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Matt Klein of Sparks & Honey: “Our online and offline identity are one in the same”

Our online and offline identity are one in the same. In other words, we care about how we look in virtual spaces as much as we do in physical spaces… and brands are slowly waking up to this idea. Retailers, including Ralph Lauren, are going in on “Virtual Clothing”, and in one example, allowing Snapchat […]

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Our online and offline identity are one in the same. In other words, we care about how we look in virtual spaces as much as we do in physical spaces… and brands are slowly waking up to this idea. Retailers, including Ralph Lauren, are going in on “Virtual Clothing”, and in one example, allowing Snapchat users to style their Bitmoji avatars in branded outfits. With so much of our lives taking place online, our online appearance is being reconsidered — even if it’s just “virtual.” Creative uses and manifestations of one’s products are key during a time of turbulence.


As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Matt Klein, Director of Strategy at Sparks & Honey, a cultural consultancy, helping businesses make sense of the now, next and future. With experience working alongside organizations including Google, MetLife, Columbia, American Airlines, AB-InBev and Facebook, as well as non-profits and government agencies, Klein has become a trusted source in identifying cultural change and developing future-proofing business strategies. Distinguished as top talent across Omnicom’s 1,500 agencies, Klein’s expertise spans verticals and capabilities including marketing strategy, business transformation, trend forecasting, and UX. In addition to writing for Forbes, his observations have been featured in The New York Times, WSJ, The Atlantic, TechCrunch, CNBC, Virgin and Adweek.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Thanks for the invite, Jilea. So since college, I’ve always been interested in advertising, specifically how media can persuade or dissuade behavior. It’s dangerously powerful — as we’re so clearly witnessing today. After cutting my teeth at ad agencies and market research firms, I came to realize that the most effective strategies had one commonality: they were rooted in culture. If one couldn’t first comprehend the operating system of our collective values or the ever-changing terrain of all businesses, they had no shot at producing an effective campaign. Culture is the bedrock of it all. Since this realization, I’ve been focused on studying culture and online behavior, and then leveraging these findings to inform business decisions. Today I’m proud and humbled to call cultural analysis my job.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

As I was beginning to determine what was stimulating to me, I came across a dream role, which would allow me to get closer to brand strategy and consumer research. While learning more about the company, I learned an old high school acquaintance was working there. We hadn’t spoken in over five years. I reached out, got my foot in the door, and fast forward, was eventually having happy hour drinks with him as a co-worker. This experience crystalized many professional concepts for me: it’s a small world and your industry is even smaller, relationships matter, and a referral is an incredibly powerful thing.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?

On the first day of my very first full-time job, my alarms never went off. All ten of them were never set. I naturally woke up to realize I had fifteen minutes before my very first company-wide morning meeting where I’d be introduced. It was so unlike me. Despite laying out my clothes, already timing my commute and prepping breakfast the night before, it all didn’t matter. I was in an incomparable panic and rush. I ultimately made it across town in a Ferris Bueller fashion — the scene where he races home to meet his parents — sliding across car hoods and sprinting across intersections. I walked in with 60 seconds to spare, and that day learned that alarms are the most important thing in a good routine. I’ve never missed an alarm since.

Are you working on any new exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?

Outside of my day-job, I’ve founded PRSNL Branding, an educational platform and consulting studio helping professionals enhance their online presence, ultimately advancing their careers. The average job opening receives 250 résumés, 90% of which aren’t even read, and for those that are, each is reviewed on average for just seconds. In order for you to land the gig, we need to think beyond the résumé and to be differentiating ourselves creatively, strategically and professionally. I’ve worked with 100’s of professionals around the world, across industries and up and down seniorities. It’s been incredibly fulfilling.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Manage your energy, not time. Time is finite, energy is more fluid. I’ve only recently been exposed to this concept, but listing out and chunking tasks has been incredibly helpful. Visualizing what needs to get done when, and then prioritizing from there makes the to-do list less daunting. Re-investing in my energy prevents that fire from extinguishing. There’s only so many hours, but we can aim, manage and reserve our energy.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful, who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I’m incredibly grateful for an early manager who found the time to talk about work, but without discussing our day-to-day or deliverables. Unpacking industry trends, concerns and frustrations, and general topics that were stimulating to each of us, helped spark a way of thinking which questioned the status quo. Our ability to find the time, zoom out, and challenge each other’s’ perspectives really helped me become a thinker which today I value immensely.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I love volunteering, as cliché as it sounds. It’s no secret that giving back feels great. It’s a win-win. I think of it as selfish selflessness. I work with a number of organizations, from consulting with NYC-based non-profits to helping craft startup pitches for previously incarcerated individuals. I also speak and mentor Jr. talent. Desperate for connections as an entry-level professional myself, I’ve made it a priority to be there for those looking for the same guidance. Become what you wish you had.

Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all of our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share five examples of different ideas that large retail outlets are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?

Many of the changes we’ve seen retailers adopt since COVID-19 are not entirely new, rather existing often fringe strategies that have just been accelerated and embraced by the masses.

01. Firstly, “Manufactured Scarcity” is being used as a tactic to create urgency, adding pressure to checkout. While spending has turned practical and to the essential, necessity is being redefined. Employed by fashion houses and sneaker brands aimed at youth culture, big retailers are leaning upon “drops” and truly limited offers to catalyze action. Amazon Prime Day works so well because it requires consumers to tune in for a limited time, making them work for the best deal. Consumers are willing. FOMO doesn’t just apply to friends, but to products as well. Scarcity stimulates.

02. Omnichannel shouldn’t even be a topic of conversation, but rather the expectation and norm. For example: order online, pick-up in store, and print the return label back online. Omnichannel is table-stakes today. However, what’s most noteworthy in this mix is “Curbside Commerce.” As of late this summer, nearly 75% of the top 50 store-based retailers in the U.S. offer curbside pickup. Parking lots and spots should be seen as second spaces. While we can’t shop in store freely, we can certainly still drive. Ensuring frictionless, platform-agnostic browsing, purchasing, delivery, pickup and returning is vital.

03. Our online and offline identity are one in the same. In other words, we care about how we look in virtual spaces as much as we do in physical spaces… and brands are slowly waking up to this idea. Retailers, including Ralph Lauren, are going in on “Virtual Clothing”, and in one example, allowing Snapchat users to style their Bitmoji avatars in branded outfits. With so much of our lives taking place online, our online appearance is being reconsidered — even if it’s just “virtual.” Creative uses and manifestations of one’s products are key during a time of turbulence.

04. “Localization & Philanthropy” is perhaps the most effective strategy to selfishly expand product lines while selflessly supporting communities. Curating and inviting in local business’ products and providing them the stage to showcase their offerings in-store or online effectively keeps small business afloat while adding novelty to often monotonous product mixes. Further, donating to community organizations is good business. Period. While seemingly counter-intuitive, in a time of struggle for individuals and retailers, helping out others ultimately helps oneself. Think of others.

05. With mass unemployment and uncertainty, money isn’t a given. Today, 55% of consumers don’t have much disposable income after necessities. While discretionary spending has tanked, “Branded Layaway” is a way for consumers to pay some now and later. Integrate systems for credit and deposits. No one wants to be made to feel poverty-stricken. By framing such programs as Credit Plans, Purchase Programs, or Deferred Payment Opportunities, consumers can continue to engage with retailers without having to immediately worry about full payments. One dollar now is better than zero dollars.

In your opinion, will retail stores or malls continue to exist? How would you articulate the role of physical retail spaces at a time when online commerce platforms like Amazon Prime or Instacart can deliver the same day or the next day?

Brick and mortar isn’t going anywhere. It will continue to exist for many reasons… however, it will just thrive in a different capacity than we’ve been used to. There are three main reasons why the physical will persist.

One, consumers will forever rely upon physical experiences for shopping. How do you feel the fabric or smell a perfume online? For some purchases, consumers will still desire and require a traditional in-store trip before pulling the trigger. Sure, free online shipping, sampling and returns make those trips less relevant, but in-store shopping still commands higher checkouts than those online — making a case for retailers to keep the lights on.

Two, retail space allows for “experiences” that a .com cannot compete with. Much like churches, libraries or community centers which are multi-faceted, brick and mortar stores are evolving as experiences to compete with online retailers — sometimes with novelty like Canada Goose’s cold rooms and Adidas’ obstacle courses, or with tangible value-adds like Rhone’s workout classes and BestBuy’s appointment shopping. Solution-stacking and doubling down on experience elevates purchase intent and brand loyalty. Apple understood this from the get-go with their in-store support, classes and talks. Entire malls are even leaning into this shift. Brookfield, Simon and Macerich have all partnered with work and workout space providers augmenting their malls. Retailers should be asking themselves, “What can we provide that Amazon can’t?”

