Consumers:Intense focus on what consumers want and especially need during this moment has led to some interesting shifts in strategy across retailers. This includes many cases of portfolio rationalization within some of the largest retailers to streamline niche products and instead prioritize heavy-hitters which are more-demanded and better contributors to the business. It also includes incredible developments in omnichannel experience oriented around ultimately enhancing the consumer experience by simplifying it: we’ve seen this in Walmart’s recently announced store redesign, meant to not only speed up shopping trips, but make them more intuitive (and in turn, more enjoyable).
As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Victoria Sakal, Managing Director of Brand Intelligence at Morning Consult, a global data intelligence company delivering insights on what people think in real time.
Focusing on the intersection of data with marketing strategy, brand reputation, and consumer trends, she leads the company’s brand intelligence research and is an expert in distilling actionable insights to develop impactful brand, business, and growth strategies.
Prior to Morning Consult, Victoria was an Associate Director at Kantar Consulting, integrating both quantitative and qualitative research with extensive landscape mapping to inform clients’ future-forward brand positioning and long-term strategic ambition and imperatives. Her client experience ranges from established industry leaders to high-growth tech companies, spanning B2B and B2C organizations across industries.
Victoria is a repeated co-author of WPP’s annual BrandZ reports, and was a founding team member of WPP’s Institute for Real Growth, where she oversaw extensive primary and secondary research to create a new architecture for driving real, sustained business growth. Victoria has also conducted comprehensive research on organizational behavior, management theory, and innovation in social entrepreneurship under Wharton Management Department’s Adam Grant and its Snider Center for Social Impact.
Victoria graduated with honors from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and is a recipient of the Ian MacMillan Award for Excellence in Research and Leadership.
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?
My love for the magic between data and strategy started in high school but came to a head in college, where I felt the rigor and accountability of numbers was the perfect complement for the creativity, storytelling, and perspective foundational to strategy. As a kid, before knowing what a “brand” was or how marketing worked, I watched my mom build and run her business through getting to know her customers, applying creativity and problem solving to every interaction, and creating a reputation founded on quality (all while managing the numbers). My first job was managing the front desk and operations at a hair salon in my hometown; there, I was given the opportunity to take responsibility for many of those same business-critical things and establish the same acumen I’d seen in my mom.
Though I never thought I’d end up in consulting, I found brand strategy consulting the perfect challenge: bringing together these topics of interest, learning from exceptionally talented and smart colleagues, and staying agile while internalizing new companies, business models and challenges with each new client to transform how problems were solved and how customers could be better served to drive real, sustained growth for the client at hand.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I am a firm believer in creating opportunities versus waiting for them to knock. This has led to many interesting moments, but perhaps the most game-changing was my decision to defer my start date at the firm I was slated to join after graduation and instead use those couple of months post-graduation to pursue internships at the types of companies I’d always been intrigued by but never had time to explore. One of these ended up being a stint at what would eventually become Kantar Consulting, where I quickly jumped in and established myself as an active contributor to one of the company’s largest global clients. I ultimately stayed with the company full-time, and not only became the point person for that massive client account, but went on to contribute to countless other client engagements, the growth of our west coast office, and even a number of executive teams. A lot can change in five years, especially when you embrace taking the reins.
Are you working on any new exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?
My main focus at this time is helping companies navigate all that 2020 has thrown their way, from a pandemic and a flagging economy to ongoing social unrest and the election — all coloring the forthcoming holiday season. Whether quantifying changing consumer behaviors, expectations of brands and businesses, or attitudes towards specific categories, my bringing clarity to the situation, tracking change over time, and revealing best practices will hopefully help business leaders not only manage their businesses, but also leverage those businesses as forces for good in society. Part of this involves working to integrate my brand world at Morning Consult with our powerful political and economic intelligence verticals to paint the full picture around the reality today’s companies are operating in.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Find your outlet, and know your boundaries. Exercise has always been critical to my sanity as much as my well-being, so while not sacrificing that daily routine can often be challenging amid busy days, pressing deadlines, and ever-growing to-do lists, it’s important to create and defend time for those outlets — even if means getting up before dawn to make it happen.
