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J. Crewsing Into CEO Branding: What Mickey Drexler Can Learn From Loblaw, REI

In his personal letter to shoppers, J. Crew CEO Mickey Drexler appears to be backing his brand promise with a personal promise. But if he wants to be a branded CEO, he should take a lesson from one of the original retail brand-makers, Dave Nichol, and his contemporaries.


 

J. Crew CEO Mickey Drexler may be an icon among retailers, but if he wants to be a brand ambassador among his shoppers, he should take a lesson from one of the pioneering presidents of customer engagement: the late, great Dave Nichol.

This photo taken May 14, 2014 shows the J. Crew store in the Shadyside section of Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

This photo taken May 14, 2014 shows the J. Crew store in the Shadyside section of Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Nichol was a grocery man; he headed marketing and product development for the Canadian supermarket chain Loblaw. However, to the public and industry, he was the beloved face of a national brand many equated with an experience. From 1972 to 1993, Nichol transformed Loblaw, turning a mundane supermarket into a destination where shoppers eagerly sought to sow a newfound passion for food – a passion he ignited and nurtured.

Nichol’s passion (and that of his ever-present sidekick, Georgie Girl the bulldog) was so authentic that the public quickly equated it with Loblaw quality – they trusted him, so they trusted the brand. This enabled the runaway success of Loblaw’s private-label brands, including its upscale President’s Choice.

In short, Nichol defined personality as a tool for brand loyalty, and it is a tool many retailers are revisiting.

“We Clearly Got Sloppy”

Drexler embodies a more contemporary approach to customer relations. The former head of the Gap during its nothing-can-stop-us, 1990 years (remember the “Jump, Jive and Wail” commercial?) made a recent run for authenticity not with his face, but with an email.

Drexler in April sent J. Crew customers an electronic greeting that, along with pleasantries about his music choices (Springsteen, Motown), invited shoppers to visit a store and email him directly with their thoughts. The reason: J. Crew had, in his own words a year ago, “got sloppy.” Cost-cutting measures resulted in a perceived decline in quality, but not price, and this was turning loyal customers off. J. Crew’s fourth-quarter same-store sales declined by 4 percent.

Drexler is now trying to appeal to his customers on a human level, which is something Dave Nichol did effectively, and effortlessly. The key point of difference: Nichol engaged because he understood the challenges and preferences of his best customers. Drexler, however, is reacting to a misstep that, had he kept his finger on the pulse of shoppers, likely would not have been made.

CEO As Brand

Regardless of motivation, Drexler’s run at personalizing the CEO as a brand is a sound choice for engaging his customers, if he plans to stay the course.

This branding approach is not new, after all – Men’s Wearhouse is a good example. But as retail organizations merged, consolidated and expanded, the practice of executive-as-brand faded among the major chains.

Not that the concept wouldn’t work for a national organization. The trick is possessing a quality that cannot be faked: believability. This was key for Nichol, and it is key for Drexler if he wants to pull off his conversational emails to customers – he needs to be authentic and to follow through.

Here are examples of how other brands do it:

REI: CEO Jerry Stritzke captured headlines last November when he decided not only to remain closed on Thanksgiving Day but also to close all stores on Black Friday. Instead of shop, he urged customers to go outdoors and record their experiences on its #OptOutside.

“As a member-owned co-op, our definition of success goes beyond money,” Stritzke stated in a press release. “We think that Black Friday has gotten out of hand so we are choosing to invest in helping people get outside with loved ones this holiday. Please join us and inspire us with your experiences.”

Stritzke not only struck a relevant nerve, he created  a movement by inviting the public to share their experiences with a brand that cared about those experiences. Before Black Friday, REI had attracted nearly 1 million endorsements on social media.

Restoration Hardware: CEO Gary Friedman captured public interest when he fired off a memo to his staff that underscored their urgent role in rescuing the endangered customer experienced. “We cannot afford to lose one single customer,” he wrote, in all caps. “ You will never get in trouble for making a decision to delight our customers. You will, however, lose your job if you don’t.”

Explaining his statement to Bloomberg, Friedman unapologetically explained, “We have a leadership culture, not a followship culture.” And, with his unabashed statements, he demonstrates an essential characteristic of leadership: a willingness to stand up for his belief and, if necessary, fall on his sword for the customer.

Dollar Shave Club: The creator of this online product, Michael Dubin, made himself part of the brand experience from the onset with a personal tone that spoke directly to his target audience – men who find shaving and all of its instruments boring. His opening declaration, “Our blades are f–king great,” is a promise: All the other brands are just selling to you. I, however, am solving a big, pain-in-the-butt problem.

And Dubin puts his dollars where, to use his term, his f–king mouth is. Dollar Shave Club delivers blades into our hands in a seamless manner while also providing an unexpected element of delight. He has cut the bore out of shaving, and trimmed the price as well.

If Drexler can capture this level of authenticity, he may win back his J. Crew clan. But he has to believe it himself, and he has to be seen. Nichol was able to maintain national adoration for two decades by putting himself out there, listening to the customers and addressing their concerns. He introduced environmentally friendly items, and he launched a low-priced store brand that made him an ally to his customers.

Today the face of Loblaw is Galen Weston Jr., a scion of the founder who’s more broadly supporting the banner brand and the company mission to become more earth-friendly. He is, however, considered a face of the brand.  To do the same, Drexler may need to put his face, not just his emails, out there.

This article originally appeared on Forbes.com, where Bryan serves as a retail contributor. You can view the original story here.

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