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Jessica Hulett
July 1st, 2021

An Interview with Cher Fuller, Head of CRM at Forever 21

“What I’m really focused on at Forever 21 is not just being consumer-centric, but being consumer-obsessed.”

As part of our Amazing Women in eCommerce program, we’ve been highlighting women who are making their mark in the industry. This month, our spotlight is on Cher Fuller, Head of CRM & Loyalty at Forever 21.

Fuller joined Forever 21 during a time of transformation, as the brand shifts toward sustainability and a customer-first approach. She shared her thoughts on what it means to be customer-obsessed, authenticity in marketing, and her responsibility to young people as a marketer.

What’s your role at Forever 21?

I oversee our CRM and loyalty team at Forever 21. What I’m really focused on at Forever 21 is not just being consumer-centric, but being consumer-obsessed. I have really found my place in being obsessed with this younger generation — this younger group of people that are coming up through the marketing vertical and guiding brands on how to walk and talk and how we present ourselves to the world.

I really want to know who people are. I want to know what they’re into and I want to know what the weirdos are into — like, what are the outliers doing, what’s happening out there in the world, so that we as marketers can reflect what we’re seeing in culture.”

What gets me really excited about what we do and just who I am as a person is I’m inherently really, really curious. I really want to know who people are. I want to know what they’re into and I want to know what the weirdos are into — like, what are the outliers doing, what’s happening out there in the world, so that we as marketers and as a brand can find that small niche where we can reflect what we’re seeing in culture into the marketing that we’re doing from a day-to-day standpoint.

Tell us a little bit more about your journey and getting to this point in your career.

When I started out in marketing, I was dabbling in some of the communities that we were seeing on Facebook. I don’t want to age myself, but you had to have a college email to sign up for Facebook and it was called “The Facebook.” It was this crazy space where you could find all these different communities. And I started working with a few freelance clients who were interested in getting onto Facebook and understanding how communities worked. And at the time I had just come out of college and started to think about what I was going to do next about what’s my future.

I decided that I wanted to be a social media strategist, and this guy that I was dating at the time who was also in marketing was like, “That’s not a job. That’s not real.” I think the reason why that one thing is kind of burned into my brain is I’ve always gone against the grain. I’m always like, tell me what I can’t do. Tell me that it’s not a job and I’ll make it a job, and tell me what the rules are and I’ll break them. I’ve had this really amazing path forward where I’ve been able to be daring and go against what people have told me.

I’m always like, tell me what I can’t do. Tell me that it’s not a job and I’ll make it a job, and tell me what the rules are and I’ll break them.”

I had the good fortune of working at Taco Bell early in my career, which was a brand super born out of innovation. I worked with the eCommerce innovation team with Tressie Lieberman who is just a queen of digital innovation in my eyes. And I understood how you can make a list of all the rules and then figure out how to break them. How are we going to grab attention? How are we going to be the outlier that understands that here’s what everyone else is doing, but here’s the thing that we’re going to do differently?

Forever 21 seems to be undergoing a major transformation. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

I’m relatively new — just under the year threshold at Forever 21, and the story’s been the bankruptcy. That’s what everybody’s talked about. And we lost sight of where we were going. We lost sight of who our consumer was and what mattered to them. We’re in this new era where we have new leadership. Our CEO, Daniel Kulle, is really focused on sustainability, working with ethical vendors, and really empowering us to do what’s right for our consumers. So I think that we’re in a really amazing place where we are getting back to our roots of understanding who we’re marketing to and even taking it a step further to what really matters to them.

A lot of the things that we are moving forward with is understanding the values of our consumers. We understand that sustainability, inclusion, and community are three pillars that we have to back up with everything that we do. So, when I think about CRM and I think about loyalty, every single thing that I do is put into these three pillars because I know, and our data has shown us, and our consumer has told us that these are the three things that are going to really matter to them.

I don’t really subscribe to the idea that marketing needs to be a slimy, horrible place where we’re just trying to push people into buying things.”

We need to be authentic. I don’t really subscribe to the idea that marketing needs to be a slimy, horrible place where we’re just trying to push people into buying things. Obviously, at the end of the day, our bottom line is always going to be revenue and looking at the money that the brand is bringing in, but it needs to be done in a way that’s ethical, where we are really taking into account the wants and the needs of the people that we’re marketing towards. We have really shifted the needle into focusing on the consumer and keeping that as our central focus and our North Star.

Have your customers changed during the last year or have their behaviors changed?

I think that the pandemic was super, super interesting in the way that consumers revealed themselves and showed us their new behavior. The way that we traditionally think about marketing is where we’re telling you how to use the product and how to integrate that into your life. The flip started happening during the pandemic. You had people that were staying home; you had people that were having some mental health issues, and people that were having a really hard time shifting into this new environment that we were in.

The consumer changed, their priorities have changed. And I think brands need to change along with them.”

And all of a sudden the products that marketers were selling were being used in different types of ways. When we think about leggings, traditionally, leggings and yoga pants are athletic-based pieces of apparel. Then, we were literally just sitting at home every single day in leggings because this was our new environment. So we had to start shifting our marketing strategy around how the product is fitting into our consumer’s life and not necessarily how we wanted the product to fit into their life. It was really interesting to rethink that product strategy and that messaging strategy.

There were these conversations about how people weren’t doing what we needed them to do. And so the consumer changed, their priorities have changed. And I think brands need to change along with them.

How do you create a cohesive omnichannel experience for your customers who shop both in-store and online?

So that’s The Question. The challenges that we know internally, like how teams are set up and how different touchpoints work together, and how our platforms and data systems are set up to integrate, it’s a very tedious and hard connection. But to a consumer, they know no different. And there really is this expectation that what I do in a store translates to what I do online. So if I’m on my computer and I see something that’s in stock online, I want to know that if I go to the store, it’s there too. So we need to make sure that the connection between offline to online is seamless because consumers don’t think in these silos. All of these things need to be interconnected.

