‘Building a direct relationship with the customer’: How Athleta is leveraging its online community to build brand awareness

Kim Waldmann, chief digital officer at Athleta

Conversations around full-funnel marketing have gone from a hum to a fever pitch across the industry as advertisers increasingly look for more ways to reach shoppers across an ever-changing landscape.

In light of Covid-19 pandemic uncertainty, mounting data privacy changes and a crowded digital marketplace, advertisers are pushing to roll out more ways to get in front of shoppers and meet them where they are. 

Over the last two years, women’s clothing brand Athleta has been working to build direct relationships with shoppers through its online community and mobile app AthletaWell. According to Kim Waldmann, chief digital officer at Athleta, it’s not only a move to build brand awareness, but also to better leverage customer insights. 

Digiday recently caught up with Waldmann to talk about the intersection of marketing and community building, and what’s next for the brand’s mobile and online communities. 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

How is Athleta working to ramp up its digital ecosystem? 

We’re really thinking about now going one step further, beyond collecting first-party data and actually building a two-way dialogue with our customers, where they’re actually giving input and inviting them to be participants in the brand itself. AthletaWell, our community platform we launched this summer, is a key example of how we’re doing that. 

It’s this idea of building a direct relationship with the customer. The app is a clear way we can do that through driving frequency through fresh daily content and personalized push notifications. I would also add it being the integrator between digital experience and the physical world. We know our phones are with us wherever we go. The app is with her on her home screen. It can be a really important bridge as we think about transitioning from shopping online to being in a physical store and helping her be in that environment in terms of what products are available in that particular store, creating wishlists, etc.

The ongoing pandemic has made for a lot of uncertainty. How does that impact the way you approach digital marketing?

For us, I wouldn’t necessarily tie this to the pandemic. But I do think that full-funnel marketing is becoming increasingly important for a variety of reasons. We definitely are thinking about increasingly how investments in our upper funnel and awareness media impact lower-funnel performance.

It’s not just about driving the sales tomorrow, but how are you thinking about the full-funnel, brand values, getting that message out there to a broader swath of customers… it’s a much more holistic approach in telling a brand story in addition to thinking about immediate sale tactics. 

So why do the digital marketing and community-building efforts matter now?

The biggest trajectory is where we are as a brand and our path to [double] the business by 2023, and accelerate our growth. For a long time, we were a catalog first business and now we’re really focused on the digital web. So that is certainly informing our media strategy. The traditional marketing landscape is evolving. It’s important that we think about our media mix accordingly and how we go to market with the customer.

With the new initiatives, what’s been the result?

We’ve grown our brand awareness significantly. We’ve also doubled our customer file in the last 18 months. And then as we’ve been driving more loyalty tactics as well, we’re now seeing over half of our sales come through our loyalty program. We’re really thinking about it [as] very full funnel, from driving a new customer to be aware of us to how do we drive incremental spend.

We’re seeing app push notifications be increasingly important to us as a way to communicate with the customer. For us, that’s a huge area of investment for us. We know that customers [who] download our app become more easily connected with the brand and spend nearly 50% more with us than similar customers who don’t have the app.

We had a mobile app for many many years. But it’s only become a real focus for us over the last two years or so. We have more than 3 times the number of app downloads we had and we re-launched our app experience recently this fall.

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