How new tech investment will help Michael Hill's CMO prove brand impact

A new platform to manage employee as well as brand engagement is being harnessed by the jewellery retailer as part of transformation efforts

Jo Feeney
Jo Feeney

Proving the value of brand-led engagement to the bottom line is firmly in the sights of Michael Hill’s chief marketing officer following investment into a new brand and employee management platform.  

The fine jeweller and omnichannel retailer initially brought on Qualtrics’ employee engagement platform to better measure and engage employees. The decision came two years into a transformation of the business and off the back of a record year for digital sales accelerated by the Covid-19 global pandemic.  

Michael Hill was founded in New Zealand and is listed on both the Australian and New Zealand Stock Exchanges. The retailer has 289 stores across three key markets: Australia, NZ and Canada. The initial Qualtrics use case sees Qualtrics EmployeeXM employed to gather regular qualitative and quantitative feedback from 2200 team members at key stages in their employment lifecycle and after significant business moments. These insights will supplement annual staff engagement programs and feedback will be made available to leaders to analyse and act on in real-time.  

Michael Hill CMO, Jo Feeney, who joined the group earlier this year, quickly saw the potential to also use Qualtrics’ brand tracking and management platform as a complementary technology that could improve marketing efforts and help articulate brand impact.  

“People are fundamentally at the heart of the Michael Hill business, whether that be customers or our team. Everything we do centres around that,” Feeney told CMO. “The promise at Michael Hill is enabling you to realise your potential, and this [Qualtrics platform investment] fed right into that.”    

It was a commitment to transformation that attracted Feeney to Michael Hill in the first place. She took up the CMO’s post after more than seven years at McDonalds, the last five-and-a-half as director of marketing. Her resume also includes marketing roles with Vividwireless, Foxtel and Telstra.  

“Understanding the journey this brand is on, I thought it was something I could contribute to thanks to my experience, but also something I wanted to be a part of as well,” Feeney commented.    

Having seen the intuitiveness of Qualtrics’ platform and how it produces usable data that can immediately be turned into action plans, Feeney said it was a no-brainer for brand measurement.    

“We didn’t really have anything robust from a brand health tracking perspective at that point - not something we could own and have as a tool to support not only the marketing team but the broader business as well,” she said. “We had agencies in the past working with us to deliver insights, and we’ve done research, but having that consistent, ongoing tracker provides a baseline we can build off.  

“It also provides the ability to then connect brand and employee pieces and start to see the correlation between the two. If you have happy, engaged employees, then things are going to be better for your customer as well.”  

As a CMO, Feeney is a big believer in brand being instrumental to building sustainable growth. “One of the things I bring to Michael Hill is my experience in this space and how that can both financially and strategically help you grow the business long term,” she said.  

“We want to focus more on the brand, brand health and what that looks like, and also to be able to track our position in market. To do that, we need to understand the marketing strategies we have in place are working and what we need to tweak/adjust; where we are sitting against the competition; and if we push away from certain competitors. Importantly, we also need to understand the nuances of our position across our three markets.”  

Feeney expected to put inaugural brand foundational studies out across Michael Hill’s three markets shortly and have a first read of data within weeks. From there, the team will build out a dashboard of insights to track ongoing performance.  

“Instead of hypothesising about where we are in the market and our position, this gives us some proper data to hang our hats on. We can build from that and start to put some KPIs around things like the brand metrics that help shift your business,” Feeney said.    

Building the foundations  

Prior to going live, Feeney said the team needed to do some heavy lifting to ensure all data sets were connected and its customer segmentation approach was right.  

“From a segmentation point of view, so much has changed in the last 18-24 months, especially in the way digital has been fast-tracked for most businesses,” Feeney said. “That’s no less here, where you have stores shutdown, and you’re relying more heavily on your online capability. Pulling all those things together, and thinking back to what our segments look like, who are we talking to, and as the brand evolves, who our future customer is, is key.”    

