Innovator Interview: American Eagle’s Ashley Schapiro

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Ashley Schapiro, vice president of Marketing, Media, Performance & Engagement at American Eagle, talks about making it easy for consumers to shop this holiday season wherever they are, be it at the mall or on TikTok. 

American Eagle Outfitters is on a mission to make holiday shopping for consumers easier this year. The brand has spent more on freight inventory to overcome the supply chain issues plaguing businesses this year and have already seen the results, beating earnings expectations in quarterly results. 

Ashley Schapiro, vice president of Marketing, Media, Performance & Engagement at American Eagle, says that means making it easy for consumers to shop wherever they are, be it at the mall or on TikTok. 

“As we approach the holiday season, I think about all of the ways our customers are inspired to shop whether they are self-gifting or gifting for others, it really is endless,” says Schapiro. “It is important for us as marketers - especially those in the Super Bowl of retail Q4 - to continue to  balance commerce and engagement. It is very easy as a retail marketer to go down this rabbit hole of lower funnel marketing in Q4 but I think especially for Gen Z, that is not how they think. They are still constantly looking to be surprised and delighted by brands, and experience them in different ways. Everything is about immediate gratification. Our customer knows you can order things instantly. You can’t take your foot off the brand pedal, because they are shopping until 11:59pm the night before their holiday.”

Schapiro, who was recently named to Brand Innovators Women to Watch in Brand Marketing Class of 2021 list, is responsible for all media, performance, social, talent, influencers and PR for the brand. But in addition to these massive responsibilities, she is also tasked with making the brand relevant and innovative in the eyes of Gen Z. This means constantly testing new channels and new devices for this always-on generation.

“Mobile devices are social oxygen for Gen Z,” says Schapiro. “This generation is the first generation to be 100% digitally and social media native. It allows them the ability to not only explore and learn but it also allows them to connect with other people. It allows them to listen to other people. It allows them to shop. They can really do everything via these devices, we need to evolve very quickly because technology is constantly changing. As marketers we need to eat Gen Z, we need to sleep Gen Z, we need to breathe Gen Z because in order to keep up you really need to be that connected.” 

Brand Innovators caught up with Schapiro from her home office in New York to discuss the brand’s foundation and values, connecting with Gen Z, and the importance of the metaverse for retailers in 2022. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

What are you thinking about as we head into the holiday season?

It is really a few things. One, top of mind for all of us when we step outside of our professional roles, is this idea of people being able to finally be together and what does that look like. It does also shape buying patterns. Two, the shift in trends. Last year was cozy, it was this idea of coming home. For us, reflecting the needs of the customer from a product perspective and even a brand messaging perspective to reflect the evolving customer sentiment around  the idea of finally getting together. There is talk of the roaring twenties and I don't know if we are there yet, but there is talk about people making New Year’s plans. People are excited to get out there. People want to put on a pair of jeans, they want to put on that great sweater or great flannel to really show up and feel special after we were all in our sweat pants and sweat shirts all year. 

Three, the shift in terms of how people are shopping. If you asked me this question last year, I would have talked about the shift to digital. AE is the cornerstone of the American mall and we  have seen a tremendous shift to stores where people are back at the mall. This year, I think it is about innovation in the ways people shop. Recently, we had a Facebook Live where we had one of our stylists selling from there. We have TikTok commerce now. We have SnapChat commerce now. We have SnapChat portals where you can go inside to experience the brand.  There are look books and wish list generators all on social. There are endless ways for people to shop and get access to your product and the beauty of Gen Z is they are always on, and you are always able to access them and bring your brand into their life. 

At American Eagle you are tasked with connecting with Gen Z. Can you talk about your approach to reaching this highly coveted demographic?

I believe in the strategy for us, as a brand, of being present, relevant and nimble. The presence is about being present where our customers are spending their time. So whether that is the platforms – TikTok, Twitch – or it is about their passions, what are the things that they love- gaming, music etc? And you need to share in that love with them. The second piece is about being relevant because you don't want to show up on one of these platforms in the wrong way because then it almost cancels you. You need to show up with the right content. No longer can one piece of content be used across different mediums or different platforms. You need to have the right talent. They need to reflect diversity, they need to reflect inclusion. They need to be people that our customers are inspired by.

It is about ensuring that our customer is being seen. It is a very different conversation with Gen Z, because it is just that, it is a conversation. It’s not about these big brands speaking at them. It is a two-way dialog. Lastly, about relevancy, I would say hire them. You want to reflect your customer and your brand and the best way to do that is to have them working with you. 

