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Aliza Polkes
Copywriter & Editor @ Yotpo
January 27th, 2020

Front Row With Rebecca Minkoff [TRANSCRIPT]

Balancing data and gut feeling when it comes to D2C strategy.

Table Of Contents

At Yotpo’s Desination:D2C Conference on September 12, 2019, Vogue Business Features Editor Hilary Milnes sat down with Rebecca Minkoff, CEO of the eponymous brand, to discuss lessons learned over her 15+-year-long career in the fashion industry.

Video

Transcript

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Hilary Milnes: My name’s Hilary Milnes, I’m the Features Editor at Vogue Business and I am joined by Rebecca Minkoff. Hi, Rebecca.

Rebecca Minkoff: Hi, thanks for having me.

Hilary Milnes: Yeah, of course. And thank you guys for staying. I know it’s post-5:00 PM now.

Rebecca Minkoff: Happy hour.

Hilary Milnes: Yeah. The happy hour sessions. So Rebecca, I wanted to start with the news, the latest announcement that you guys had during your New York Fashion Week presentation, which is that you’re launching a plus-sized collection in partnership with Stitch Fix. Do you want to talk a little bit about how you chose Stitch Fix as a partner and figured that that was a good step for the business?

Rebecca Minkoff: Totally. So we’ve been working with Stitch Fix since 2017, working with them on all of their vast insights on customer profile fit. And so when they came to us with this opportunity to launch inclusive sizing, we knew they were the right partner. Whether you’re petite or you go up in size, it’s not something as easily as grading up, and we knew that if we’re going to talk to this customer, we need to make her feel beautiful and fantastic in what she’s going to wear. So we were able to sit with the team, work very closely, and they actually did the fitting so we could make sure that we pulled in all of their customer data, all their fit comments, and really made sure that the styles we offered were ones that their customers wanted.

Hilary Milnes: Right, and they’re such a data-driven company.

Rebecca Minkoff: A hundred percent.

Hilary Milnes: How did you figure the customer data into that strategy? Did you see a need for that type of sizing for the brand? And how are you using customer data to make those decisions?

Rebecca Minkoff: So we’ve known that there’s been a desire from our customer to give her that for a long time. And I think as a company, you have to make extensive investments in order to make that world come to life. We didn’t want to do it and do it wrong, and I think that we were saying, let’s wait until we find the right partner who can bring this to life and make sure that we hit all the touch points to make sure it’s a beautiful product at the end of the day.

Hilary Milnes: Right, and I think that insight, knowing what your customer wants but also then figuring out the best way for your brand to do it so it’s not just a knee-jerk reaction, is really important and especially when you consider how much customer data companies can intake not just from customers but from buyers, from editors. When you’re working across two different sides of the business with direct and wholesale, how do you absorb what you need to absorb while still making decisions that you feel are right for the business?

Rebecca Minkoff: We try and look as 360 as possible. So we still have a very large wholesale presence, we also have a lot of data from our direct-to-consumer business, and you still have to take into account all the consumer data that we have, all the social listening we do. I think you have to look at it as a huge piece of pie, and some of it is an art. At the end of the day, you might make the choice based on a gut feeling, but I love having the data, and my team loves having the data there to make sure we’re sorting through all of it, buyers, stylists, editors, customers, and really taking that whole approach. And no one opinion matters more than the other.

Hilary Milnes: Right, because I’m sure it’s a fashion brand, art – that gut feeling still matters a lot. So how do you make sure the two are complemented by one another and separated? Are there tools that you use on the eCommerce side to get that up and running so you can focus on the creative side of the business?

Rebecca Minkoff: Yeah, so some of the tools we use, which I’m sure are probably familiar to a lot of you here, are Dynamic Yield, which really helps with a lot of our A/B testing, the look and feel of the site, the navigation bar if we showcase a product that’s popular versus trending. You can also personalize it, so showing people cold weather and cold weather, warm and warm, and that really helps us make sure that the customer’s getting an experience she truly feels fantastic about. Our loyalty program, which coincidentally is with Yotpo, gets our customer really engaged in referring friends.

Hilary Milnes: Obviously we talk about community so much to the point that I like to make every person that I’m talking to define what it means to their strategy, because really if you conflate just community with customer, it kind of takes the meaning out of the word altogether. You have to have something special that builds a community, that isn’t just a transaction. So how do you figure who the Rebecca Minkoff community is and what it is beyond just purchasing a bag on the site or at a Nordstrom?