To help, Michael Hill recruited Retail Oasis to explore whether the right customer segments are in play.  

“We think we have a reasonable handle on our current customer, but it’s about who our future customer is as well, looking forward and understanding how those pieces of data connect together,” Feeney said. “You never sit on your laurels when it comes to how to move forward, so we needed to do a bit of work on that customer segmentation piece.”  

The other ambition was to identify how segments differ across the three markets. “There are nuances, so it was important to understand that and not just work on one size fits all,” Feeney said.  

She agreed building a sweet spot of customers is an interesting challenge for a brand like Michael Hill, where the target customer could be almost everyone.  

“At the moment, we do have a fairly broad audience. It’s about who is the audience of the future we want to talk to as well,” Feeney said.    

“The occasion piece is where it gets interesting. We are about moments in people’s lives and moments that matter. It’s not just about the wedding moment, there are many moments to celebrate – from graduations to your first car. Jewellery tells a story and marketing those moments that tell that person’s story is important.”  

Brand aspirations  

One of the big priorities for Feeney as CMO is helping evolve Michael Hill into a more aspirational brand locally. She noted the company hasn’t previously done a lot of pure branding work and has its heritage in value-based retail.  

“It’s safe to say our customers in New Zealand already see us more of an aspirational brand than in Australia. We are on slightly different phases of that journey by market,” Feeney said. “What I have been surprised with joining this business is the craft and quality of the product we well – it is amazing.”    

Michael Hill’s latest August campaign is an example of shifting towards a brand-oriented play, Feeney said.  

“It’s little things like taking price points off the ads – while that was scary for several people internally, we have to look at how we use each channel versus a single approach for everything,” she said. “We are on that exciting journey of balancing and building brand and it takes time, but I’m excited about that and how we progress it. The teams internally are excited about what elevating the brand looks like.”    

Feeney is the first to admit it takes 12 months to see the return from building brand. But she’s convinced the approach is the right one for Michael Hill.  

“That’s when you get to the point where you don’t have to discount as much because you have more people engaged with your brand and what you do, and it is less of a nudge to get them across the line,” she said.  

Proving value  

Having more access to data on how the brand is performing and being able to split activity by segments and product range will be instrumental in orchestrating such a shift.  

“If we want to see how bridal is performing against another audiences, for example, we’ll be able to quickly access data insights. We’re excited about what this platform unlocks from an insights point of view, and how that starts to influence our marketing strategies. It helps us refine the strategies we are thinking,” Feeney said. “What’s great is the rest of the business is hungry for this information as well. There was a clear desire to know more about what our customers thought.”  

“This also empowers the buying and products teams in terms of what things we should be looking at across our portfolio, which means it’s helping other parts of the business.”    

As Feeney pointed out, Michael Hill’s transformation to date and strong financial results over the past year haven’t come from having one silver bullet, but by “chipping away” at components across the organisation and embracing an increasingly omnichannel approach.  

“We are constantly evolving, being nimble and working out new ways to ultimately deliver the best experience for our customers,” Feeney said. “It’s been another year of constantly trying to think one step ahead.”    

Having the Qualtrics platform in play is already reaping benefits on the employee front. Almost 90 per cent of team members responded to the first employee interaction, and engagement scores were found to be 13 per cent greater than the retail industry average.  

For Feeney and the marketing team, generating brand-level data insights through the BrandXM platform will help substantiate the story around why brand is so important to the business and help illustrate the benefit and ROI on financial impact and on growth.  

“We’ll get quick wins just by adjusting what campaigns look like immediately,” Feeney said. “And we’ll get quick reads on things like ads, which we can track through Qualtrics, which we haven’t done before. We can get a read on what customers are responding to and shift and adapt quickly.  

“Over the long term, ROI will come over time from watching those metrics we know are important. We’ll be able to see that if we’re going after one particularly segment if we’re scoring above or below expectations. And we’ll see the benefit from getting more of that customer segment through the door.”  

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