Boundaries relate to that: knowing what you need to be successful personally and bringing your best self to work professionally are part of the job, so don’t deprioritize doing either.
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?
While at Kantar, I was lucky to be surrounded by a number of brilliant and successful yet equally real and genuine women.
Pandora Lycouri, now VP of External Communications at Pernod Ricard, taught me much of what I mentioned around boundaries and at times prioritizing yourself personally in order to deliver professionally.
Beth Ann Kaminkow, the former CEO of Kantar Consulting and now the Global CEO at Geometry, joined the business with an inspirational and infectious energy, and also gave me both the mentorship and the runway to take on responsibilities that stretched, challenged, and ultimately grew me. Beth Ann’s perspective and candor were a model of effective leadership as much as an invaluable resource as I gained my footing early in my career.
Mary Ann Packo, formerly CEO of Kantar’s Gold Rush initiative and now a Senior Partner at Hypothesis Group, similarly inspired me with her undying energy, enthusiasm, and entrepreneurialism. Working with her on the west coast across clients, strategic initiatives, and growth plans was both educational and invigorating.
The thought leadership, industry exposure, and professional challenges Beth Ann and Mary Ann encouraged — as well as the mentorship and friendship they’ve provided over the years — are something I’ll always be grateful for.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Especially during the pandemic, the power of real-time, unbiased insight has been critical for many brand and business leaders. I’m fortunate to be in a position where my core remit these last few months has been to take the perspective of consumers, marketers, and business leaders (each facing their own version of painful uncertainty), and bring some clarity to what has been changing, what that means for each stakeholder, and what to do next.
Part of that focus involves underscoring the trust Americans are increasingly putting into every business, whether the small local shop owner open for delivery or the massive international brand supplying reputable disinfectants, to elevate the role and responsibility of business in society. The only way through this multifaceted crisis is together, and brands have a unique opportunity to close the trust gap society has in government to deliver real goodness, necessary help, and even much-needed levity in this trying time.
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?
- Communications: My research over the last few months has tracked the way retailers and big brands communicate with, position themselves, and message to consumers amid a crisis. This began with somber and sympathetic tones, which consumers soon tired of. Since then, we’ve seen not only useful ads focusing on products and services gain appeal, but also funny and entertaining ads which provide some levity during an otherwise stressful year.
- Contributions: Beyond marketing and communications, we’ve also seen a profound rise in the role of corporate action since March, whether related to the pandemic (as seen in massive donations of both money and products, pivoting of entire supply chains to produce critical materials, and even special measures to better protect frontline employees) or the social issues that came to a head in 2020. I’ve been closely watching the impact of these efforts since March, as well as how consumer expectations around corporate actions have evolved in these last few months. It’s abundantly clear that retailers and indeed all companies need to accept responsibility for the heightened role they have in contributing to solutions and the well-being of our society.
- Channels: It’s been interesting to watch “DTC” move from a niche of VC-backed upstarts winning the hearts of millennials through sleek UX and creative positioning to “dtc” — a critical component of channel strategy that all companies big and small need to embrace. We’ve seen players as large as PepsiCo embrace this as the speed, control and consumer insight this business model affords become critical to better meeting consumer needs — and staying on top of how those might be changing.
- Consumers:Intense focus on what consumers want and especially need during this moment has led to some interesting shifts in strategy across retailers. This includes many cases of portfolio rationalization within some of the largest retailers to streamline niche products and instead prioritize heavy-hitters which are more-demanded and better contributors to the business. It also includes incredible developments in omnichannel experience oriented around ultimately enhancing the consumer experience by simplifying it: we’ve seen this in Walmart’s recently announced store redesign, meant to not only speed up shopping trips, but make them more intuitive (and in turn, more enjoyable).
