CMO interview: Building sustainable brand connection at Kathmandu

Kathmandu's first chief customer officer talks about global brand strategy, customer connection, the importance of doing good and building a single customer view

Eva Barrett
Eva Barrett

More and more, consumers are looking for brands they can have an emotional connection with, says Kathmandu’s chief customer officer, Eva Barrett. And for the Australia and New Zealand-based outdoor apparel brand and retailer, credibility around sustainability will be key to achieving this as it works to build engagement locally and abroad.

Barrett became Kathmandu’s first dedicated customer chief in February, a role that encompasses all aspects of marketing as well as customer service, ecommerce, digital, PR and social.The role indirectly replaces former GM marketing and international, Paul Stern.

Barrett took up the job after 10 years working on global and regional brand strategy and repositioning in the UK and Europe for organisations such as Carlton & United Brewery, Adidas and Philips. Her past achievements include working on global corporate brand repositioning for Philips as it transformed from consumer electronics to healthcare technology provider based out of Amsterdam; setting up global brand strategy for Carlton & United Breweries’ wine portfolio; and heading up brand communications and sports marketing for adidas based out of Germany.

It’s this international brand strategy experience Barrett now brings to Kathmandu as the group looks to build on its global footprint as well as shore up stronger engagement in its Australian and New Zealand markets. She’s already kicked off a review of brand strategy to see how Kathmandu is performing globally and locally, and how it stacks up against other global players.

“We already have a foothold in the UK, and we have just started in the US and other parts of Europe. There is a clear desire to grow a global brand,” Barrett says. “Equally, it’s vital to continue to building a strong brand here in A/NZ.”

The key is brand differentiation and tying that to a higher purpose people care about.

“Brand positioning needs to flex to the market, and the way we execute against that position. But it’s important we have a clear brand purpose and one global positioning,” Barrett tells CMO. “How you execute may be slightly different per market depending on where your brand is within the overall funnel. But differentiation is key first and foremost.”

In the context of Kathmandu, brand differentiation comes from its sustainability credentials and New Zealand materials. The company became Australia’s largest B Corp certified company in 2019, recognition of its long-term commitment to a more sustainable and inclusive economy. 

Barrett also points to a significant rise in customers asking the business about where it makes its clothes, the origin of materials used, and how it’s proactively caring and supporting those in its supply chain.

Related: Why sustainability and marketing are a match made in heaven

Single customer view

While one part of the remit is to build brand positioning globally, the other is to better unify Kathmandu’s customer experience efforts across the lifecycle. Barrett see her chief customer officer role as acknowledgement of the importance of such a task.

“There’s recognition now it’s not online versus offline, but that everything is an experience,” she says. “You think about customer service you receive at the end of a purchase: If that’s being managed by a different department and it’s not a great experience, or everything is siloed from marketing, then you’re not probably that overall great customer experience.

“More and more, organisations will take a look at their structure and how they are set up, and move away from silos of marketing, campaign, digital and service to see us as one entity. This is so that from the moment a person is considering a brand, all the way through to post-purchase, they are having a great and consistent experience.”  

To do this, Barrett’s is ensuring Kathmandu has visibility right across the customer journey by looking at consumer pain points.

“There is never an end state, it’s constant stages of improvement and how to make it better,” she continues. “Since I joined, we have been building that customer journey view out. There are thousands of journeys you can go on. Just being aware of what the core customer journeys are and triggers, then how we show up in each of those moments, is the first thing.

“We’re also doing a deep dive into our consumers – who they are, what they care about, what’s happening in their world today, and then the customer experience we want to deliver.” 

This also involves internal process and realignment. For example, while there was collaboration across functions previously, it had been in pockets, Barrett says.

“I’m looking at more agile ways of working so we can collaborate better together to deliver on a business priority. It’s also to accelerate our speed to market,” she says.