Rebecca Minkoff: So for us, our community approach is really a hub and spoke or a spoke and wheel approach. We have various sections. So we have our #myRM hashtag which, again, our community uses, that we are constantly uploading onto the site and showcasing on social. We have our #RMmuses, which is the aspirational women that we like to feature not just as models but they’re personalities, they’re influencers, they’re also chefs or hosts of TV shows. Then we have the podcast called RM Superwomen, where I’m interviewing a lot of these women. And then to top it off, we have the more female founder focused community of over 5,000 female founders that I’m not selling a product to. I’m connecting founders, I’m helping ease pain points. And so they’re all different types of people we’re targeting, but at the end of the day, it all cycles back to our message and our pillars that we have and what the brand truly stands for. So no matter what, she can take a little bit or take one piece of that.

Hilary Milnes: Right, and what’s the overarching goal of every piece of this community? Because I’m sure it adds to this brand halo effect. If there’s a customer who’s shopping and they interact with the brand in one scenario, they dig a little deeper, they get a little bit more involved. What does that mean for them and their engagement with the brand and what it adds to the experience? And why do you think it’s so important today that brands take that extra step and – you’re doing a lot, so what’s it all for?

Rebecca Minkoff: I hate to use the tired word authenticity, but the goal of the podcast is truly to give advice, helpful tips to women that are just starting out in their career that might be feeling down about launching a business and need that extra lift. And that is the sole purpose of that. So it is content for her, but it creates a community of women that feel like we hear them, we know that as a brand, our products are there for these first moments in her life, her first job interview, her first affair, her first divorce, right? So fitting into other aspects of her life and making it richer is the goal with the community, and if it has a lift in sales, great, but the point of that really isn’t for the lift, it’s to really make our customer feel like she’s getting a value beyond the product, and that we’re listening to her for the other parts of her life that we don’t make things for.

Hilary Milnes: Right, and I know you mentioned you know the word “authenticity” has to be preceded by “I don’t want to use the word authenticity anymore,” but do you think the definition has changed, like how customers judge what’s authentic versus what isn’t? I feel like there’s a little bit of influencer fatigue, there’s a little bit of perfection fatigue. How do you as a brand and a designer respond to that and make sure that you’re staying in tune with what customers want to see from the companies that they’re buying from?

Rebecca Minkoff: I think we see that the more real, the better; the less polished, the better. We’ve completely, as of last week, eliminated most editorial content from our social because she doesn’t engage with it or like it, she wants us to be real life. And with our video strategy that we’ll be launching later this year, she’s going to be seeing a lot of real life. So I think I’m meeting her with what she wants to see, and it isn’t some perfectly curated image of a life that’s not real. And I think as this evolves and the platforms get older, that it’s going to just be more and more of that.

Hilary Milnes: Right. And we’ve talked about this Rebecca Minkoff community, the spoke-in-the-wheel effect. And so, when we’re looking at the two sides of the business you mentioned, direct-to-consumer accounts for how much?

Rebecca Minkoff: About a third.

Hilary Milnes: So you’re still a majority wholesale brand?

Rebecca Minkoff: Yes.

Hilary Milnes: How does all of this help you put the Rebecca Minkoff brand into context if you are shopping at a third-party retailer or if you are going to the site? There’s all of this work to create content and tap into what a customer wants and things that aren’t necessarily meant to drive sales. How are you linking the dots and informing yourself as to who the customer is, which then informs your wholesale partners who the customer is? How has that relationship changed now that you have all these touch points directly with the customer, both content-wise, editorial-wise, and sales-wise?

Rebecca Minkoff: As you have seen with acquisition costs rising, people are now going back into wholesale. So we view our wholesale partners as true partners. We give them every piece of data we have on our customer. Whether they choose to listen is another story. The ones that have listened have done well with our brand, and I think it’s a little bit of a teach and learn for both sides. And you have places in the middle of the country that you’re not going open up a store, that you’re not going to necessarily reach digitally. So it’s important that she goes into a Saks or a Nordstrom or a Bloomingdales and sees your brand. And some of these women will only ever touch product. But we hope through all the different ways I’m trying to reach her, that at some point, she’ll come across the podcast or at some point, she’ll come across the video series we’ll be launching, and that’ll just make her feel more connected to the brand.

Hilary Milnes: Right. And I think it comes down to this idea that you have to take risks whenever it makes sense. Was there ever a time that you might have looked at your business and said, “Do we pull out all wholesale and go full-in on direct?” Was there ever that turning-point moment where you weren’t sure just how these wholesale partners were going to fare and how customers wanted to shop if it was just consumer to brand?

