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January 4, 2021

Marketing Veteran Julie Bernard: How to Use Data to Fuel Your Ecommerce Business Strategy

Written by: Satta Sarmah Hightower
“We have such a powerful asset available to all of us to unify us in the business.”
— Julie Bernard, Global CMO and Board Member

In ecommerce, data is still king, but how brands tap into this valuable resource all depends on their technology stack, their culture, and their ability to pull creative, not-so-obvious insights from the information they have in front of them.

Julie Bernard, a global chief marketing officer and board member in retail, ad tech, and home services, has built her career using data to help brands discover much more about their customers.

Bernard, who has held leadership roles at Macy’s, Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB), and Authority Brands, appeared on a recent episode of the Unpacking the Digital Shelf podcast, “Extracting Business Value from Data,” and discussed how brands could use data not only to scale their operations but to develop a more customer-focused mindset.

She shared several mantras that ecommerce marketers might refer back to again and again as they try to derive more value for this all-important asset.

Liberate the Data and Socialize the Insight

Bernard said companies often focus on functional metrics and that silos often prevent different business units from harnessing data to be more customer-centric in their own work. When Bernard worked at Macy's, she collaborated with the well-known data science company Dunnhumby, which had a mantra that sticks with her to this day: "Liberate the data and socialize the insight."

"The very first time they said it to me, it resonated deeply because it was this idea that there's such great insight that can be gleaned from the customer database — well beyond direct marketing activations, well beyond personalization on the site, well beyond email customization and so many other things. Yet, we don't really let the rest of the organization see their business through the customer lens," Bernard said.

She said it's crucial for each part of the organization to have this customer lens, even if their work isn't directly focused on the customer experience. She uses the example of a merchant selling a widget and only focusing on shipping and delivery efficiencies in their supply chain instead of the customer who receives the product.

"We have such a powerful asset [data] available to all of us to unify us in the business with looking at not just 'How many widgets did I sell?' but to think about it as 'To whom did I sell the widget to?' and 'Whom did I ship the widget to?' and to think about it through that lens because now we have something we can all be bonded by, which is this consumer truth," Bernard said.

She added that when organizations use data in a more holistic way across their entire ecosystem, it can drive even greater impact.

"I really do think it's not about a single $5 billion idea. It's about the cumulative impact of thousands of decisions that are made daily, day in and day out, by hundreds of people throughout our organizations that ultimately delivers the $5 billion revenue impact," she said. "It's really just about everybody doing their role and doing their jobs smarter every day."

Think About the Customer Experience You Want to Create

Along with focusing too much on functional metrics, Bernard said many companies embrace conventional thinking around using their data to develop a 360-degree view of their customer. Instead, they should start by thinking about the customer experience they want to create.

"If I were plopped down into this imaginary company, the first thing I'd think about is 'What are the consumer experiences we're trying to create?' Let's not worry so much about my functional area. Let's think about the consumer experience I'm trying to create, the product and service commitments I intend to uphold, and back into the data that are necessary to affect that change and to activate against that desired state," she said.

Bernard also said it's important "not to try to create this imaginary view of this 360-degree view of the customer, which everybody is always aspiring to. That's somewhat academic, and it is imaginary."

"New data are being invented every day, so you'd be in a perpetual state of having to learn about this new data being created and how to think about them in the context of your business. That tends to slow us down," Bernard added.

"If we've designed customer experiences and we've defined the experiences and journeys we want customers to have with us, then think about the data that's necessary to enable that experience. It's really important to think about what data we really need so that we can move more quickly.”
— Julie Bernard, Global CMO and Board Member

Love the One You’re With

Bernard said brands could mostly turn to their own first-party data and use their customer database to glean key insights and then work backward from there.

When she was at Macy's, the company used its customer database and traditional consumer research to uncover that seven out of 10 customers shopped at Macy's at least once a year. They also discovered that it could increase revenue if the company focused on deepening its relationship with these customers, who were already familiar with its brand.

If Macy's could take some of these shoppers' visits at other retailers and convert them to stops at its own stores, this would equate to a $5 billion opportunity for the company.

