catherine sadler of neuehouse

Catherine Sadler — something of a refugee from the corporate world — is taking her 30 years of marketing experience on the road.

Sadler worked at Coach in the Nineties before becoming chief marketing officer for Ann Taylor and later, global chief marketing officer at Banana Republic, where she helped bring the chain together with “Mad Men.”

She left Banana last fall and is stepping out with Sadler+Brand, which she said is not so much a branding agency or consultancy, but an “igniter” and “change agent.”

WWD sat down with the New York-based marketing guru to talk branding, tech, change, the malaise at the mall and the challenges facing big corporations in fashion today.

WWD: Is it time for marketers to start focusing on Gen Z over the Millennials?

C.S.: I don’t think it’s an either/or situation. We’re talking about the foundation of a new retail world and that new retail world order is about being reactive in real-time and authentic. And that is if you’re talking about the Millennials and, even more so, just turn it up exponentially, Gen Z. How they operate, the way they think, the way they intuitively navigate through their world. And the brands that they respond to are brands that are integrating them directly [and that play a part in] their lives. Reaction time has to be quick. Being relevant, speaking to them and co-opting things together will be more and more important.

WWD: Is that the secret of marketing today? Allowing the customer to play a part in the process?

C.S.: Yes, I believe we have to more and more put the customer at the center of all of our thoughts. The customer has been moving way further ahead than the brands frequently have.

WWD: The pure plays that have reverse-engineered their way back into retail have been getting a lot of buzz, but are those companies as envisioned today the future of retail?

C.S.: We’re in a moment of evolution, where we’re all learning and learning quickly. The bottom line is creating product and experience that is meaningful and relevant to the customer. So, yes, certainly, I think ultimately it will be a seamless integration between the online and offline experience, but to me that will just be the foundation. That’s the new retail world order to me. The bigger question becomes what are you selling and how is it meaningful to the customer and what are those touch points that really engender loyalties?

We’re living at a time when there’s been a sea of sameness. The malaise in the mall to me, yes part of it is the fickle consumer, but part of it is that we’ve shot ourselves over the last couple years with product that has been frequently out of touch with what the customer wants, relatively the same whichever brand you go to, and an experience that feels more commodity than special.

WWD: Why do big retailers fail to deliver product that people want in an environment they like? Is it that people don’t recognize this as a problem or don’t put resources into the right places?

C.S.: I think the customer evolved more quickly than the brands have and that we’re playing catch-up. The consumer is so savvy and so able to have access, from high to low, that the brands have to catch up in order to create an experience that feels unique.

WWD: Should fashion take its lead from tech and be quicker to change?

C.S.: Absolutely, but for me, I see an evolution. There will come a day shortly when there won’t be this distinction between retail and tech and that idea of sectors or omnichannel will just become a part of the way in which we all operate.

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