CMO of the Week: American Eagle’s Craig Brommers

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‍American Eagle Outfitters’ chief marketing officer Craig Brommers knows retail. He has served as marketing leadership for some of the largest retailers over the past two decades including Gap, Abercrombie & Fitch and Calvin Klein. 

American Eagle Outfitters’ chief marketing officer Craig Brommers knows retail. He has served as marketing leadership for some of the largest retailers over the past two decades including Gap, Abercrombie & Fitch and Calvin Klein. 

His latest fascination is “retail at the speed of Gen Z.” “That really is the mindset that our team has here at American Eagle is that Gen Z moves fast,” says Brommers. “If your primary customer base is Gen Z, you're going to have to move right along with them. You try to be a little bit ahead of them even." 

American Eagle’s Gen Z strategy is based on five pillars: style, sports and gaming, music, social impact and social media. “We try to focus most of our partnerships and energies around culture,” says Brommers.”On the sports side, we've been curious about new partnerships with athletes. Our audience is even more interested in what these athletes are doing off the court or off the field. They're more interested in their style and lifestyle. Niche sports, especially the female niche sports, actually performed better for us than the typical college football and men's college basketball.” 

The brand recently partnered with Netflix on the new season of Outer Banks, a leading streaming show for teen drama Gen Z. As part of the partnership, Netflix created Poguelandia, a fan event inspired by the show with music performances and cast members. As the official apparel sponsor, American Eagle created the Kildare Surf Shop with live custom printing of exclusive OBX designs on AE tees and hoodies and a capsule collection.

“It was a crazy event,” recalls Brommers. “We are the No. 1 selling jeans for Gen Z. On our site the No. 1 search term is always jeans. But for those two weeks, the No. 1 search term was actually Outer Banks. It just shows you the commercial impact that some of those relationships have had.”

AE also recently partnered with e.l.f. Cosmetics in a collaboration inspired by denim. To date, that partnership has generated 7 billion impressions breaking the beauty brand’s record in terms of impressions through partnerships. “We're now in the entertainment business as much as we are in the retail business, because Gen Z has that need to be entertained,” says Brommers. “You need to have something unique. You need to have something that catches their eye that's different.”  

Brand Innovators caught up with Brommers from his office in New York to talk digital innovation, Netflix partnership and Gen Z. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Last year you did some work with Roblox and a Snap AR integration. How are you thinking about innovation this year?

I never now use the dreaded word Metaverse, because that was so last year. We don't even have to use that term. It's now just good old fashioned digital innovation. The mistake that some marketers have made (and I've been there as well), is innovation for innovation's sake. That's unfortunately where our collective profession maybe stubbed their toe a little bit in the metaverse. 

If you're adding real value for your customer through digital innovation that's where you're winning. We've been doing these augmented reality popup stores with Snap. I'll be the first one to admit that I thought this was just going to be an engagement play. Well, turns out, it actually had commercial results as well. To date, we generated almost $10 million in sales. Gen Z loves these themed stores where they can actually buy in that experience. Entertainment plus commerce seems to be a winning formula. 

We had the second biggest brand activation inside Roblox last year behind Gucci. So we were in pretty good company. Again, we were adding value to our users' experience, including during the holiday season, where we were actually giving away loyalty rewards inside that experience to redeem in the real world. We have an innovation budget. We allow ourselves to take risks. Most importantly, we allow ourselves to fail. Failing is often a good thing, because you can actually learn from those opportunities and use that to get better at other things. 

What role does AI play in your business?

AI is definitely the hottest topic. We're having listen and learn meetings. I'm not sure if it's clever or scary or somewhere in between there. We're ingesting as much information as possible. We've already begun to test and learn on advertising platforms. But what are the implications for creative? What are the implications for copywriting? What are the implications for customer service? Some of the things that people don't like to do, for example, formatting an ad 72 different ways, can now be done with one click of a button. 

