Community involvement — We use our brick and mortar space to host events that go beyond learning about our service. We partner with local women’s organizations, women owned businesses, and women leaders since we want to host them in our space. We have also partnered with Dress for Success Seattle to donate clothing to help their cause.
As part of our series about how to create a trusted, believable, and beloved brand, I had the pleasure to interview Cynthia Houlton, the Head of Revenue at Armoire Style, and responsible for marketing, partnerships, and business development. She spent the first half of her career as a Wall St analyst before she joined the The RealReal as VP of Business Development. After three years and 100M later, she joined Entrupy pre-revenue and helped launch an instant authentication solution for luxury handbags leveraging computer vision and machine learning. Most recently she launched and ran the luxury leather goods vertical at StockX, a marketplace for consumer luxury products that grew to over one billion GMV in less than three years.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
After 10 years in investment banking analyzing the consulting sector I was ready for a change. In 2012, I joined my first consumer facing startup, The RealReal, as head of business development. I didn’t have prior experience in e-commerce, but I understood the problem the company was trying to solve. Since The RealReal, I’ve continued to be drawn to startups leading growth since everyday I get to solve problems without a roadmap.
Can you share a story about the funniest marketing mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
It wasn’t necessarily funny, but it sure was painful. One and done paid media never works. No matter how big the numbers (visitors, email list etc), the conversion data will always disappoint. Early in my career, I spent a lot of money on a deal that seemed like such an obvious win based on the numbers. Needless to say, I got virtually no returns and it ended up being a waste of money. In general, I don’t think paid media placements make sense for a startup unless it is highly targeted and/or really cheap.
What do you think makes your company stand out?
Our Members. They are an amazing group of Boss Ladies who epitomize the resilience and dedication we see in strong women. We use “boss lady,” not to undermine the power we hold, but to unite women of all backgrounds, roles, and identities.
Can you share a story?
I’m always impressed by how much Armoire means to our members and their willingness to help us learn and grow as a business. We recently launched an initiative with the goal of redefining what it means to be a “boss lady,” profiling our members on what being a “boss lady” means to them. A member said, “As a woman who works outside of the home, I recognize that the workplace is a socially constructed space that was not built for me. Research has proved again and again that equity and inclusion breed innovation. As a woman in the workplace, I champion fellow underrepresented voices. I strive to bring my whole self to work every day.” “Boss lady” serves to unite us under one title in recognition of our ability to get sh*t done, regardless of our backgrounds or anything else. To us, these women embody boss lady spirit — they lift each other up, hold the torch for their industry, and ask for help when they need it.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now?
Everyday I’m working on new projects since it’s been less than a year since launching marketing initiatives beyond referral and organic.
How do you think that will help people?
The concept of clothing rental can be a little intimidating. We are always working on better ways to educate and delight our members and prospects about the benefits of clothing rental. With a little guidance, our members have found that they are spending less on clothing each month, and no longer feel the pressure of clothing building up in their closets.
Ok let’s now jump to the core part of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define the difference between brand marketing (branding) and product marketing (advertising)? Can you explain?
I would segment these as content = brand marketing and product marketing = paid. In order to effectively convert on any paid channel, you need to first understand your customer and create content that resonates with her and connects her to your brand. Paid (product marketing) is where to find your customers and brand (content) is why they will convert.
Can you explain to our readers why it is important to invest resources and energy into building a brand, in addition to the general marketing and advertising efforts?
The brand (content)building is what will drive long term loyalty and give your customers a reason to pick you over the next competitor. Building a brand (ie content) starts with understanding your customer and how you fit into her life. What problems are you solving for her and why should she pick you over your competitors. Every industry has competitors so the content (brand) marketing has to be specific to your target customer. Specifically, at Armoire we create content for busy professional women over 30 that goes beyond just the clothes. We provide styling tips, career inspiration and host networking events — both physical and virtual.
