E-mail: A powerful brand builder

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Margaret Moraskie, VP of e-commerce development at multichannel retailer Boston Proper
Margaret Moraskie, VP of e-commerce development at multichannel retailer Boston Proper

E-mails often come with special perks – for example, when consumers sign up for inclusion on a list, they get free shipping or a 10% off coupon. But discounting is not the only way to build loyalty and grow a list through e-mail. Multichannel retailer Boston Proper, which sells women's clothing and accessories, focuses on highlighting the brand. Its e-mails feature top-selling products, high quality photog­raphy and customer control of preferences.

“Our customers love our exotic creative,” says Margaret Moraskie, VP of e-commerce at the Boca Raton, FL-based company. “It's really an emotional connection with the customer that goes beyond just selling products.”

Boston Proper is not alone in focusing e-mail on brand building. Every brand is different, but the key to a strong e-mail marketing program is to make sure the brand message is consistent. If the brand identifies itself with cheap prices, such as Overstock.com, then it makes sense to send e-mails with incentives. For a brand like Boston Proper, however, which positions itself as a high-end fashion brand, pushing discounts in e-mail just doesn't make sense.

Highlighting the brand engages prospects

“There is a lot of opportunity to engage pros­pects with more than just offers,” says Sara Ezrin, director of client services at CheetahMail, Boston Proper's e-mail service provider.

E-mails should be built around your whole brand experience, says Tim Kopp, CMO at e-mail service provider Exact Target.

“You have to make sure that your e-mails are not a one-off, but that the design creates a 360-degree view of the brand,” he explains.

Boston Proper used this concept in a recent Valentine's Day e-mail campaign, which was sent on February 1 to the entire house list to promote a red “perfect date” dress. Boston Proper is not generally a gift-giving business; the clothes are usually bought for the shopper herself, so the copy was aimed at her. The subject line read, “Head-turning dresses,” and inside was the photo of the red dress with the header, “Look your best. Feel sexy.” The e-mail was opened by 24% of the recipients and resulted in almost 1,800 orders.

“We took a unique proposition of the brand, which is that she loves to be noticed,” Moraskie says. “We said, you are going to look great and feel sexy, so shop the dress collection.”

While there are sale items on the site, the brand's messaging does not push them. “We are very non-promotional as a brand — it is all about compelling the customer to buy full price merchandise,” Moraskie explains. “The aspira­tion of the brand has always been to engage her with unique, hard-to-find product and wowing creative. This has made a natural segue into our e-mail program.”

Customers can control e-mail frequency

Boston Proper usually sends three unique e-mails each week, part of a growth in frequency that it has been testing over the past two years. Not everyone gets all e-mails — if a recipient has opened, clicked or responded or interacted in the previous 90 days, they will get more e-mails than those who have not interacted. Boston Proper lets users control the mailing frequency of e-mails to them — those that have opted in to receive a weekly e-mail, for example, will receive the most popular of the e-mails that went out that week. “The customer is dictating to us how interested they are,” Moraskie says.

The average amount spent on orders origi­nating from e-mails is about $200, with up to four units per transaction. About 25% of online revenue comes from e-mail but, according to Moraskie, all of the channels are working together — catalog drops are sent in conjunction with e-mails. “They may click through on an e-mail but that doesn't necessarily mean that they were driven by the e-mail,” she says.

This 360-degree look is also part of the e-mail planning process. For the past 18 months, Boston Proper has been planning the topics of its e-mails in what Moraskie calls “near time creative,” learn­ing from each mailing, and then applying this to the next mailings. Its marketing team looks at the top selling items in the catalogs and features them in the e-mails, which is another way for customers to dictate what works best.

Despite not offering incentives, the brand grew its e-mail list 40% in 2007 — and so far in 2008, the file has grown another 50%. To help build the list, the retailer ran a sweepstakes online in con­junction with a holiday travel catalog. Through the entry process, people could opt in to receive e-mails. And while the list size is up and the fre­quency of the e-mails has increased, opt-outs have decreased, highlighting that a strong brand offer­ing is enough to keep consumers engaged.

Boston Proper has proven that by focusing on its brand message, it has communicated to its audience that the e-mail channel is not an outside force that operates independently of the vision of the brand. The rising opt-in rates, lowering opt-out rates and clickthroughs seem to indicate that it is working.

“We don't look at online vs. offline, catalog vs. Web — we try to be channel-agnostic,” says Moraskie. “A hefty portion of e-mails will drive a phone call and we don't care, as long as she calls. We're looking at a 360-degree approach.”

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