The last piece of that strategy is really about being nimble. The past couple of years have really pushed us. But we need to always be thinking about what is happening around us, whether it is on a macro level, whether it is with our customer, whether it is the biggest news break of what TikTok has come out with or what Apple has come out with or all of the curve balls. You really need to be nimble. We don't write our strategy for the year and then close the book. It is always evolving. That is the secret sauce. 

Can you talk about American Eagle Outfitters brand pillars and how these foundations shape your approach to marketing?

American Eagle is a youth culture brand. So not only are we the No. 1 jeans brands for men and women 15-25 and women of all ages, but youth culture is really our largest pillar beyond the product. Our customer is at the center of everything we do. When we talk about our brand pillars, the priority would be that everyone is welcome. That takes on many different meanings. That is about creating true friends. That is about making real connections and building a diverse and inclusive community. 

I would also say this idea of individuality, we really want to support everybody’s freedom to be their unique selves and showing up how you want to show up just for you. It's about making you sleep well at night. I always say to my kids, ‘today you should do what is going to help you wake up with a smile and be proud tomorrow.’ And that is really important especially for Gen Z.

The idea of what we call “good vibes” or more formally “optimism” is also a key part of our brand pillars. This idea of American Eagle being a source of possibility for our customers and that really helps shape our marketing. We want our language – both visual and copy and where we show up especially on social – to create a safe happy space. The last two are about supporting common interests, to be present where our customer is. 

We care about and participate in the things our customers cares about most. And that extends into more mission-based marketing such as mental health and  sustainability.

Lastly, we aspire to inspire. I think that is a really powerful statement. Throughout my years as a marketer, there has been this debate about is it aspirational or it is inspirational? Both words have gone under fire for different things. We aspire to inspire. We are inspired by our customers but we also want to be a source of inspiration and aspiration for them. That goes back to that two-way conversation.

What are your brand values and how do they show up in your messaging?

When I think about our values, I go back to this idea of diversity and inclusivity as priority. That is reflected in our casting, in our talent strategy, in our hiring from within. We really do like to stand by that and make sure we are checking ourselves constantly to make sure we are being true to that. 

The second piece is really about the idea of caring about the things that are most important to our customers. Sustainability is at the heart of our strategy when it comes to our values and caring about our planet. We know that jeans are probably one of the dirtiest businesses out there, so water savings is something we focus on. Two, I think mental illness has really really risen, especially over the past two years, but it is something we see Gen Z especially really struggling with. We recently did a  partnership with Chase Stokes and his Bring Change to Mind charity to really bring awareness to mental health and to support it. 

One of our other values is about quality. It is important when you are a brand of our size to make sure that the quality piece is there. We put the same value we have for jeans and everything we make into how we show up as a brand. 

Before you were at American Eagle Outfitters, you spent years holding global roles at Coach. Can you talk about what you learned and how this global experience has impacted your approach to leadership?

It prepares you in so many ways from a hard skills perspective but also from a soft skills perspective. I was born and raised in New York and have traveled a bit personally but most of my travel came from my professional role and that is how I saw the world. It does really make you take a step back and make you realize how much is out there in the world.  It opens your eyes to diversity and inclusion. In a global role, you spend so much time on the phone and on email with people in different parts of the world and then you come together in real life and you see your similarities and differences. I think it gives me so much pause when you meet people and you realize how those differences create synergies and how there are so many similarities in differences.

Professionally, it taught me so much about different customer behaviors and how nothing is one-size-fits-all. You can take that on a larger scale. When I was working globally, I had customers in Saudi Arabia and Australia and Mexico and Japan and how you had to really understand that customer because they did operate so differently. Some of my last years at Coach when I was still global I was showing media plans to the CMO for different geographies. And he said to me, I don't understand when you look at your media mix for these different countries. They are so so different. What I was doing in Japan and Australia, they were still reading magazines. Print was still heavily in the media mix. And then I was showing the Saudi Arabia plan and I had these investments in YouTube because during Ramadan there is this huge uptick in YouTube because there is nothing else to do. It was the same as here doing COVID. You really need to understand the cultures and the way of life, you need to deeply understand your customer, their habits, their beliefs, their loves, their likes, their dislikes and that takes me into how I lead my team today and how we try to show up for customers. 

What does 2022 look like for retail?

I think the metaverse will be very interesting for retail. Who takes the risks - and I don’t think there is a right or wrong with this. I think you will be embracing the metaverse, and simultaneously this desire for in real life return to normalcy, return to the mall, return to music festivals and all of that. So how will people balance that? That is the question for 2022. How are you balancing in real life with the metaverse? There will be an extreme desire for people to be present in both. People will lead parallel lives. They will have their “normal” lives and their lives in the metaverse and they could be different people in each one of those. In  2022 I am curious as to what that balance is going to look like and what brands are going to participate. 

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