The CMO Interview: Lisa Gavales

How Express Markets in 140 Characters or Less

The Retailer's CMO, Lisa Gavales, Shares Her Twitter Strategy

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Look out, Tony and Barry -- there's a rising star in the "C-Tweet": Lisa Gavales, exec VP-CMO at Express (@ExpressLisaG).

Lisa Gavales
Lisa Gavales
Ms. Gavales joined the apparel retailer in January 2008 after a career at Bloomingdale's, and about a year later found herself debating whether Twitter was a place Express should be spending its time. "It's a commitment, and I didn't want to get on and not do it," she said. Nevertheless, she jumped into the fray, and after just three months, Ms. Gavales is nearing 4,000 followers -- many of them Express shoppers who tweet her inquiries about everything from return policies to becoming a fashion model for the chain.

Express devotes a majority of its marketing budget to direct-mail and in-store efforts. It spends a chunk on digital, but social media is a relatively new focus -- one that Ms. Gavales had a major hand in introducing. Twitter and other social-networking tools haven't changed the marketing mix much, but they have changed Ms. Gavales' day-to-day job. "Social media isn't terribly expensive in dollars, but rather it's expensive in time," she said.

Ms. Gavales is based in Columbus, Ohio, where Express' headquarters is located, but Ad Age recently caught up with her in between takes at a photo shoot in Brooklyn to chat briefly about how she's using Twitter to connect with Express customers -- and how she can evolve her Twittering strategy as more folks log on to the network (she's still figuring it out).

Ad Age: You led the charge in bringing Express onto Twitter. Did you get a lot of push-back from management?

Ms. Gavales: Many of the people on the executive committee didn't know what [Twitter] was. ... My boss [Express CEO Michael Weiss] said, "How do you know that it's not the competition that's following us?" With the customer in mind, it's not an issue, but we did have to talk thorough it, about things like not revealing information so early that a competitor can use it against us. I'm very careful about how I say stuff. Now we have people from the executive committee on [Twitter], and I think they're excited that we have so many followers. They're making suggestions, saying, "Oh, we should tweet this!"

Ad Age: Express is doing something a bit unique in terms of where the company is marketing its presence on Twitter: on receipts, where it states, "Follow our CMO on Twitter at ExpressLisaG." How did you arrive at that decision? And do you think the average consumer knows what a CMO does?

Ms. Gavales: At Express, the marketing department gets to control the message at the bottom of receipts. Once I was on Twitter for about four weeks, and we realized we had something good, we put it on the bottom of every e-mail, our Facebook page, the bottom of our home page online and on the bottom of every receipt.

Everybody knows what a CEO is, but CMO not that much. We had a space constraint [on the receipts], and I do get questions like "Do you run merchandising?" because many people, they think the M stands for merchandising. But I thought it was less important that they know exactly what that role is than know to let customers know that they could communicate with someone on the inside. Twitter is not about hearing from a company; it's about hearing from a person within a company.

Ad Age: Who do you follow?

Ms. Gavales: I follow other marketing executives, like the CMO of Best Buy. I follow the newspapers, business publications and a handful of the "Twitter elite." I also follow people for fun, like Ashton Kutcher or Pete Wentz. And, of course, I follow customers who talk about Express -- especially ones who talk about Express a lot and have a lot of followers -- just to see if we are aligned with what they think is important.

Ad Age: Unlike some marketers, you are personally responding to consumers' tweets. What is your personal strategy, and how does it play into marketing the Express brand broadly?

Ms. Gavales: I clearly Twitter as CMO [of Express], not as Lisa. Our customer is using all kinds of media that we didn't before, and my goal is to reach them. My general focus is to try to explain to the public the fun parts of Express, what we're doing that's interesting that you might not know unless you're living and breathing the brand each day ... the fact that we're at Coachella, and that we're doing photo shoots in New York City. ... If there's a great sale, I'll put that up. If I'm a girl who's shopping at Express, I want to know that Jessica Alba is wearing that same vest i bought, or that Miley Cyrus is in the store -- that's what I want to know. My job is to make Express customers feel great about the brand.

Ad Age: With the Twitter masses growing -- especially now that Oprah has joined -- are you concerned about it becoming too much of a time commitment for you to personally respond to every tweet?

Ms. Gavales: I think I have something that's leverageable for the near-term future. If it's something easy, like, "Do you have jeans in long?" I can answer them. One hundred forty characters takes me 15 seconds, and I move on. There are four or five people on my team who I forward certain customer-service questions to who can do some follow-up. If it gets to the point where I start to get 1,000 questions a day, I'll need a different Twitter strategy, but we're not there yet, and I'm hoping I'll have it solved by then.

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