Rebecca Minkoff: I think we’ve looked at it every year. And every time you see the shareholder report, we’re like, “Should we still be doing this?” It’s about taking the long view. We’re seeing a lot of these D2C brands come back around and have to figure out a strategy or figure out pop-up shops or experiential retail. I think it’s key with our wholesale partners, not just giving them customer data, but how we do things within our own source that works. So if we’re going to do an event, this is the best way to do it.

Hilary Milnes: Right.

Rebecca Minkoff: And bringing experience to these places that might be not used to doing it, frankly, at all.

Hilary Milnes: Right. And with those experiences – I’m sure you’ve tested a lot, and one thing that you’ve tested was the see-now-buy-now. That’s just what I call it. It has a lot of different names, but the shoppable runway essentially. So you had your presentation this past Saturday and everything that a customer saw, whether it was on social media or just photos from the event, is on sale right now. How did they – how did you say, that, “Okay, that’s a trend that I think makes sense for my customers, and I’m going to go all in on this strategy because this actually speaks to me”?

Rebecca Minkoff: So we launched this in 2016, and we haven’t looked back since. I know a lot of brands have tried this and then pulled back. We still have market where we sell to our buyers, where we buy for our stores. We still have press reviews where press editors, stylists, celebrities, and influencers come in and pick what they want. So when we’re building the show, it’s with a lot of data. It’s with units that are key investment items. It’s with units that stylists and celebrities picked as the items they’re going to wear that we can then feature later. So we go into the show really smart and strategic, and we’re showing things that are tried and true. They’re still elevated. There are still some items that maybe we made ten of and in some cases, two of. If you’re going to put that many marketing dollars into this, you want to see it translate into sales. So to see the traffic hit our site and then not just fall off because she didn’t see what she wanted is really important now because everything is instant.

Hilary Milnes: Right. And I’m sure you learned so much throughout the entire process from how a product performs. Like how does that new model play a role in your product development from when you’re testing things before a customer sees it, with figuring out what buyers are interested in? I’m sure there’s an element of, “Okay. Well, the buyers didn’t like that, but I feel like the customer might. So let’s test that there.” It’s a D2C strategy for the runaway.

Rebecca Minkoff: Yeah. I mean, sometimes, three or six months before we launch our product in wholesale, we’ll make about a hundred, put them up in black, and see what happens. No marketing behind it. No nothing. And we know if the customer goes and discovers it, that there’s something behind that bag, and we can then inform our wholesale partners and say, “You know what? We put this bag up. We got a hundred units. It’s sold out. You should probably consider buying it.” So I think that’s a way for people to feel comfortable with a little bit of the testing we do before our show.

Hilary Milnes: Where are we are right now with the direct-to-consumer sales, the wholesale relationships? As a designer and a brand founder, do you feel much more ownership over the destiny of your brand? I feel like control boils down to being one of the most important things for brands today. If you just make a product you think will work and throw it out there, it’s probably not going to succeed because customers have so many choices or so many options. How do you take that control and use it to the best of your advantage?

Rebecca Minkoff: What we do is show our buy to all of our retail partners. So we say, “This is what we’re invested in. This is what we’re going to get behind. This is who we are going to get these products to, and the people we are planning to work with this season.” So they’re fully informed on everything the brand is going to stand for and market. And again, some listen, some don’t, and I think you see success where there’s synergies. Other times, it’s worked in the reverse. Something that a Nordstrom picked out as an exclusive worked really well, and then we’ll back into that and offer it again as soon as we can on our site. So we like to keep it nimble. We’re a small team, so we can. We’re keeping our eyes open to those opportunities.

Hilary Milnes: It seems like with every decision, you have the evidence to back it up. You have the receipts and everything. And we were talking earlier – it’s 10 years since you had your first presentation for New York Fashion Week. Everything that you’ve learned along the way, if you could boil it down to a few biggest moments, because I feel like it’s been such a weird 10 years for fashion. We’ve seen a lot of – things almost blowing up, a lot of turmoil, a lot of turbulence. What stands out over the past 10 years in terms of like, oh-my-god moments?

Rebecca Minkoff: I think that storytelling is really key and consistency is key. I think when we look back at some of the errors we’ve made, we went off and told the wrong story, or we weren’t consistent in our story, and we lost her. And then we make a right move. We get her back, or you hire a new CMO, and they change the course a little bit. And so, staying consistent has been a really great lesson, and just knowing who our customer is, not trying to go too high or too low, really just talking to our customer. There’s something to be said about having been around for 15 years, looking at the brand equity we have. We’ve been given permission to try certain things. We’ve been given permission to use technology to ease pain points with our customer.

Hilary Milnes: Right. With all of that information on who the customer is, where do you find those moments for growth in those areas that you can explore and expand into without pushing it too far?