- Creativity: Building on each of these other facets, brands and businesses across the globe have had to embrace agility in everything from supply chains and operations to product offerings and customer experiences this year. Outdoor dining and markets have embraced workarounds to help people to engage in a safer, more spacious environment; candy makers are creating alternate approaches to Halloween; even big box stores are pivoting their approach to the holiday season given Prime Day’s shift to October and consumers’ shift to earlier shopping. Though each element described above in its own way contributes to stronger, more effective businesses in the long run, this dynamism — rooted in close proximity to what’s happening in the real world, and a willingness to move quickly to adapt to that reality — is among the most critical development as we think about building better, longer-lasting brands and businesses.
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?
If 2020 has taught us one thing about retail, it’s that omnichannel isn’t an option: it’s a table stake. Sure, consumers are increasingly comfortable with digital search, shopping, and everything in between, but not all of them are — and not for every category or every need. The role of physical stores is undoubtedly evolving, but as social commerce capabilities proliferate, shopping experiences evolve, and consumer relationships with brands become increasingly complex, the tangible component of many retail experiences is often core to the overall brand experience and customer relationship.
While it’s hard to say whether certain channels will continue to exist at some future point in time, it’s certain that most elements of the shopping journey — discovery and exploration to purchase and even loyalty — will change as consumers’ comfort with and expectations of different options do. Close and real-time insight on how consumers are evolving around these elements is critical for retailer and brand success.
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?
Profit and popularity are not to be confused. Living on the west coast the last few years has emphasized this truth, as well as the fact that certain businesses have different mixes of those two priorities at different times, and for different reasons.
Success (in terms of long-term business growth) comes from the intersection of knowing your consumer, the reality they’re operating in and how that affects their consumption, the other options they’re considering as relates to a certain need, and how your brand can meet that need. Consumers don’t think in terms of portfolios or products like retailers, marketers, and oftentimes executives do; they think of gaps or needs, and seek the easiest, most accessible, and often most affordable solutions to address them. This orientation, of course coupled with discipline and sound business management, is what separates the thrivers from the non-survivors.
To that point around affordability, 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?
Price is a race to the bottom, while experience, relationships, and innovation offer a near-limitless race to the top. Either by becoming a commodity or an elusive luxury good, many retailers have managed to differentiate on price, but long-term business survival (let alone growth) ultimately needs to be rooted in something more than just the tangible cost. Value is perhaps the closest-in next step, whereby consumers are pleased with the quality or experience for the given cost. Retailers would be wise to focus more on what buyers are getting for the cost and anchor their business strategy on that, more than the cost itself.
The cost / benefit ratio behind purchase decisions can be won more definitively by prioritizing powerful benefits rather than lowering cost. Even with its competitive pricing, Amazon’s strength comes from delivering on a number of functional benefits such as speed and convenience as well as key emotional benefits such as reliability, trustworthiness, and reputability. No purchases would be made without a meaningful reason to believe or benefit to be gained — no matter how low the cost.
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. 🙂
Having studied social entrepreneurship in school and now watching consumers increasingly demand more societal and stakeholder impact from brands, I firmly believe in the power of social entrepreneurship: doing well while doing good. I’d love to somehow wave a wand to sprinkle business best practices, share research insights, and provide strategic guidance in order to help all the incredible nonprofits and social enterprises amplify their objectives, reach, and impact.
We talk a lot about purpose, CSR, and stakeholder capitalism, but these companies are founded in the most authentic version of “purpose” there is and by definition dedicated to making meaningful change — with an extra infusion of insights, business rigor, and strategic guidance, the possibilities for tackling some of today’s biggest problems could be endless.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I share all of my Morning Consult research and articles on LinkedIn. They’re also all posted on my author page on Morning Consult’s website, and I’m on Twitter @victoriasakal.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!