CMO of the Week: Navy Exchange Service Command's Richard Honiball

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Richard Honiball is the chief merchandising officer and the chief marketing officer for the Navy Exchange Service.

Richard Honiball is the chief merchandising officer and the chief marketing officer for the Navy Exchange Service.

The $2 billion retail division is an actual command within the United States Navy. The group also includes two hospitality divisions and supports ship stores, the Navy uniform program and telecommunications, among others. 

“We have a little bit of a different mission than your average retailer,” explains Honiball. “As a navy command, our stated mission is to provide quality goods and services at a savings. We are what's known as a non-paid benefit to active duty military, retirees and their families. Similar to if you were in a tech company, and you got a free lunch, or you had dry cleaning delivered, this is a benefit, you're able to shop at a tax free exchange that offers a wide range of products.” 

Navy Exchange has a unique challenge – they serve as more than a community hub but also to be an appealing retail store.

“We don't want it to feel overly military and have people see our marketing or walk into our stores or go onto our website and feel like they just walked out of their military command,” says Honiball. “By the same token, we don't want to just look like a Macy's, a Best Buy or a Walgreens. Our creative execution has what I would call an at ease, not a not a formal military, but we want to be reminded that we are part of the community, we want our patrons to know that we understand who they are, and that we have a deeper sense of what's important to them. And so we try to make sure that that comes through or through our various communications for various marketing, or in store execution and everything that we do.”

Brand Innovators caught up with Honiball to talk value, digital adoption and the important role Navy Exchange retail stores play in the community. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you talk about what your vision is as CMO?

From the merchandising perspective, we're here to create and provide value. And I don't want to have it sound that cut and dry. But it's at the heart of our mission. 

From a chief marketing officer perspective, the easy answer is my goal is to communicate value not just within the Navy Exchange, but also across food and services and hospitality and to really connect the dots between the different businesses. But that's really the goal, not the vision.

My vision is that our patrons find that they see themselves within our marketing execution, that they recognize this as an integral part of the community and that we were good at communicating value and our shared values. My vision is that we really create that connection that people can see that we are here for them and that we do things a little bit differently. Active duty members, retirees and family members will often visit our store three or four times a week because it's the hub of the base. It’s where they can catch up with folks. They can get the connection to the community. We want to try and bring that to life. And that's really kind of my vision. It's humbling. It's inspiring. It drives us to be more real in how we communicate.

What role does digital marketing play in your mix?

We're really looking at that connected experience where it really matters less, where you start your journey and where you end your journey as long as you end the journey with us. I'm looking at a little bit less of whether it's in the physical store or whether it's on the web environment. The retail store isn't dead, it's always going to be important to us because our physical stores are located on bases around the world. And so that's important. 

Now when you say digital from a channel of communication, pre-pandemic 80% of my marketing was done in traditional means direct marketing, print flyers that were mailed to homes. The pandemic forced us to leverage more digital, social mobile. Thankfully, we were prepared to do that, because we had already been building that bridge. Now 80% of our communication is really digital, social and mobile. Now we're what we are working on is really targeting it more using the channels. Fifty percent of our active duty population is between the ages of 18 to 24. They are digital natives and are used to communicating on different devices. But we also see that Gen Z likes print, they just like digitally connected print. I want to be able to expose that message to you so that you get that connected experience.

You're a closed entity in the sense that you're not marketing to everybody, but your consumer base also has choice and competition. So how do you differentiate yourself?

We're here to provide quality goods and services at a savings. Price and value is a tremendous part of the equation. But it's more than that. Are we convenient? When a family has a loved one who's deployed, can they come in and sit down and tap into Wifi? Can they connect with friends? Is it an enjoyable experience to shop with us? Can you discover new things? 

Do you see yourself within the pages or within the website and feel that we're being inclusive? That’s how we are differentiating ourselves from every other retailers.

Can you talk about how your experience at JCPenney, Hagar and Brooks Brothers have helped shape your approach to your current role?

In a couple different ways. The irony is that I didn't start off wanting to be in retail or in marketing. I was actually going to be a JAG corps officer in the Navy. Early in my retail career, I chose jobs and retailers not because I was trying to advance but because I was trying to explore. I worked for a specialty retailer, then I wanted to work in New York, then luxury specialty retail, then a department store, and then it was wholesale. My personal path brought me there. I was able to serve different points in my career, I was able to work in different segments of retail, whether it was luxury or moderate, or whether it was need or want, it all tied back to the same thing. It was the customer, it was whether we were building a brand or building a product category, or building out a marketing cadence, it always boiled down to the customer. 

What I've learned is you can't stay stagnant, you have to evolve. You never want to be slightly behind your customer. Hopefully you want to be with or or slightly ahead. There have been a couple of times where I've seen really fast pivots that have said to 5 million customers, no, we don't need you anymore, we're gonna go after this different customer. And it never works. You have to hold your customer true to who you are and make sure that everything you are building keeps that person in mind. 

The one connection our customers have is they are somehow connected to the military – they're younger, they're older, they're as diverse as diverse can be. We need to make sure that everything we say, everything we make, everything we communicate is tied to their lives. That's probably the main thing that I've pulled away from each of those experiences.

What are you most excited about for the second half of 2022?

I want to preface a little bit. If you go back two and a half years ago, would you ever think we'd be here right now? I've never been part of an organization more purpose driven or dynamic as this one that just rises to the occasion. 

What am I most excited about? One is the team here. This team has been pushing the envelope by serving patrons, creating greater agility, the store of the future, innovating our marketing and experiences and giving a damn about our patrons.  I'm excited that retail matters. I'm excited that it's not just about selling stuff, but it's about connections. It's about community, it's about being real.

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