CMO of the Week: Build-A-Bear’s Julia Fitzgerald

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After four years as CMO of American Lung Association, Julia Fitzgerald joined Build-A-Bear Workshop as chief marketing officer last month and has hit the ground running. 

After four years as CMO of American Lung Association, Julia Fitzgerald joined Build-A-Bear Workshop as chief marketing officer last month and has hit the ground running. 

“Whenever I tell anyone that I am now at Build-A-Bear, they always have a great story of the brand,” says Fitzgerald. “As a marketer, it is such a privilege to work with such a beloved brand. I am thrilled to be here.”

Last year, Build-A-Bear marked its 25th anniversary with several activations and by ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange. The company reported double-digit increases in total revenues and pre-tax income for fiscal 2022 and last month, and it expects growth to continue this year. The company recently opened around 20 new locations through a combination of its corporately-managed and third-party retail business models. Part of this growth is driven by the brand’s shift beyond traditional malls to include non-traditional locations that now account for approximately 35% of all locations. These include amusement parks and resorts such as Carnival Cruise Lines, Great Wolf Lodge, and Landry's. 

In the new post, Fitzgerald is leading the brand’s commitment to consumer engagement and experiences and driving profitable growth through the strategic evolution of the company. 

“My vision is the brand's vision, and that is to put a little more heart into life,” says Fitzgerald. “That is what the brand does day in and day out. It's such a respected and well-known brand. It has over 93% brand awareness, and the sentiment towards the brand is so overwhelmingly positive.” 

“The in-store experience is just one great element of the organization, but that does not define the whole possibility for the brand,” continues Fitzgerald. “Over the last couple of years, they've really expanded their digital channels and expanded their audience.   Almost 40% of the furry friend recipients are either teens or adults. That surprised me, but it really is a function of making the product and experience available through the digital ecosystem.”

Fitzgerald joined Build-A-Bear from American Lung Association, where she most recently served as CMO. She has also held senior-level positions at Sylvan Learning, Sears, VTech, and Hallmark. She is also the author of Midsize: The Truths and Strategies of Marketing in Midsize Firms. Brand Innovators caught up with Fitzgerald from her home office in the Chicago area to discuss her new role, brand expansion, and how she thinks about leadership. This interview has been edited for length. 

What attracted you to the role? 

True confessions: I'm a little bit of a [Build-A-Bear president] Sharon John fan-girl. I came from the toy industry, working for Hedstrom and VTech in my earlier years, then I was the CMO for Sears/ Kmart's toy business. I got to observe people in the toy industry who really knew what they were doing, and Sharon is definitely one of them. Every day with Sharon is like a MasterClass. So I jumped at the opportunity to work for her. Additionally, my team of peers is amazing. The fact that they could come through two years of COVID and deliver not just a good, but a stellar record, says a lot about the quality of the people I'm privileged to work with. 

What is your approach to leadership?

The best thing you can do for a team that's thriving is to reinforce with more great team members. Part of my leadership plan is to make sure we're well-resourced to scale and grow the business. We're looking for high caliber people to join our integrated marketing teams, so we can keep scaling our business through all channels. Every marketer should be pounding at our doors because there are so many great opportunities at Build-a-Bear.  

Can you share how your experience in tech, retail, and nonprofits helps you in this role?

It seems as  if my experience was magically building toward this role at Build-A-Bear. The toy industry helped prepare me to find the strategic insights that work with moms and kids. My Kmart experience taught me that nothing moves quite like the pace of retail and that multi-channel distribution is a must.  Tech is a core component of every business these days. Our customers should expect a great digital experience while shopping for their adorable furry friends.  Leveraging my background in digital transformation is very helpful because Build-A-Bear is on a path of continuous improvement within our digital ecosystem.

Can you talk about how you're dealing with the challenges that the retail industry as a whole has been facing?

We are succeeding by staying nimble, activating multiple channels, and being aware of where the guest wants to shop, whether it is our brick-and-mortar, online, or through an unexpected location.  A core part of our in-store experience is just that: the experience. Being able to build your own bear, go through the Heart Ceremony, and dress your bear, is such an iconic part of the trip to a Build-A-Bear. It really forms an emotional connection with our customers, and staying true to that experience is core to our brand promise of adding a little more heart to life.  The other retail strategy is paying attention to where families are spending time and shopping. In the last couple of years, Build-A-Bear has expanded locations beyond the malls and into venues where families hang out – Great Wolf Lodge and Carnival Cruise Lines, and other types of amusement parks. The strategic thinking is, 'Where are my guests spending time, and where might the perfect place be to delight and surprise them?' 

Who is your target demographic and how do you reach them?

Our core customer is families, with about 60% of our furry friends going to children. We have products that connect with preschoolers, the 3-7 years olds, and then the tweens. But over the last few years, there has been a growing trend with teenagers and adult-to-adult giving, with about 40% of the purchase going to these customers.  As Build-A-Bear is celebrating 25 years of delivering great emotional experiences in furry friends, we are seeing parents who enjoyed Build-A-Bear as a child are now bringing their own kids into our stores.   So our addressable market has expanded to kids of all ages, especially as Bear-Gifting continues to expand.  With occasions ranging from Valentine’s Day to birthdays, or graduations, it turns out that a bear is the perfect gift when you still want to tell somebody, “You're bear-y special to me.”  

Can you talk about the inspiration for your book Midsize?

Midsize and Build-A-Bear go hand in glove. In my book, Midsize, I write about the career experiences for marketers, and how that differs when you are marketing in a large organization or a midsize organization. I have found the most satisfaction in midsize firms. That's really where Build-A-Bear is right now. We're a midsize firm with our eyes and teams focused on growth. 

If you love marketing and want to engage in different areas and build foundational pieces to your skill set, it is generally easier to do that in a midsize firm. You get to be a little bit scrappier: you have to make budgets stretch further, you have to figure out ways to solve problems and be a critical thinker, and you also have to be both a player and a coach. You can't just manage strategy and hope everything works. You must also have your brain in a problem and your hands on the keyboard. I love that because even as you're managing a team, you still get to do some of the marketing work in the day-to-day trenches. It generally requires more collaboration.  I explore all these themes in Midsize and provide a no-nonsense playbook on the skills to grow a midsize company.

Can you talk about what trends you expect to see in the marketplace this year, and how you're aligning the brand for that?

Optimism is one of the overarching consumer trends. Let’s face it – we’re still mentally covering from the pandemic. After two and a half very unusual years, everyone is ready for good times and happy news. We're seeing consumers’ desire to interact with positivity and optimism. We also see a return to the experiences with loved ones that everyone had to forego during the pandemic.  That ranges from travel, to an in-person trip to Build-A-Bear with the family. 

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