I think this is also a hybrid evolution of the way that we think about creating our teams internally, to really mix up the people that are in different departments and are responsible for different things and make sure that they’re talking to each other so that they understand all of the different touchpoints that a consumer goes through. One thing I’ve never experienced before until I came to Forever 21, is that the first week when someone is hired, they have to spend that week in the stores training. And I came in during December. So I was in my mid-30s, going into the mall to work at Forever 21 during the holiday.

It’s our journey to figure it out on the backend so that the consumer never really notices, but that should be the bar for success.”

And it was wild. I saw things that I had not anticipated. I’m so used to being on the digital side. I’m so used to sitting on the side of all my screens and creating these journeys. And I saw young girls that had saved their wishlist from the app on their phone. And then they were coming into the store to touch and feel the material. And as they were doing this, they were going through their app. To them, this was such a seamless thing that I had just not thought of. When we talk about this new world, and what it’s going to be like to shop, go in your stores, see what it’s like to be a consumer. Go in other stores, go in your competitor stores.

It’s our mess to figure out. I say that lovingly. It’s our journey to figure it out on the backend so that the consumer never really notices, but that should be the bar for success. A customer’s app should know their online purchases. It should know their in-store purchases. It should know their sizing. It should know their preferred delivery address, all of these things should just be quick and they can make that purchase.

How does loyalty play a role in creating strong customer relationships?

There’s the paradox of choice, like when you go to the grocery store, why do we need 25 brands of toothpaste? There are so many things. The race is to get the consumer to understand what’s in it for them. A lot of times we look at that from a value proposition, we say, “What’s the benefit to buying this product? What does it do for you? What’s the life cycle of this product in your life?” I think loyalty takes that product strategy and pulls it back to a brand strategy.

We need to be able to answer the question of what’s in it for me. So there needs to be something that forces the consumer into choice. The trick is to understand what they care about. This is where I say I am consumer-obsessed. I want to know exactly what matters to our consumers because when I think about loyalty, I don’t really think about it in terms of, you need to be loyal to us. I’m thinking about and setting up this program from the position of the brand needs to be loyal to you. You have given us your business, you have integrated us and brought us into your home. We owe you something in terms of being loyal. When we look at what the brand has at their fingertips that they can provide access to, that’s something that I’m super interested in when it comes to loyalty.

When I think about loyalty, I don’t think about it in terms of, you need to be loyal to us. I’m setting up this program from the position of the brand needs to be loyal to you.”

So how do we elevate and offer some of these programs and platforms that back the things that our customer cares about? We know that doing good with your wallet is something that the consumer is super focused on. A lot of the loyalty shifts that we’re looking at right now, again, ladder up into those three pillars. So what does inclusion look like? What does community look like? What does sustainability look like when we build out a loyalty program? One of the things I’m super excited about is being able to provide access to events, to provide access to ways that people can come together in a community sense. The trick is, it can’t feel slimy. We’re not trying to wheel and deal you for points. We’re trying to say, we are more than a clothing brand.

One of the things I’m super excited about is being able to provide access to events, to provide access to ways that people can come together in a community sense.”

We are now shifting into this lifestyle space and we want to take you along with us. So, because you have been so loyal to us and helped us get to a place where we can provide this access, we now want to take you on this journey. With people being vaccinated and coming out of the stay-home time, we’re going to be shifting back out into physical experiences that have more exclusivity. I don’t think that needs to be on the grand scale of Coachella or Stagecoach, but we can create meaningful, real-life experiences that exist in the real world with real people that feel intimate, they feel special, but they still feel inclusive.

You talk a lot about responsibility for marketers. Can you explain what you mean by that and why it’s so important to you?

When I say that we have a huge responsibility, what I mean is, it’s on us to speak up and say something. When we see something that doesn’t look right, if your ad campaigns are not reflecting the diversity that actually exists within the census — I mean, you can literally go into the census data and understand percentages of what the makeup of race looks like in the United States.

That’s a really “low-hanging fruit way” to just say, “How do I need to have representation in the marketing campaigns that I’m doing?” I think that there’s a huge responsibility to understand that kids are ingesting marketing at a young age, and it is on us to create an environment where they feel loved and they feel accepted and they see themselves in the images that we’re portraying as something that you should strive for in terms of beauty.

I don’t take that responsibility lightly. It’s my why. It’s my North Star. I have this picture that faces me in my office that says, “Where did the mermaid stand?” It’s the story from Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul that I read in college. It’s this story about this young pastor, and he was putting together this game for kids. It was just like a game meant to get their sillies out and run around. And he said to the kids, “Okay, you each get to choose if you’re a wizard, a giant, or a goblin. And then I’m going to call out the names and you’re going to run around crazy.”

I think that there’s a huge responsibility to understand that kids are ingesting marketing at a young age, and it is on us to create an environment where they feel loved and they feel accepted and they see themselves in the images that we’re portraying.”

So all the kids are running around, and they’re figuring out what group they’re in. And this little girl comes up to him and pulls on his leg. She’s like, “Where does the mermaid stand?” And he’s like, “There aren’t mermaids.” And she was like, “I am a mermaid. So where do I stand?” It’s just this really beautiful story of understanding. There are kids that do not fit into the molds that we have presented in society and marketing as a whole.

I want to constantly ask myself in everything that I’m doing, “Where does the mermaid stand?” Where do these kids that are non-gender conforming, or have crazy hair colors and are super focused on gender fluidity and loving who they love and, not subscribing to fitting into a bucket, where do they stand?

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