Team connection

Luckily, Barrett had a few weeks in the office in Australia, as well as a week in Christchurch, to build initial rapport with her teams before the COVID-19 lockdown struck. The crisis saw Kathmandu move immediately to working remotely.

“The most important thing since then has been to communicate, communicate and communicate,” Barrett says. “I hold virtual huddles with the team in A/NZ to share what’s going on with the business, check in with everyone. Then we have smaller, virtual huddles to update information on how we’re tracking as a business.”  

What’s also helped is that the business was very decisive upfront, Barrett continued. “I think we are getting through very well considering what has happened. It’s been tough for everyone, but being decisive upfront and communicating has been key,” she says.

The ASX-listed group also went out an raised $200m to shore up its balance sheet as sales were decimated by the COVID-19 lockdown and stored were forced to shut their doors.

“We were risk planning, looking at every area of the business and what it means for supply chain, customer service. The whole service team had to work from home, were they set up and could we manage it, what did it mean for global online sales, and how do we handle that,” Barrett says. “There was a period of time where Australia Post was completely overwhelmed with the amount of online sales.”

Unlikely partnerships

This led to one of the innovations Barrett is most proud of in recent months: Kathmandu’s partnership with Uber, announced in July. The partnership was about ensuring customers facing restricted movement and lockdowns could still get their favourite Kathmandu jacket within hours of purchase.  

“We were looking at ways to make the experience better,” she says. “When we started to see problems with the traditional post network, that pivot was to what else can we do. So we launched with Uber and it’s being rolled out nationally. We have seen a lot of pickup from that as it’s easy for customers.” 

Another pivot has been around Kathmandu’s loyalty club and events program, which included activities around running, hiking and travelling. Instead, Kathmandu turned to virtual events, and has been running a sustainability series on Instagram Live. Every week, this sees it get together with partners like Tim Jarvis and Ethically Kate (expert in composting) for virtual discussions around sustainability topics.

More widely, Barrett says she’s proud of retaining a commitment to invest in the brand during the crisis in order to stay top of mind with customers. What has been important here is continued emphasis on integrated campaigns, she says.

“We haven’t moved all our money online – we are still advertising on TV, and radio was still active for us,” she says. “It’s a mistake to move everything online – you still need that integrated, holistic mix.”

Elsewhere, the focus is on marketing technology so Kathmandu can achieve its vision of end-to-end customer experience management. “This about ensuring we truly have the one view of customers so we are in the right place and the right time in a way that’s relevant for them,” Barrett says.

“We already had a strong customer base through our loyalty club, so we have a good view and understanding of our core customers. A lot more work I’m doing with my team is understanding more – about what they do, and what they care about and how can we continue to inspire the love we get from them.”  

Shorter and longer-term thinking

It’s no easy feat, given the COVID-19 situation remains volatile. Barrett says Kathmandu’s number one priority right now is the safety of employees. It also requires a state-based approach.

“And we are constantly looking for ways to be innovative and pivot, like the Uber partnership,” Barrett says. A recent product innovation was reusable Merino Wool masks, made in New Zealand. The first batch debuted in July and sold out in one day.

With an emphasis on exercising outside, Barrett says there are also opportunities for its outdoor apparel, while a rise in camping, caravanning and more local activity are further areas of focus.  

“The world is becoming very local and we’re well-positioned for that as well – we sell everything from camping equipment to tents, apparel and shoes,” she comments.  

As for longer-term impact of COVID-19 times on brand saliency and consumer trends, Barrett remains convinced organisations with a commitment to doing good will ride out the crisis better than others.

“I do think brands that have a higher purpose and are doing good within society is what consumers are going to care about. Also, consumers will be questioning brands, asking for transparency and all of that is a positive,” she says. “We shouldn’t underestimate the emotional connection that comes with that.

“Consumers will demand brands are more transparent with their ways of working, supply chain and rightly so. Especially younger consumers- they really care about social purpose and want to make a change in the world. As an organisation, we have an obligation to do and to do it well.” 

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