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#RICE24: For Rebecca Minkoff, ‘Nothing Beats Meeting Your Customer Face to Face’

Rebecca Minkoff

Since Rebecca Minkoff began her entrepreneurial journey in the early 2000s, the number of ways for brands to listen to (and influence) consumers has multiplied countless times: the social media explosion begot micro, macro and nano influencers and also facilitated the emergence of livestreaming and many other forms of digital expression. But despite being an enthusiastic participant in many of these channels, Rebecca Minkoff still believes in the power of in-person, face-to-face interactions with customers as a key element in maintaining the truth of her namesake Rebecca Minkoff brand.

“There are tons of social listening tools that you can plug in, but nothing beats meeting your customer face to face, even if you may not want to schlep to 50 cities to meet them,” said Minkoff in a revealing discussion with Daniela Pierre-Bravo, author, reporter and contributor of NBC’s “Know Your Value” platform, at last week’s Retail Innovation Conference & Expo (RICE) in Chicago.

“AI can’t replace that human connection,” said Minkoff. “It took those years of being on the road in department stores and pop-up shops, asking ‘Why did you make this choice? Why did you make your first [Rebecca Minkoff] purchase?’ This type of old-school marketing in that community is key for any brand — get to know them, dive deep into what interests them, even if it’s tough to do.”

Minkoff had a head start in understanding who her customer was and what she wanted in a handbag, because “I was the same age and sex as my customer when I was moving to New York City, looking for love, trying to find the right partner and being an entrepreneur, so I was mirroring to authentically connect with her. As she had kids, I had kids, and [we both] struggled with work-life balance.”

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Ignoring those parallels, and her own instincts, proved to be a misstep for Minkoff and the brand. “There was a period of two to three years when I didn’t do that; I listened to our CMO saying ‘She doesn’t want to hear about your kids.’ [After that] we had to find her again,” said Minkoff. “You need to listen to that gut feeling. Now I’ll fight tooth and nail for what I feel as a founder, especially as it relates to our customer.”

During the RICE keynote session, titled “The Rise of Brands as Media — Inside Rebecca Minkoff’s Approach to Innovation,” Minkoff shared insights into the brand’s development as well as the challenges of finding the right time to adopt new technologies.

How ‘Rock and Roll Meets Bohemian’ Plays in Peoria

Minkoff, who sold her company a few years ago but remains the brand’s face and Chief Creative Officer, believes that much of the company’s success comes from “being very clear on the lens of the brand.” That translates into product designs that have the flexibility to be over-the-top Fashion Week runway style in their purest form, but also that can be adapted to appeal to customers outside the New York City-Paris-Milan orbit.

Her question about any Rebecca Minkoff product is whether it has that stamp of rock and roll meets bohemian: “It’s not bright and colorful, it’s not preppy, and [customers] feel that cool factor when they put it on,” said Minkoff. While a heavily bejeweled high heel shoe might be right for a Carrie Bradshaw-style NYC party girl, “in Ohio or Iowa it will be the flats with one jewelry stud, but [even if it’s] a diluted version of you, it’s fine. Maybe I wouldn’t wear it, but Lily in Alaska will love it.”

Becoming a Woman’s ‘First Luxury Purchase’

Another key insight about the Rebecca Minkoff customer is the place that the brand’s handbags and accessories have in her life. “One of the biggest insights from talking to customers is that my bag is her first luxury purchase,” said Minkoff. “It’s for celebrating milestone moments: the first job, the first raise, a bachelorette party, marriage, your first child— there are a lot of firsts. We also learned from talking to thousands of women about their interest in home and wellness, so our first launch category outside the traditional fashion space was home. We don’t promote or talk about our home [products] but it’s our number-nine SKU.”

The products’ place as a luxury purchase means that many customers are “only buying two bags a year as investment pieces,” which was good for customer retention but not as good for purchase frequency. The solution was to add, or in some cases re-add, a wider range of products at lower price points. Rebecca Minkoff had cut back on selling items outside its main categories during COVID, in part due to sourcing and supply chain issues, but it expanded again to include items like jewelry and T-shirts. “It’s like buying candy at Old Navy,” said Minkoff. “We had to think about ‘Where else are we getting her [our customer]?”

Hitting the Sweet Spot on the Tech Adoption Curve

Minkoff also has not been afraid to try out new technologies, and the results have been positive — mostly. “We introduced putting a QR code in our bags, but it was too early,” said Minkoff, noting that this technology didn’t really pick up steam until the COVID pandemic. The benefits were clear, however: “A QR code unlocks content [for the customer], and we can access customer information even if they bought [the bag] at a department store,” noted Minkoff. “We were also one of the first companies on Snapchat — it was us and Taco Bell. It’s about continuing to say ‘How do I push the boundaries?’”

Even NFTs, which have become a bit of a punch line since their recent heyday, have proven to be a wise tech investment. “We were the first female fashion brand [to sell NFTs] and we sold them out in nine minutes,” said Minkoff. “It was a way to test and see. With that first NFT launch, we got an entirely new customer from Europe. She may not ever buy a physical item, but she does have these unique items from us.”

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