To Win in Retail, Today’s Brands Need to Give Customers a Voice

In the world of apparel, beauty, and wellness, what innovation strategies are on-trend? In this episode of Mastering Innovation on Sirius XM Channel 132, Business Radio Powered by The Wharton School, Cecilia Gates, Founder and Creative Director of Gates Creative, discussed how branding strategies are evolving to entice millennials and Generation Z.

Big name companies can no longer count on traditional advertising campaigns to deliver customers in droves. Gates explained that younger consumers crave authenticity and connection in their brands, and they make purchasing decisions heavily based on social media influencers and shared content. To respond to their needs, many direct-to-consumer brands such as Glossier, Casper, and Care/of have found success by offering personalization as a form of expression. Some incumbents are catching on and adding more customized options to their mass-produced goods, but it’s challenging to stay on top of trends that are constantly changing. Large companies will have to rethink their marketing strategies to cater to this younger generation that doesn’t want to simply be in the audience – they want to be a part of the brand.

An excerpt of the interview is transcribed below. Listen to more episodes here.


Cecilia Gates (Founder & Creative Director, Gates Creative)

Harbir Singh: Can you tell us a little bit about the major trends today in fashion advertising?

Cecilia Gates: The main trend that I’ve been seeing is how brands have to speak with their consumers. With social being introduced into the landscape in the last few years it’s changed how we connect to the consumers because the consumers have a voice and a platform, so brands no longer are doing push marketing. It’s more about having a conversation, being a platform for these consumers to have a voice and be a part of the brand. So that’s a main trend that I’ve been seeing.

Singh: You’ve worked a lot with many of the iconic companies like The Gap, and more recently with Amazon. What do you see in innovation, fashion, and branding today?

Gates: For retailers that have brick and mortar stores, innovation needs to come into play with the in-store experience, like having an immersive experience. With the shift of everyone shopping online and many fewer people going to stores, brands are going to have to start innovating and thinking of new ways to treat the actual space. It’s not just a space where you sell products anymore. All brands need to think about consumers and the end use and how we’re making their lives easier, or offering them a service that they can’t get online to bring them into the stores, and partnering with different brands or ideas to create a different space.

“For retailers that have brick and mortar stores, innovation needs to come into play with the in-store experience.” – Cecilia Gates

Singh: Who are the big fashion innovators today? As you said, the landscape is changing and, of course, some of the well-established innovators are still there but there are some new ones, I assume.

Gates: The brands that are interesting right now, the ones that are disrupting the space, tend to be more direct-to-consumer brands. Brands like Casper have flipped industries like the mattress industry on its head, or you have brands like Care/of vitamins that take existing industries that we all are familiar with but do things in a different way, or offer a different service, or meet a different need that hasn’t been met by the typical brands.

Singh: When I talk to my colleagues in the marketing area here at Wharton, they talk a lot about the importance of analytics. There’s so much more data available, and some firms are responding faster than others, and maybe that can give people a sense of early uptake by consumers, the pricing, and so on.

Gates: The way that I approach it personally, what I have seen in the industry and with the clients that I’ve worked with, is that I tend to go with my gut. I also look at the consumers and look at social and see what’s trending to understand what that landscape is. In the past, a lot of brands have looked at analytics to sort of guide them. In the last few years, with these brands that are leading with innovation through creativity, it’s a little different. It’s people that are starting brands for products that they want themselves, and consumers are wanting peer-to-peer marketing.

It’s less about the numbers and focus groups, and more about the authenticity of starting a brand that’s meeting a need that you haven’t found yourself. Then you see these consumers connecting to that because, especially millennials and Gen Z, they really want that sort of transparency and authenticity. They’re shying away from the bigger brands that are trying to predict trends or trying to tell them what the next big thing is. It’s really flipped and consumers are really sort of leading that.

“It’s less about the numbers and focus groups, and more about the authenticity of starting a brand.” – Cecilia Gates

Singh: Can you give me some examples of these brands that millennials are pursuing versus the bigger brands you were talking about?

Gates: In the beauty industry, you see brands like Glossier, which is always a very typical example of that, where you have someone like Emily Weiss starting a brand. She had a media platform and a blog and then turned that into a beauty brand. People are connecting to that because they’re buying into a culture and a community. That’s always a really good example of how that has worked.

Even Care/of vitamins, they do something interesting where it’s about personalization. You get these daily vitamins, or you get what sort of needs to be met and you get a pack that has your name on it. So it’s “Care/of Cecilia.” People feel connected to this brand. It feels a little more intimate. It feels like you’re not just going to the drugstore and buying a multivitamin. It has a little more, it’s more specific to you. It’s like you’re putting your stamp on it and all that.

Singh: That’s fascinating. Do you see that happening in more and more product categories now? Personalization clearly has taken off and why would people not like personalization if the price is within a range? So, what do you see with brands that perhaps were displaced by this personalization? How would they come back or respond to that?

Gates: It’s an interesting question because a lot of brands are asking the same thing. There are a lot of ways to approach it. Obviously, brands mass produce and it’s cost-effective, but there needs to be maybe some variable in there that allows clients to put their own stamp on it. I walked by American Eagle and their whole window was about, “You can personalize your back pocket patch on all your denim.” That’s an example of a large brand taking it down to try to get personalized on some level.

About Our Guest

Cecilia Gates is the Founder and Creative Director of Gates Creative, a full service creative agency specializing in beauty, fashion and retail. In just three short years, Gates Creative has successfully worked with a renowned roster of clients including Ann Taylor, Banana Republic, Sephora, Bite Beauty and Hourglass Cosmetics.

Prior to founding Gates Creative in 2014, Cecilia was in-house Creative Director for leading global retailers such as Gap, Sephora, and LOFT, in addition to launching brands such as Lou & Grey, Marc Jacobs Beauty and Marchesa Fragrance. With over 15 years in the industry leading creative teams, she understands the internal workings of big global brands, but enjoys working on a much more intimate level at Gates Creative.

Mastering Innovation is live on Thursdays at 4:00 p.m. ET. Listen to more episodes here.