"We did create this mantra of 'Love the ones you're with.' Let's focus on studying the behaviors and the need states of the people with whom we already have a relationship," Bernard said. "From there, that led us to think about things we could do to better serve their needs in other categories with new promotions, new price points, new assortments, and new offerings and capabilities."

Bernard added that strengthening customer relationships is all about loyalty, but not in the way most brands think.

"We're going to focus on really showing our loyalty to the customer, not expecting them to show their loyalty to us," Bernard said of the thinking at Macy's when she was there. "That's not just a play on words. I think it's a nuance — yet an important one — that when we show our loyalty to them, they reciprocate. We shouldn't be formulating programs just to force them to show their loyalty to us."

Think About ‘What?’ ‘So What?’ and ‘Now What?’

As more brands go direct-to-consumer (D2C), they must get more value from their data — especially new information that emerges from this channel.

Bernard said to accomplish this, brand manufacturers can't get distracted by technology implementation and simply organize, report, and distribute their data across their organizations.

Bernard said they must get out of this routine and ask themselves:

  • What?
  • So what?
  • Now what?

"We don't create enough time to say two things that matter. So here's my next mantra for all of us to think about: 'What?' 'So what?' 'Now what?'" Bernard said.

"Mostly, people focus on the 'what,' or what's happening. I would ask people to have the courage to have a point of view and to step up and to say, 'So, what does it mean?' and even more courage to have ideas about 'Now, what do I do with it?' because reporting on the 'what' doesn't drive revenue," she said.

"Doing something with it drives revenue. I know everybody loves to talk about actionable insights, yet it's often just talk. We just have to get going, and of course, follow through with 'Did the "Now what?" work?'" Bernard added.

Bernard gives the example of a beauty retailer she worked with who discovered that 60% of its customers were store-only, non-digital customers. The initial conventional thinking within the organization was that these customers just didn't like to shop online — but after some cross-data analysis, Bernard discovered that many of these same customers were spending more time on the sites of beauty brands the retailer offered.

This discovery led to a critical insight: The retailer's site needed improvement. The company then focused on making its "website more magical," modeling some of its content after one of its beauty brand's websites, including launching a review section and how-to tutorials.

This is a prime example of how using data to uncover not-so-obvious insights can lead to what Bernard called more magical and engaging digital experiences for customers.

Bernard: ‘Champions Adjust’

Leadership is crucial for brands to reorient their thinking in this way, Bernard said. Leaders must show confidence in changing their minds, adapting, and getting their teams onboard with whatever new direction they take.

Bernard has another mantra related to this that marketers should keep in mind: Champions adjust.

There are different pathways to get to the same desired effect, so leaders need to be nimble enough to quickly pivot when one approach doesn't work.

Bernard said they must "think about different ways to get to that same end state or to encourage people differently and to inspire them differently, and definitely think about how new data and insights might illuminate an issue in such a way that people are more comfortable adopting and embracing that change."

Show Trust and Loyalty — and Embrace Curiosity

Bernard also has three other critical pieces of advice for leaders:

  1. Empower and trust your team;
  2. Show them your loyalty; and
  3. Embrace curiosity.

"If we say we trust our teams, we really have to establish a desired outcome and ensure everybody knows what we're seeking to achieve and let them go do it," she said.

Leaders also need to show their commitment to their team and empower them to do their best work.

"I do think that a critical piece of leadership is the piece about your responsibility to them. It's not always them showing you they can achieve that goal. When they need help, you have to show them that you're there to train and coach and mentor them in a spirit of making them successful versus a spirit of holding them back or shutting them down," Bernard said.

Nurturing curiosity is also an indispensable part of good leadership.

"We have to up the curiosity quotient as leaders and encourage people to be curious and encourage people to think about. 'What else could I be doing?'" Bernard said.

Bringing all these things together will empower your brand to extract more business value from your data and look beyond what's right in front of you to uncover new customer insights that increase your competitive advantage and bring you even closer to your customers.

Listen to the full podcast episode to hear more about Bernard’s lessons learned, advice on pitfalls, and the mantras of leadership that drive change.

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