Jessica Sochol, VSA Partners: "The biggest opportunities are in the nitty-gritty details."

Data brings more opportunities to personalize the consumer experience as retailers expand their media reach

by Carol Mason , AdForum (NYC)

VSA Partners
Full Service
Chicago, United States
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Jessica Sochol
Associate Partner, Strategy VSA Partners

Continuing our exploration into the growth of retail media spend, Jessica Sochol, Associate Partner, Strategy at VSA, delineates the shift in market trends leading to an explosion of growth. With experience agency side and in-house, she works with clients to navigate major inflection points and ensures brands drive business value through brand strategy, change management and marketing consulting.

In your opinion, what has been the catalyst for this explosive growth of retail media?

There are a few trends that sparked the development of retail media.

First, the rise of retail content creation has been critical for driving awareness, traffic and repeat visits. Think editorial offers; customer emails with retail-related content, such as “must-have essentials”; and light, cause-related marketing, such as a celebration of a special day, like International Women’s Day. You need to catch people outside a specific buying mindset and transactional moment — you need to inspire someone to buy something when they weren’t planning on it. In the same way that content marketing became critical to many industries over the last decade, it also became critical to retailers to build an audience and stay top of mind. 

The second trend is the explosion of the digital big-box retailer, which can easily expand its digital storefront. Amazon, Target and even Etsy offer nearly anything online you might’ve once bought from a local retailer, and they get it to you fast. Retailers can’t continue to compete on location, convenience or even familiarity. They need to highlight their unique point of view, their expertise and their particular curation approach — they need to present a lifestyle that people can buy into rather than offer one-off products for purchase.  

As retailers honed their points of view and lifestyle sensibilities, you also had the rise of influencers and social media marketing. The rise of social media marketing made it more popular to not just brand your store but also to brand the media or people surrounding it to make the most of shares, posts and tags (without as much direct exposure or risk for the retail brand). It allowed retailers to expand beyond product-specific content to broader subjects that are not directly related but are based on the brand’s ethos and larger lifestyle persona. 


Retailers are becoming media owners. How will this impact brand strategy and media planning?

From a branding perspective, retailers must decide how much distance they want with their media platforms. Is it a one-to-one where the retailer and media are the same brand? Or, as we more often see, is there some distance between the two brands? While this might include more upfront costs to get the new media brand stood up, it can pay off down the road by creating more independence from the retail brand, helping audiences to not feel like everything is a sales pitch and expanding offerings from the retailers’ products, such as providing memberships, exclusive or limited collection products, experiences and partnerships access, and media subscriptions. We’ve also seen many media outlets become retailers, curating collections or setting up digital storefronts as they seek revenue from the products they feature. 


What opportunities do AI and CX data offer brands in the customer journey?

The biggest opportunities are in the nitty-gritty details. Brands need to get their data in order, ensuring every customer interaction treats the customer like you’ve met before. That means remembering previous orders, recommending related, relevant products, and offering unique customer service and offers that recognize the existing relationship. As retailers expand their media arms, they have access to more data — especially around the topics and issues each customer cares about — and should be ready to use that information to show up in a way that says, “We see you, and we appreciate you.” 

What’s critical here is that the brand doesn’t shape-shift or fade to the back. It doesn’t simply reflect what the customer is looking for. It must connect the dots in terms of what the brand is known for, how the brand speaks and what the customer values. Ideally, the brand can show up in a more confident and engaging way, knowing it’s speaking to the right audience about the right things.  


What kind of retail experiences do Gen Z and Gen A value?

We’ve seen that designing for Gen Z and Gen A creates services and offerings that raise the bar for all generations because they’re looking for recognition, value, values alignment and quality service. Who doesn’t want that? You want to feel seen by the people and companies who get your money. You want to know those brands are doing the right thing by acting ethically. And you want to feel like the quality and service match the price point. We can talk about selfie walls, retail pop-ups, and celebrity or influencer meet-and-greets, but those are all superfluous if the basics aren’t brilliant. 


How can brick-and-mortar locations evolve so that they remain relevant in a digital world?

The people in brick-and-mortar locations matter in extraordinary ways. Having people who truly reflect the brand is critical—they must be empowered (and paid fairly) to bring that essence to life. When you think about Cole Haan, Veronica Beard* or Doc Martens, very different pictures and brands emerge. When their in-store experience matches that expectation, it creates an even stronger, more personable connection to the brand. 

The other, perhaps more obvious, opportunity is tying together digital and physical data. If someone checks out in a store, you must have their profile on hand and know exactly what they’ve bought before. Stores like Bluemercury and Anthropologie excel at using digital and physical data together to enhance the customer experience. 

*VSA client