CMO of the Week: Tractor Supply Co.’s Kimberley Gardiner

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Kimberley Gardiner made a big job change last year. She left Volkswagen and a 20+ year career in automotive marketing to join retailer Tractor Supply Co., a company she had not previously heard of, as CMO.

Kimberley Gardiner made a big job change last year. She left Volkswagen and a 20+ year career in automotive marketing to join retailer Tractor Supply Co., a company she had not previously heard of, as CMO.

Gardiner was not looking for a change, but a recruiter convinced her to have a conversation with Tractor Supply CEO Hal Lawton. Gardiner had known Lawton by reputation from his work at eBay, Home Depot and Macy's, and thought why not.

“I have that conversation and 45 minutes later, I thought, ‘Wow, if he's a good representation of this organization and the culture and the mission and values of the company, then there's really something there,’” says Gardiner. “Maybe a change out of auto might just be the thing. I need to at least be open to it.”

When Lawton flew out to Virginia and to walk the Manassas, Virginia store with Gardiner, she decided to take the job. “I knew very little about Tractor Supply and going into one of their stores for even just an hour, meeting the team members, meeting some customers, it's just hard to describe how unique and different being in Tractor Supply store really is,” she recalls. “I thought this is something. If there's ever a brand that has so much potential to do things in some fresh and fun new ways, that’s got such a great story to tell, this is it.” 

Tractor Supply Co. operates 2066 stores in 49 states and operates an ecommerce site. Tractor Supply’s core business is around pet food and livestock feed. The brand serves as “the grocery store for all the things that you have in terms of life out here,” explains Gardiner. Think feed, apparel, decor, garden centers. While it might not be a household name in every household, it is a beloved brand in the households of its customers. Last year, the company earned nearly $1 billion in ecommerce sales alone. Gardiner is on a mission to help tell the brand’s story to a wider audience.

Brand Innovators caught up with Gardiner from her office in Nashville to talk about moving to retail after 20 years in automotive, partnering with Yellowstone's Lainey Wilson and the brand’s loyalty program. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How are you trying to tell the Tractor Supply story to a wider audience?

We're taking the story of Tractor Supply and doing more things like social media. We've done a lot of new stuff on TikTok, Pinterest and YouTube. We've really started to look at how we can pivot in terms of our sponsorships or partnerships like Yellowstone. How do we do even more storytelling in areas where we've been? How do we show people a little glimpse of what we call “life out here,” this rural-inspired lifestyle and mindset. 

We're also looking at ways we can not only tell more stories, but have more conversations. Social is a natural place for that to happen. You can share content, get feedback, listen to customers and find out what they're looking for and what makes them proud. For example in the Yellowstone spot with Lainey Wilson spot, she’s enjoying something that she got at Tractor Supply. It doesn't feel like an ad, it just feels like a neat Tractor Supply moment with Lainey. It is very authentic. We’ll be doing more of those kinds of things. 

Then we're looking at our Neighbor’s Club program. We have over 28 now million folks that are part of that. How do we tell stories there? How do we foster more of a community with these customers? How do we make it more of a personalized experience? 

How are you evolving your messaging to get in front of younger consumers, who may have purchased more land or gotten into raising chickens or gardening during the pandemic?

They're looking for this information or these products and how to do it, how do you get started with raising chickens or whatnot. There was a lot of migration out of urban centers during the pandemic, especially as millennials continue to settle down and have kids. As these consumers reevaluate their lifestyle in general and figure out where they can live, many are looking to enjoy life outside of the city. How do they appreciate and enjoy these simple moments in life that raising chickens or having a garden can do for you. They want to make sure their health and wellness are top of mind and they want to make sure that they feel fulfilled in their personal and work lives. 

We're so fortunate as a brand that we can offer people, so many ways into this life out here, way of life. It could be a container garden in a small backyard. It doesn't necessarily need to be acres and acres. If you have those acres, we've got the goods and when you come into a Tractor Supply, it'll be different. If you don't know anything about how to start a chicken coop or about how to start a garden and you're just curious about what's the right tool set, you'll find a team member who will welcome you and help you to find it. They'll take that time, they'll walk around with you and make sure you've got all the things that you need. You won't feel out of place at Tractor Supply. 

