One of the major retail themes born out of the experiences of the past 16 months is the idea of “digital transformation” and what it means from a marketing perspective — which raises a question: as e-commerce growth continues, how do you build customer loyalty?
At the Fairchild Media Group Tech Forum, Sherene Hilal, senior vice president of product marketing and business operations at Bluecore, addressed this topic during her presentation, “Marketing in 2025: Preparing for Big Changes Ahead.”
Hilal said when brands and merchants discuss a “digital-first approach” to e-commerce growth, it’s important to understand that consumers are “now buying new products from new brands faster than they ever have before. And the speed and volume of shoppers discovering and purchasing online are forcing all of us to reformulate what growth could mean for our brands.”
Within this context, Hilal said digital transformation “is the approach your brand will take to grow in digital, by pulling on really the only three levers that matter.” Those levers include identifying shoppers, and improving conversion rates “by connecting your shoppers, faster and in more places to the right product and offer that makes it really easy for them to buy.” The third lever is “repeat purchases through customer loyalty programs that deliver on the value of your product.”
Hilal was quick to note that there are tactical traps to successful digital transformation and marketing, which includes thinking there is a single platform or technology that can solve a marketing strategy problem. Another trap is brands thinking they need to have all the customer data in a single place. Moreover, even if the data is in one place, retailers and brands can’t activate it. In that case, they fall into another trap, which is to increase spending on customer data acquisition. A better approach is retention using technology, customer data and predictive data.
Hilal suggested making small adjustments “that could radically transform how your business approaches digital.” The first is to change the mind-set of the retail or brand team around outcome versus channel. She said companies tend to orient their marketing teams around channels or systems with customer loyalty as the “Holy Grail” — but “it’s rarely defined by a particular team or owned in a particular part of the brand.”
This typically “results in an exhaustive list of activities and processes that may or may not drive e-commerce growth,” Hilal said. When loyalty is measured by an outcome, she said you can take a “test and learn” approach and use technology such as machine learning to optimize marketing campaigns.
Hilal then presented a case study of an apparel brand that took on an organizational mind-shift from a channel approach to an outcome-based one. In it, the brand defined customer loyalty as “repeat buyers with higher average order volume.” Next, the data activation was put in the hands of the teams at the brand driving communication “for full lifecycle personalization.” At the same time, the marketing execution, analytics and technology were put under one leader “for data-driven, consistent experiences.”
“By defining their e-commerce and marketing teams under a chief customer officer, and getting specific about the definition of customer loyalty, they could fine-tune how their programs are driving product discovery and how that product discovery was shortening the distance between finding a new product and actually converting and buying it online,” Hilal said, noting that the one-to-one personalized recommendations were driving additional purchases.
The brand was able to be more profitable by identifying shoppers (and not buying a list), using first-party data on owned channels, and testing first-party data in paid media. A key part was putting the customer data “in the driver’s seat” while using predictive analytics to drive conversions. The bottom line, Hilal said, was “moving from an acquisition mind-set to a retention mind-set.”