History Tells the Future of Marketing

Retail industry veteran John Aylward has a unique approach to marketing. He integrates historical lessons and perspectives when devising his forward-thinking strategies—which he’s done most recently for HSN. Aylward joined HSN Inc., the $3.6 billion live content retailer, this past spring as EVP and CMO for operating division HSN. He previously worked in senior marketing positions at such marquee brands as DSW, Gap Inc., Sony Corporation, and Starbucks. Aylward, who earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in history from the University of Cambridge, is using that expertise to create a bright future for HSN’s numerous marketing channels—50% of which are now digital.

What’s your marketing passion?
The customer has to be at the heart of marketing. I know you’ve probably heard that before, but marketers can easily lose sight of this crucial point.

You’re a former history scholar. How does your knowledge and perspective influence your marketing activities?
History ultimately is about people, and why people do what they do. As a marketer you’re constantly trying to impact customer behavior. Doing so requires a deep knowledge of people and their motivations. I get so excited about brands because this work is about connecting with people and understanding them more deeply so that you can give them a better experience. If you look at powerful modern leaders, you see that they truly understood people and had an ability to make emotional connections with them. Marketers need to do the same thing.

How do you ensure that the customer remains your team’s focus amid daily distractions?
As a marketer your daily routine includes numerous corporate and creative meetings. You’re also typically talking to a lot of vendors. Through all of those interactions, you have to maintain an accurate picture of your customer. In our case, she’s primarily female, 35-plus, and often the one shopping and making purchases for her family. In every single meeting that we’re in we consider how our decisions can make her life better.

What else do you keep in mind about your customer?
We think about her as an individual and as a real person. We’re constantly trying to learn what she’s dealing with in her life. Given those issues, what can HSN give her from an editorial point of view that’s going to make her life better? How do we add some entertainment and fun to her day, along with some education? We look at a lot of numbers about our customers, but we also look at our customers as individuals. And no matter what channel she’s using to engage with us, it always comes back to the story that we’re telling and how we’re connecting with her on an emotional level. We want to be able to give her compelling, emotional content throughout a highly cohesive, 360-degree experience—365 days a year.

Since you joined HSN, what have you found to be unique about the company from a marketing perspective?
As a traditional retailer, you always try to create great experiences that tell a compelling story. You can usually go deeper into that storytelling in one or two flagship stores by providing a fully immersive experience. But you typically can’t go that deep across all of your stores because you don’t have that kind of control over every store employee and every single aspect of the store layout and in-store experience; or you don’t have the budget to bring an immersive experience to every location.

The beauty of HSN is that we control every aspect of the customer experience and messaging. We have so many ways to deeply connect with our customers—from the content we create that drives our live channel and our website experience, to the experts in our customer call center. Retail in general is now following us by moving into content and entertainment, which have always been part of HSN’s DNA. Customers want to understand more about the brands with which they choose to spend their time. They want that back story. They want to have a deep relationship. In a lot of traditional retailers, you’re still limited by how much you can achieve no matter how good your email campaigns or your website might be. At HSN, we have great hosts and storytellers on air, and we have great people on the phone. It leads to a much more robust and rich relationship with our customers.

Can you give me an example of this robust customer relationship?
HSN Cares, the philanthropic arm of HSN, is dedicated to empowering women and helping families in times of need. We support local, national, and global organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Alzheimer’s Association, the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, and many others. This past April, during HSN’s Customer Appreciation Month, we launched a $1,000-A-Day Giveaway to charities nominated by our customers. The response was powerful. Thousands of customers wrote personal stories about charities in their community that support animals, the military, children, and health. We announced a new charity winner every day in April across all platforms and used the power of HSN’s television network, digital platforms, and social media to tell the story of these local organizations that inspire our customers.

What has surprised you most about HSN so far?
It’s a business that moves and changes quickly—much more so than brick-and-mortar retailers, where you normally have to look 10 weeks out because you’re getting your messages out in window displays and on paper. The beauty here is that it’s fluid and fast-moving, which allows us to continually learn about our customer and then quickly adapt based on what we’ve learned.

What approaches help you lead and manage in this dynamic environment?
For me it means constantly keeping in mind the key metrics, such as mobile engagement, social impressions, customer satisfaction, and assimilation rates. It also helps to be someone who thinks change is good. I personally tend to want to jump in and try something new. I want to test it and change it rather than automatically saying, “No.” That mentality probably helps me swim through each day. I think most people here at HSN are very much like that. It’s a glass-half-full kind of culture. With many fast-paced cultures, the challenge is that everyone’s focused on the immediate hour ahead of them and they forget the longer-term strategic shifts that the business is trying to execute. As an executive team, it’s our responsibility to keep our teams focused on what’s important from a long-term perspective rather than having them spend time changing things that are not going to move the needle.

Looking to the future, what marketing initiatives excite you?
We have a huge personalization program, which we’re wrapping up. In the not-too-distant future we’ll be able to have very personalized video messaging for customers. That’s a whole new world. Personalization requires a lot of rich detail about each individual customer, but doing it well also requires the right editorial point of view and the right brand voice. So, there’s a duality or balance that requires attention. You have to remember that big brand picture even as you act on highly individualized data.

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