Is customer service leading your marketing strategy?

100%. Something that we just started to launch late last year was team member content. We have 50,000 team members across the country that are part of our stores and we started with a handful of folks and just said you represent an authentic, unique voice. They live the lifestyle, they want to help customers. 

We started to gather this group of store managers and assistant store managers, experts in equine and poultry and eggs. You name it. Now we have over 100 of those volunteers. They represent almost every single part of our store. They're going to help us create content over the next year, around literally every aisle in the store. We are coming at it from a place of welcome to Tractor Supply, here's a project, here's what it looks like, here are all the ways you can do it. That's something we think is going to be great as a bit unique that Tractor Supply can bring to the table and really help people understand that life out here lifestyle.

How are you applying your insights in the car industry to retail?

Automotive is a category people really take their time to consider. The purchase path could be a few weeks, it could be a few months, it could be a year. Then when you make a decision, you take ownership or lease a car, it just keeps going. You can have that vehicle for a three-year lease or you could own that vehicle for 10 or more years. Bringing that way of thinking about a customer over a truly longer lifecycle. Coming into a retail environment where you're looking at week-over-week and month-over-month performance, it's easy to get trapped in that very short term focus on getting that traffic and making sure you're capturing and converting that traffic to hit forecasts. That's totally valid. 

But stepping back a little bit looking at our customers in terms of what else would be helpful to them. What else would they be looking for next season? How else can we help them next year? If we look at a curriculum over the course of 12 months versus only content that's really week-over-week and promotionally driven. We need a balance of both. We need to drive that traffic and sell those products but we also need to make sure we keep customers engaged for a really long time. 

What are the current challenges in running a retail business?

Even though we're seeing some moderation in inflation, we're seeing supply chain challenges start to moderate as well. There's a lot of economic uncertainty in the market. We're more of a needs-based essentials business. We are fortunate in that these are things that are still going to be core and very critical. They're non discretionary types of items. But we are seeing some concerns when we poll our customers and ask them how they are feeling about their financial situation and the economy in general. 

Our brand wants to make sure that customers feel like they're spending those limited dollars really wisely. If you're talking about gardening, if we're talking about raising chickens, those are all ways that you can actually practice being more self-sustaining. When times are a bit challenging, and people are saying, What can I do to grow my own food? So from an economic standpoint, things that we'll be focusing on to make sure that people feel like you are part of the Tractor Supply ecosystem. There's a lot of ways that you can save and get a good value for the things that are important in terms of those essentials.

What trends do you expect to see in retail this year?

To a certain extent, it's a bit of wait and see. Coming from automotive, I am somebody that takes much more of a long term view. We'll continue to see how we pivot. How do we really personalize the experience for our customers at retail so that depending on what you're shopping for, what you're interested in, what service you need, we can speak to that and really make you feel comfortable and confident making the right decision. 

How do retailers provide really great service and get to know customers as best they can at an individual level to give them what they're really looking for and to make them feel good about it? In times of uncertainty, I always find that if you can make somebody feel a little bit more comfortable, then that only strengthens the interest and the bond that they have with that brand. Retailers have a lot of challenges this coming year. At the same time, we've seen a lot of resilience in retail in the last couple of years. We'll see that resilience continue. I'm excited to see some more innovation, as well.

What does that innovation look like?

It could finally be a time when we start talking so much about personalization at just a broad level, and you finally feel a little bit more like you have that personal connection with a brand. how do we not only look at your transaction data, you've bought this, but we really would recommend that. We also surprise and delight with personalization. Maybe it's something that you didn't know, maybe it's something that would only make that experience of what you bought even better. 

In our case from a team member adding some advice and how to support that might make you feel that wow, they not only knew who I am, they know what I shopped for, they know what I just bought now. They know I'm going to be thinking about this question in another three months with my chickens. And if you can say those two steps ahead and you use your Mar tech stack to do that. That's going to be really critical.

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