Rebecca Minkoff: You know what, try pushing it too far. I think you will only learn these things by massive failures, and we have definitely had them.

Hilary Milnes: And what’s your biggest failure in the last 10 years?

Rebecca Minkoff: Oh, that’s a good one. I would say one of our first shows, we decided to have a hashtag that could be seen, prior to the runway show starting, about the show. So if you were posting that you were at the show, whatever you were saying, pictures would be thrown up. Well, we all know what happens when things start trending on Twitter. And there was no one watching the feed to make sure that certain things were not shown. So, I’ll leave it at that, that lots of images went up that shouldn’t have. And we couldn’t pull them down in time. It’s not how we want to start our runway show, with nude images of people. So those are massive mistakes. You learn.

Hilary Milnes: You’ll learn how Twitter works.

Rebecca Minkoff: Thank God that wasn’t me, that’s all I have to say.

Hilary Milnes: What about the risk you’ve taken using technology – what’s your opinion or just perspective on the role technology should play in fashion? Has it changed at all? Where do you see it really shaping the next chapter of the business?

Rebecca Minkoff: For us, as different technologies emerged, we leaned into it with our retail platform, with wearables. I think now the technology we’re trying to harness is stuff you’ll never see. So it’s working with companies. One we’re going to be working with in the near future is leveraging blockchain technology to print garments on demand, cut pieces that are units of one, and ship them. There’s almost zero waste in the process. So we’ll be using that technology to create garments with hardly any waste, and giving the consumer a ton of options in that process.

Hilary Milnes: So does it seem like technology should be more behind the scenes when it comes to how customers are interacting with it?

Rebecca Minkoff: I can’t speak to how everyone wants to utilize it. I think it will be in those easing of pain points for the consumer, but it’s something that you might never even realize is occurring.

Hilary Milnes: We talked about where you grow when you know so much about the customer, and how that shouldn’t deter you from exploring into new areas. What’s coming up for the brand? I know you’ve had a pretty recent launch with Stitch Fix, where do you think you’re going to go next?

Rebecca Minkoff: Well, we announced last week, it was more of a trade announcement in women’s wear, but we’ll be launching a fragrance in 2020. My customer is going to be a huge part of that journey. So you’ll see that strategy rolling out in the New Year. And then some other things. We were shocked when we did a survey of what our customer wants next, two categories we hadn’t  ever thought about came back. And so those are the categories that after fragrance we’ll be getting into.

Hilary Milnes: Can you tell us what those categories are?

Rebecca Minkoff: No.

Hilary Milnes: That’ll have to be a surprise. But I’d love to hear your view having this long experience in fashion and seeing it go through a few different stages. We’re in a much different place than we were 10 years ago, as we’re starting a new decade. What would be your biggest piece of advice to yourself 10 years ago? What do you think is the biggest, most important lesson you’ve learned?

Rebecca Minkoff: A really good friend of ours and consultant said, “When you try and take the road or the path that everyone else has followed, you fail, you always fail. But when you take the road not taken, or you take a different path, you always win.” We were told, “Don’t talk to your consumer, don’t work with influencers, they’re dirty, right?” And we said, “We think we’re going to work with them.” When we had huge wholesalers threaten to pull out if we continued to talk to these people, when we did See-Buy-Wear, when we did a fashion show on the street – all these times you take risks and you can’t sleep at night. When our friend pointed out where we had won, it was all those times where we didn’t just go the path that was prescribed. So for me, it was like, “Okay, I can free fall. I don’t need the parachute.” I probably wouldn’t have as many gray hairs as I have now if I had just known that it’d be okay. Each brand has to do what’s right for them. So for us, taking the old-school approach doesn’t work, and not always jumping on the newest, hottest, flashiest thing,

Hilary Milnes: Right. And before I let you go, I think that it’s really an interesting place to be for a contemporary fashion brand because you have fast fashion and really quick, cheap companies wanting to pool customers’ attention in one direction. You have the luxury houses that just sit up here still. How do you maintain your identity and your focus as a brand where you’re sitting and positioned, while also maintaining a freshness at the same time?

Rebecca Minkoff: We know that our customer comes to us when she’s ready to first get a taste of luxury, or accessible luxury as we like to call it. So, we’re very clear on what that means. And we don’t want the woman to feel like she can’t buy the product and then not pay rent, or not eat dinner that night. And so you’ll see that in luxury, they’ll keep doing the things they have done for the last 50 years, but we have permission within our category to play with creative ways to market, creative ways to engage. And we can really pivot as needed, and so that allows for a lot more freedom. You can stay nimble.

Hilary Milnes: All right, great. Well, thank you so much Rebecca.

Rebecca Minkoff: Thank you.

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