CCO Talk: Consumers in the boardroom of… Van de Velde
Meet our CCO (Chief Consumer Officer) Talk series, offering people from the C suite a chance to share their views on driving consumer centricity and activation in their organizations. This time, I had the pleasure to talk with Ignace Van Doorselaere, CEO of lingerie group Van de Velde. Lingerie group Van de Velde is a family-run business listed on Euronext Brussels, designing, producing and selling luxurious women lingerie under its own brand names (Marie Jo, PrimaDonna and Andrés Sardá).
It distributes its premium products through building partner relationships with 5,000 specialty lingerie stores worldwide and running its own retail chains in the UK (Rigby & Peller), the US (Intimacy), the Netherlands (Lincherie), and Hong Kong (joint venture with Private Shop). Close to 1,500 employees work hard to deliver the company’s mission to ‘shape the body and mind of women’, generating a yearly turnover of close to 190 million euro. In 2004, Ignace joined Van de Velde, where he has been CEO since, leading the company to sustained profitable growth. Formerly being Head of Western Europe and CMO at what eventually became the largest brewer in the world (AB InBev) and board member of the Club Brugge football team, you could say that Ignace is an expert in human desires, knowing how to sell lingerie to women and beer and football to men.
Talking about the role of human desire, what dimensions are at play looking at a lingerie group such as Van de Velde?
From the very start of the company in 1919 until now, we have been serving the needs of women by putting the main emphasis on the quality of our core product (first the corsage and later the bra), creating an optimal balance between compelling design, wearing comfort and body styling. Next to that, managing the supply chain is critically important in any fashion business, making sure that our broad and diverse range of SKUs is readily available in the stores when it needs to be from a consumer demand perspective. And finally, over the years, Van de Velde has built a core organizational attitude to take the interests of its customers (lingerie stores) at heart, helping them to become more successful in a competitive market context with large international and vertically integrated chains such as Victoria Secret, Hunkemöller, ETAM, H&M and Zara dominating the main shopping streets.
Looking at the specialty lingerie stores, how do you fill in the promise of being customer centric, how do you translate it into practice?
In 2007, we started rolling out a comprehensive Lingerie Styling program which aimed at helping 600 of our specialty lingerie store customers drive professionalism and result in growth, ultimately growing our market share in a segment that is under increased pressure. Starting from a sharp understanding of the needs of the end consumer, the fitting room plays a pivotal role in our strategy towards specialty lingerie stories. We learned that there is a very strong connection between the bra a woman is wearing and her self-confidence, with a majority of women around the world not being fully satisfied with their body shape. With lingerie being an important factor in helping women shape their body, we use the fitting room as a ‘place of trust’ where both the functional and psychological needs of consumers are fulfilled, with the resulting intimate interpersonal relationship acting as the solid foundation for increased and stable consumer lifetime value. This is how we manage to prevent the discount dialogue with customers, having the ‘added value’ dialogue with them instead.
What were some of the barriers in making this switch to a more customer-centric culture?
Evolving from a ‘sell-in’ to a ‘sell-out’ organization indeed did not happen overnight. The proof of the pudding is in the eating: it was and still is hard work to change the mindset of our customers, as they often have a more traditional and conservative view on things. We set up a complete training program covering different modules, ranging from functional bra-fitting to selling and consumer-listening skills, we undertake mystery shopping visits in all participating stores in order to assess progress, we support our stores in their marketing budgets, we offer specific software so they can better manage consumer databases and stock and we organize joint events that provide updates and innovations of the program.
In the end, all this hard work is paying off, with a year-on-year difference of about 10% in the revenue between those stores participating in the Lingerie Styling program and those that are not, making a cumulative difference of about 60-70% since the program was started. Yet, we cannot let our attention and efforts slip: it is a matter of continued convincing, over and over again, in a context where we do not have a full grip on the stores given the fact that are independent.
How different is the story when it comes to your own retail channels?
From a strategic and more long-term perspective, there is no real difference in our intention. The Lingerie Styling concept is an integral part of our belief system when it comes to managing our own stores in the UK, the US, the Netherlands, Germany, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Currently, we are in the process of unifying our vision, branding, operations, people management, etc. across the different retail formats we have invested in over the last years. As we own stores ourselves, the role of consumers is gradually becoming more important at Van de Velde than it used to be. We listen more actively, our customer service department is responding more rapidly to customer feedback and we involve the customers more actively as support in decision-making.
Our main challenge in this respect is to ‘remain small within a growing and bigger organization’, keeping an authentic personal touch in everything we do. Our ultimate goal is to have consumers realize marketing and sales for us, lifting on the promises of strong conversation management. With a great experience in the fitting room as the core foundation, we would like for consumers to create positive ripple effects around them, driving positive storytelling and recommendations towards peer consumers. Our goal here is twofold.
First, in addition to our 5,000 customers, we would also like to get to know every single one of our 2.5 million consumers much better than we currently do, taking a more advanced customer relationship management approach. Second, we want to connect and collaborate with a more select group of consumers to co-create our future and to have them act as true ambassadors of the unique experience we offer. Regarding the latter challenge, this is why we started collaborating with InSites Consulting, supporting us through their Consumer Consulting Board approach and helping us grow a successful ambassador program.