Shweta Mulki

"When new generations enter the brand, how will nostalgia create trusteeship?": asks Uma Talreja, CMO, Shoppers Stop

An interview with the woman in charge of a nostalgia-heavy retail brand in the age of online shopping.

On a Sunday morning, Uma Talreja is in the midst of supervising a shoot for Shoppers Stop's latest festive campaign. She's used to such 'on-duty Sundays'. "Anyways in retail, the best time to understand consumers is the weekend," she smiles. With 19 years in retail, Talreja, who is now the chief marketing officer at Shoppers Stop, knows this game well.

Before this, Talreja was director of strategy and chief digital officer at Raymond - helming its digital journey. "In legacy brands, transformation is an evolution, not a turnaround. It's about building on existing strengths, not doing away with them," she says of that experience.

"When new generations enter the brand, how will nostalgia create trusteeship?": asks Uma Talreja, CMO, Shoppers Stop

Talreja's other stints include being the marketing head at Burger King and Trent (Westside), as well as brand head for Aditya Birla's 'more' supermarkets. While she began her career as a product manager at Shaw Wallace in 1999, she joined Shoppers Stop in 2002 -in marcom, spending over five years in the company. It's full circle now.

"Having been there in its formative years, the personal leverage and connect for me is high. It gave a voice to employees especially those at last-mile delivery. It shaped how I think" she reminisces.

"There is positive nostalgia for the brand - the question is when new generations enter this brand, how will that nostalgia create a kind of trusteeship relevant to the next generation, that's what we have to figure out," says Talreja on her current focus. We caught up with her to talk retail and more.

Edited Excerpts

Consumer data in the digital era - how do you interpret it today versus a decade ago?

Firstly, in a business where you are managing a consumer brand, that data is very different from a business where one is a consumer touch point. I'm an insight and consumer-centricity person. At Shoppers Stop earlier, I learnt to put the consumer at the heart of the business - that requires data-driven thinking. While research can give you directional input (what consumers are saying/thinking), you have to merge that with real data to see the story in the numbers.

What's changed is that you now map the consumer in a continuum, as they switch between offline to online and between search/social/research/shopping. And you need to add consumer speak (from own and external channels) and use it to drive innovation. It's like being on an obstacle course - racing against competition and things being flung at you simultaneously by consumers. You are trying to lead the consumer in a time when the consumer is ahead of you!

As CMO of Burger King, you oversaw its launch ops in India and put up its 'Whopper' burger on eBay (a global-first innovation), how was the launch experience?

Launching an iconic global brand in India, it was important to recognise and recreate that 'brand love' here. Burger King was bringing in a set of products and how to localise something like the Whopper' with equal respect for the brand's essential values and the consumer, was a big learning. It's convenient to launch Indian products on the menu, but it's not true to the brand or to the consumers who are expecting a global proposition. One can cater to Indian preferences of spice, texture or crispiness but a Burger King cannot become a 'vada pav'.

Secondly, this category is about 'real experience' - you consume it intimately (like make-up). In this space, people queuing up during launch was a thing, but we wanted customers to enjoy the experience -not wait in endless queues. We didn't give away free food - that's not real marketing and those aren't real consumers. In QSR, kitchens are structured to a certain process - we figured out operations and made full-capacity calculations (how many burgers could we make in a day). I then decided to service that supply, by selling it in advance online. eBay bought into the idea and it was sold-out in a day. We had a launch campaign, but here I was only solving a problem.

At Raymond, how was the experience of taking a legacy brand onto its digital roadmap? And you launched a site that was 'a consumer-first platform, not brand first'...

While Raymond is a much-loved consumer brand, it was a B2B model; primarily selling goods to trade which in turn was servicing customers. Using digital, we could make that B2B model consumer-centric by creating a channel that we could own and control. First, we used the website as a consumer-first platform to gain insight. Secondly, the franchisees had a common billing system, which we used to launch a single coalition loyalty program across the business. We built a complete data architecture, married that to point of sale, gave it the front of a loyalty programme for consumers, and used that data for further decisions.

Shoppers Stop revenues haven't been great but it's also on the path to be debt-free by FY19, mainly due to divestments (Amazon's stake). So is this a turnaround year?

It's still a transition year with almost all new leadership. It involves focus on positive results for our stakeholders, efforts to understand the consumer's expectations better, ensuring our brand mix and product assortment, meet requirements, and redesigning marketing strategy. We have a steady online-to-offline model that we'll gradually build to scale. The turnaround will come once we are fully prepared for large-scale improvements.

And omnichannel, as a strategy, is a given?

It's the way consumers shop now. Today it seems new, tomorrow it'll be table stakes. What's important is using technology platforms to improve consumer experience. Omni-channel helps delivery, availability and convenience, so everyone will adopt it, but the differentiated experience you build on top of that is key. Personally, I feel retail is a services strategy and digital is a services platform.

How deep do you dive into online consumer data?

Online is an important discovery platform, it especially helps in leveraging our communication. But merging channels to increase market share is more critical. Even in the US, online is not yet a primary channel. Also, in the future, one may not track channel ROI separately. Today we are doing it because investments are high. But you'll soon look at fighting market share in a particular catchment or consumer segment perhaps. So the way we measure impact is going to change because of digital.

So is apparel is your main focus and is beauty growing? Also, what's in store for private (in-house) brands?

Apparel is a significant portion of our business, but non-apparel is rising fast and beauty is a critical area. We are the number one offline beauty retailer - all partnerships are critical here - that includes managing the Estee Lauder group relations in India. As for private brands, we'd want to change that concept to 'favourite' brands and create the same love for it as that of the master brand as it imbibes the latter's values.

Shoppers Stop's loyalty program members account for 75 per cent of revenues. You said a couple of years ago - 'Customer loyalty in the digital era is an oxymoron'...

Loyalty is about you being loyal to consumers, not vice versa. The First Citizen programme understands that. You have to separate a rewards programme from a loyalty programme. The latter is an insights engine and a two-way mechanism with the consumer. Secondly, can you really expect 100 per cent from any relationship - the deepest ones also depend on the role the person plays in your life - why should this be inversed in marketing? You cannot expect to get 100 per cent wardrobe/category share or buy 'reverse loyalty'. Keep doing things right and consumers will come to you for what they need.

The black-white branding was distinct once; how do you plan to stand out today?

There's a lot of strength in what the brand used to be and that's relevant today too. We will retain the black and white feel, as the consumer expectation of 'modern-sophisticated' is still there. The parent brand needs a deeper look and we are addressing that. Like every other brand, we've had to lean on sales promotions and offers, but there's a shift we are making to focus on the 'joy of shopping' - that'll merge back into strategy. Campaigns will also focus on new services like 'Personal shoppers'.

How do you approach creative? What are the messaging challenges in multi-brand retail?

Creative is not just about art and copy, it's about problem-solving. A great idea means nothing if it's not doing something for the customer. Retail is driven by occasions and festivals - that's challenging but it's also easier to schedule and ladder that communication.

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