My corporation's core value is being real, being yourself and celebrating the real spirit of Gen Z. How does AI fit in is a real question mark. This is going to be a fascinating topic for us as marketing professionals because honestly there's ethical implications. Net net, we're fascinated. We definitely want to be early movers in learning and testing certain things. We want to engage the marketing profession about implications and opportunities that AI presents before we make certain decisions. There's going to be some thorny issues that we're all going to navigate. I wonder for my brand if this could be a competitive advantage, if we were to say, we're still real. Everything you see is real. 

Can you talk about your new resale thredUP partnership and how the brand is aiming to be more sustainable?

Another one of our consumer passion points is social impact, which encompasses two areas: mental health and sustainability. Obviously, my industry doesn't have a great track record with being great stewards of our planet. But we have made great strides over the last couple of years. We were just fascinated by the fact that two-thirds of Gen Z has bought something secondhand. There were already 8,000 pieces of our product being sold on thredUP without any support from the mother brand. We were curious about developing a relationship with thredUP just to see what might become of it. We've curated a collection of real AE pieces from the 80s, 90s and 2000s along with – for the first time ever – a top navigation link to thredUP from our e-comm site. We're going to learn a lot over the next couple of months on what works and how we can improve.  Gen Z is telling us this far is that secondhand shopping is here to stay. It probably checks a couple boxes for Gen Z. One being a more sustainable future and circularity. Uniqueness and standing out is also something that Gen Z is excited by. 

How are you navigating the challenges of inflation?

Our consumer base is middle class and upper middle class. They've told us that they are feeling the squeeze so we're really trying to communicate value. Value really has a double meaning for our customer. Value is quality, long lasting, perhaps better for the planet, that great fitting pair of jeans, that unbelievably soft hoodie, those are more timeless pieces that our customer can incorporate into their wardrobe no matter what's going on outside.

People are also looking for value of out the door price right now. We are offering competitive promotions and price points to remain in that consideration set. It is something that customers are still wanting, desiring, aspiring to. Based on our financial results over the last couple of quarters, it seems like we're probably weathering the storm better than most. I'm a retail dinosaur. I've seen these storms come in and I've seen the storms recede. We take a consumer-first mindset weathering this better than most, but it's real, it's there.

How has your past experience helped shape your current perspective?

It's amazing how much my industry and the marketing profession has changed over the last 10-15 years. As I reflect back on my experiences at both Calvin Klein and Abercrombie and Fitch, those were high touch, high control, we will tell you what to wear and what’s cool brands. Now fast forward to American Eagle, it's almost the opposite. We have to be comfortable with the fact that Gen Z is in control of the narrative. Gen Z is driving the conversation around what's cool or what's aspirational. 

There was this viewpoint 15 years ago that retail marketers produced pretty pictures. We were very proud of it. Obviously the brands I have had the privilege of contributing to have some of the most iconic advertising campaigns in my industry. Yes, of course, we still put out beautiful, aspirational campaigns, mostly featuring real Gen Z heroes and leaders, but we are as commercially minded as well. My team's KPIs include brand awareness and brand consideration, but just as important is customer acquisition, retention and traffic to our physical stores and the site. The art is still there but at the same time, the science of marketing is something that we have to practice every day, every hour. The use of data analytics to drive the commercial side of the business is very real.

How are you thinking about the rest of 2023? 

In my long career in retail, I’ve learned that if the environment is a bit tougher to navigate, sometimes that's when the best brands and retailers win. We’re going to go after this aggressively. We're going to continue to maximize the playbook that has worked for us in recent years. We are leaning heavily into partnerships in our winning categories like jeans, coming to market with innovation, not just from a marketing perspective but from a product perspective. 

We're continuing to close the gap in merging the physical and digital worlds. We know that digital is an extension of themselves with Gen Z, for better or for worse. But how do we add value? Whether you're shopping in the store or online, how can we help create seamless experiences through some of the shopping opportunities? We're going to remain proactive. We're going to remain aggressive. We're going to remain curious.

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