rate, Lesnick is focusing on the numerous “brandable moments” of a guest’s stay, infusing each of them with a memorable experience that supports the particular qualities of each brand that have been meticulously identified through research.
3. A Strong Brand Can Serve a Broad Market Segment
Another impressive facet of all three of these brands is their success in operating across segments to serve a broad swath of a market. Birchbox’s segmentation analysis enabled the discovery of a previously unidentified consumer base. Now, Birchbox not only delivers a beautifully simple shopping experience to its customers, it also speaks to this formerly neglected, large market in a voice that resonates with their needs and particular experiences.
The Plenti member base also spans a very broad market. Bringing together partners as diverse as Exxon and Macy’s, Plenti makes it possible for shoppers to spend across a wide variety of merchants. While the breadth of the partners lends strength to the loyalty program (unprecedented American rewards programs), it also created challenges that Plenti has – successfully – overcome.
Thoughtful engineering and planning ensured that the Plenti brand was integrated into each partner retail location, that retail associates were trained, and that the back-end systems functioned flawlessly—facilitating a seamless and consistent brand experience across all touchpoints.
Wyndham took a strategic approach to segmentation. Following analysis that revealed a range of different expectations attached to each hotel brand, Wyndham is now working to bring the guest experience to life in each property in ways that are distinct and valued by its guests. For example, the cultivation of its heritage brands and the resulting standout guest experience it delivers, allows Wyndham to stand strong against a background of many indistinct hotel brands. Wyndham is definitely a brand to watch as Lesnick and team doubles down on experience!
4. Brands Thrive in an Ecosystem
A fourth characteristic shared by these brands is that they all operate in complex ecosystems. Tolleson insisted that the success of the Birchbox brand comes from the continuous efforts of the entire organization. She asserted that to thrive, the brand and company promise must extend past the marketing department to live in every effort of the organization—from technology to merchandising and beyond.
Interestingly, the Plenti brand does not live solely within any one of its partner brands. Instead, the brand is a coalition that depends on each one of its partners to support it. The success of the Plenti brand in each location is contingent on the proper training of the employees at each partner location. Living within the disparate retail environments of each participating partner, the Plenti brand also extends into digital realms, relying on a number of different hosts to bring it to life and make it real for customers.
The Wyndham brands also operate within a vastly interconnected ecosystem. Many of the Wyndham properties are ultimately dependent on the franchisees to bring the brand to life. Ongoing strategic analysis informs when and how each franchise will leverage the brand to cultivate the distinct strengths of the property brand.
5. Brand Experience is a Driver of Loyalty
Finally, a definitive characteristic of all of these brands is their predication on loyalty. Loyalty is at the heart of the Plenti brand. Founded in response to a consumer demand for a new kind of rewards program, its promise and all of its operations are centered on driving loyalty among customers through a collation loyalty program
Securing customer loyalty through its monthly delivery service is the linchpin of the Birchbox core subscription service. The firm is building on this loyalty and now offers shoppers to the ability to buy products beyond the subscription box.
Lesnick also views brand as a strong catalyst for customer loyalty. He highlighted the importance of the hotel’s simple rewards program. In addition to strategically leveraging the Wyndham masterbrand to allow guests to earn and use rewards across multiple properties, the guest experience is thoughtfully considered and designed at each individual franchise location.
For all the panelists, a great deal of their success comes from the strategic use of brand as a filter for all company operations. From Birchbox’s product innovation, to Plenti’s selection of partners, to Wyndham’s appraisal of each brand in its portfolio, brand experience—the ultimate differentiator—is determined by rigorous strategy. All three companie successfully speak to a wide number of people, securing loyalty and trust through the steadfast commitment to brand.
Note: Birchbox, Plenti and Wyndham are clients of my firm, Siegel+Gale.