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Marketing   //   August 25, 2022  ■  5 min read

‘We were needing a transformation’: Express CMO Sara Tervo on evolving the mall brand

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Express was a ubiquitous mall retailer, but it’s now trying to become much more than that. CMO Sara Tervo gave some insight into this brand.

This week, on the Modern Retail Podcast, Tervo spoke about the Express’s evolution. The apparel retailer first began in 1980, and was known as a mall mainstay. Now, Tervo has spent the last three years trying to refresh the retailer’s image.

“When I joined the brand, we were needing a transformation,” she said. Slowly but surely, that change has started to happen.

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“What we really had to do was rebuild our approach to content, understand what was most relevant and connected across all the different platforms, rebuild our budgets and constantly iterate, learn and generate more content — in an effort to connect and create conversation [as well as] to create a more relevant brand,” Tervo said.

Much of this focus was about livening up the company’s social presence, as well as figuring out the types of inventory that worked best with Express’s customers. Additionally, Tervo realized the company couldn’t be considered a retailer dependent on promotions.

“We needed to pull back and drive value in different ways than just discounting,” she said.

So far, said Tervo, things have been going well. At its second-quarter earnings released last May, net sales increased 30% year-over-year to $450.8 million and e-commerce revenue grew 21%. Right now, said Tervo, the company is focused on growing its e-commerce revenue to over $1 billion. “We have bold goals for that channel,” she said.

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Beyond that, Tervo is laser-focused on figuring out customer acquisition in this wonky marketing environment. The big thing she’s learned over the last few years is to be authentic — even tapping store associates — and to try out everything. “We’re always curious about beta partnerships and different ways to test and try new ways to connect with customers,” she said.

In the end, Tervo has unveiled a new Express — one that’s focused on digital and resonating with customers. Even so, Tervo doesn’t think malls or in-store retail is dead. “I’m sure you’ve heard a lot of different people say that you can never replace an in-person experience. There’s just absolute value in that,” she said. “What’s dying is probably bad in-store experiences or malls.”

Here are a few highlights from the conversation, which have been lightly edited for clarity.

On Express’s transformation
“When I joined the brand, we were needing a transformation. We like to talk about when you’re 40-year-old brand, what happens to you when you’re 40? You might start to lose your vision a little bit; you might have a little bit of a midlife crisis; you get stuck in your ways a little bit. You like your routine. And what worked for us for a very very long time — and we were a very successful brand — started to get a little tired, a little fatigued. But we had a passionate customer base, and we knew we had a lot of ingredients to work with. I started on the same day as the head of merchandising. And her job was to rebuild the assortment and make great product: improve the quality, improve the fashion quotient. In a fashion retail company, you have to have great product in order to drive sales and business. And that was a very very important priority for us. We had lost our way a little bit. We had gotten a little [commodified] and lacked fashion and what we were known for and good at. But we also got highly promotional. So we needed to pull back and drive value in different ways than just discounting.”

Tervo’s approach to digital marketing
“We’re constantly measuring and optimizing as we go. And I would say that we try to keep a healthy balance of top-of-funnel brand-building investments. As we see from our brand tracker, we do have great awareness as a brand on the women’s side [and] we have an opportunity to drive more awareness on the men’s side. On the women’s side, we have an opportunity to drive consideration because we had lost our way for those couple of years. So people might know Express but they’re saying, ‘I don’t know if I see myself in there anymore. I used to shop there in my 20s or whatnot.’ So we’re trying to ensure that we protect investment across awareness in men’s and consideration of women’s. And then lower funnel, the cost-per-clicks are expensive — it’s a competitive environment. So we always are testing and learning and optimizing, literally every day. And we’ve learned that some of our organic content and brand content, just aligning that with our paid content and optimizing and boosting. And we also have great partnerships with TikTok on the paid side and Meta on the paid side.”

On the future of the mall
“I would say that as it relates to the mall, I am feeling — and I think we’re all seeing — a resurgence in excitement and the idea to connect with people and to touch and feel product. Especially coming out of the pandemic, I think people are appreciating the opportunity to get out and connect — And it’s entertainment almost again. There’s also the idea of speed. With BOPIS, you could browse online and then pick up in-store — and you can get it immediately. So there’s an omni-experience that because of Covid, I think a lot of brands expedited curbside and QR codes and just the omnichannel experience; making it easier however you want to transact. So all of that is playing a role in the evolution of the mall. And I’m sure you’ve heard a lot of different people say that you can never replace an in-person experience. There’s just absolute value in that. What’s dying is probably bad in-store experiences or malls, not the idea of that.”