Can you share 5 strategies that a small company should be doing to build a trusted and believable brand? Please tell us a story or example for each.
1. Reliability — We survey our members regularly and make sure to maintain consistency in content they expect like styling tips, member spotlights, and what’s new in their closets.
2. Authenticity — We regularly feature customers in social, Ads, email, and web and let them tell their stories about why they use our service and what it means to them. We rarely use models for content and pick influencers that have very similar profiles as our members — professional women over 30.
3. Availability — We launched a pop-up and followed it up with a permanent brick and mortar store because existing member response was so positive. We are also testing new ways to reach our members like text messaging and are continuing to expand live chat and phone support.
4. Responsive and open communication about updates, product changes, and terms. Brands are run by people and sometimes we make mistakes. We try to be as proactive as we can when we make a mistake and also like to share what is happening at Armoire. We regularly let members know about feature updates, shipping changes, etc.
5. Community involvement — We use our brick and mortar space to host events that go beyond learning about our service. We partner with local women’s organizations, women owned businesses, and women leaders since we want to host them in our space. We have also partnered with Dress for Success Seattle to donate clothing to help their cause.
In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job building a believable and beloved brand?What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?
Glossier.Glossier has a massive cult following, something that every company strives for.Others can learn to focus on fewer products and make them really good. This is especially helpful in the early days of a startup.
In advertising, one generally measures success by the number of sales. How does one measure the success of a brand building campaign?
Engagement and loyalty. For Armoire, does she remain a member after we initially convert her to try clothing rental and does she respond to our emails, complete surveys, and interact on social media? Is it similar, is it different? It’s the same and different since our content strategy converts her to try Armoire, but our content and service need to retain her.
What role does social media play in your branding efforts?
Social media is a core part of our branding/content strategy. We want to interact with our members and prospects and we know she spends time on social media. We create unique content for each platform and don’t push every piece of content to every platform. The content we share on LinkedIn is positioned differently than on Instagram, Facebook or Pinterest. Some content we only share on one channel and other content we will share multiple places but tweak it for the platform.
What advice would you give to other marketers or business leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
I would advise prioritizing projects by business impact and remembering there will always be more opportunities to learn tomorrow. Prioritizing projects by business impact will give you a higher level overview of the things you need to accomplish, making you feel productive and accomplished.
Remembering that there will be more opportunities to learn tomorrow is important. Not everything can be perfect and often times, pointing out the things that are going right is more important than focusing on the things that went wrong. Learning from our mistakes is the best thing we can do, and without taking time to reflect on them, we can’t gain those valuable insights we wouldn’t have otherwise gotten, had we not had this opportunity to learn.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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. 🙂
Thoughtful consumption and buying less. The impact of more is more consumer marketing has caused serious harm in many industries, including apparel. Fast fashion is thought of as easy and convenient (that cute top is only $10!), but has had a huge negative impact on the planet.
The average consumer is now purchasing 60 percent more items of clothing compared to 2000, but each garment is kept for half as long (McKinsey). The textile industry is a top waste producer and Armoire is taking a stand against clothing waste. By renting clothing (or cars, homes, etc), you can save money and the planet! If we all make an effort to be thoughtful of our consumption and focus on buying less, we can make a change for the better.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
“Change is Good” Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life? To me, “change is good” means change = learning. That’s been my experience since abandoning a PhD in molecular biology after college to try investment banking instead, and then leaving that behind for consumer facing startups. I’ve moved from NYC to San Francisco and back several times, and seriously considered moving to London twice. I commuted to Detroit from Seattle for almost two years and now I’m living and working in Seattle. Every change has been more good than bad, and I’ve always learned more than I could’ve imagined.
We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Serena Williams! I am a huge tennis fan and played in college. I believe that Serena Williams truly embodies a strong and powerful boss lady — She is a tennis boss lady! She isn’t afraid to stand up for herself and be her own person, and I really admire that.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.
About the author:
Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click HERE to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.