And three, online retailers need stores for shipping outposts — think “Store as Warehouse.” In order to compete with the fastest shippers, retailers are forced to see their brick and mortar locations as fulfillment centers. Rather than relying upon centralized warehouses, pre-existing stores across the country can act as decentralized outposts to get products out to consumers even quicker. Speed is not just defined in the context of the checkout process, but the delivery wait too.

Ultimately, in-person retail is still the preferred method for the majority of American shoppers. COVID-19 has amplified eCommerce participation, but it hasn’t shifted our preferences. The strategy isn’t one or the other, but “both and better.”

The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. While many retailers are struggling, some retailers, like Lululemon, Kroger, and Costco are quite profitable. Can you share a few lessons that other retailers can learn from the success of profitable retailers?

Let’s unpack Lululemon first, and then Kroger and Costco together. Lululemon’s success cannot just be attributed to their sole retail efforts, but to brand strategies informed by cultural listening. Lululemon isn’t a clothing nor athleisure manufacturer, but rather now a lifestyle wellness brand. Expanding their merchandise offering to include fitness accessories, men’s footwear, and self-care products, building community via ambassador programs, offering in-store yoga (a nod to the previous answer regarding experience), and acquiring Mirror, home-gym technology, allows Lululemon to stave off any potential retail woes. Businesses need to be more than their stores.

As for Kroger and Costco, “Private Labels” are a key attribute. Kroger’s line reached 2B dollars in 2019 sales while Costco’s hit 40B dollars — that’s more than Campbell Soup, Kellogg, and Hershey combined. Private label brands offer higher profit margins than resale products, lower operating costs, and sparks newfound loyalty. It’s perhaps why Amazon has roughly 7,000 private labels themselves across fashion, electronics and grocery.

To zoom out, ultimately, we need to think of retail beyond a mere distribution channel, but as an arm of a more comprehensive, over-arching strategy.

Amazon is going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise to retail companies and e-commerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?

In addition to what I’ve already brought up, here’s what else I’d advise retailers to focus on…

Knowledgeable staff is paramount — it’s currently the most important driver for in-store visits and purchases. Curated.com is a great case study as the site connects everyday consumers embarking on new outdoor hobbies with professionals in that field. Bridging the knowledge gap, Curated sells guidance and purchase confidence, which nearly all retailers can integrate themselves.

Social Commerce is another consideration despite how trite the phrase has become. We’re in a time of fluid, or let’s call it “Ambient-Commerce.” It’s always on. We’re never not shopping. Consumers are exposed to and considering products every moment online, and considering how social our online spaces have become, retailers must be considering the social angle for each of their products.

Subscriptions and bundles help hyper financially-conscious consumers. How can your products evolve into a service? Or what else can be included or wrapped up in with a purchase to drive intent? Similar to the earlier mentioned idea of solution-stacking, how can a retailer compete on “price” with “value”?

Sustainability is hot. Lean in. Now. People care about not just the sourcing of their products, but the logistics of delivery of them. Retailers like ASOS and Net-A-Porter have already developed Responsibility Filters allowing consumers to filter products online for sustainable options while aligning their values with retailers which are taking stands for something larger than themselves. Ethics matter.

Lastly, and most importantly, view everything mentioned in this interview as the basics. These should be points of parity — costs of entry. There is not just room, but necessity to experiment and innovate. Seek out partnerships, collaborations and residencies. Lean into Amazon’s inabilities and deliver what competition cannot. Disrupt oneself. All that’s been mentioned is actually the boring stuff. It’s what’s not being discussed universally that should be considered. AI, blockchain and drone delivery won’t be anyone’s saving grace. When was the last time you shopped in VR? Retailers need to be thinking like the consumers that they are. That’s the ultimate strategy.

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. Here is our final ‘meaty’ question. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

We need to be normalizing mental health and we’re nowhere close to where we should be. More people experience bouts of mental illness than those blind, deaf and wheelchair-bound combined. We’re talking one in five Americans, with rates among young adults only rising. Despite this pervasiveness, there’s inadequate acknowledgement, and further acceptance. As society grapples with futuristic phenomenon, I find there’s an irony that we’ve yet to solve for — let alone prioritize — our most fundamental existential affair: our mental wellness.

How can our readers further follow your work?

I can be found on Twitter and LinkedIn as @KleinKleinKlein, on Forbes, or at KleinKleinKlein.com.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!


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