How a Marriage of Pop Culture, Shopping Gave HSN New Start

Marketing Exec VP Bill Brand Put Focus on Entertainment, Affordability

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LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- Last year was not a good year to be in the retail industry. But for Bill Brand, exec VP-programming, marketing and business development for HSN (formerly Home Shopping Network), 2009 was an opportunity for the nearly 30-year-old network to reinvent itself.

In the past two years, Mr. Brand has made HSN more relevant to the modern home-shopper by revamping the company's image and programming to focus on more affordable products with ties to entertainment and pop culture. A recent promotion with singer Mary J. Blige for the exclusive launch of her first My Life fragrance shattered the retailer's sales records, selling more than 60,000 units in just six hours' time.

Bill Brand
Bill Brand

Another tie-in with Sony Pictures' "Eat Pray Love," the company's first movie-marketing partnership, saw sellouts of more than 100 of the promotion's 400-plus branded items.

Mr. Brand joined HSN in 2006 with 16 years of experience as a programmer for local news, VH1 and, most recently, Lifetime, and he took cues from cable's ability to create branded events and applied them to his current role. Today, HSN is available in 95 million homes as well as on mobile devices like the iPhone, iPod Touch and Android, where consumers can watch a live HD feed and place orders. HSN.com is also a heavily video-enhanced site where consumers can watch clips on each product and discuss them on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. It's all part of what Mr. Brand calls "lifestyle editorial-programmed commerce." And with a modest marketing budget (HSN spent close to $5 million on measured media in 2009, according to Kantar Media), Mr. Brand's mission is simple. "Our goal is to bring stories to life."

Ad Age: How did you activate the whole company around the "Eat Pray Love" promotion?

Mr. Brand: We have a call center with 1,500 reps that were on the phones and able to handle every call. We wanted to make sure they were familiar with the story and were given the chance to read the book. Sony gave us 2,500 books that we gave to our staff on all our campuses. So if someone called and said, "I really want that scarf from Italy," and that call-center rep knows exactly what she's talking about, by having that conversation you then create this community.

Sony literally had a premiere party in St. Petersburg, Fla. [near our headquarters], and we worked with the shifts of our employees so they could see the film at our centers in California, Virginia and Tennessee. If we didn't prepare our teams through the book or the opportunity to see the movie, we might not have had such a successful event. It's about customer engagement, building the brand and conversation.

Ad Age:You come from a 20-year TV programming background. How were you able to apply that to your current role?

Mr. Brand: When I first met with [HSN Inc. CEO] Mindy Grossman, I knew she had worked with some great brands like Nike and Ralph Lauren, but I was pretty skeptical about HSN because it was a shopping channel. But after meeting with Mindy and understanding what brands were here and what she had her eye on, I understood this was a company that was nearly 30 years old, that we could transform and turn it into lifestyle programming. We wanted to tell more stories and still sell product at the same time, and kind of marry it all to bring it to life in a unique way.

Ad Age: You completed a fashion rebrand in January 2009, in the thick of the economic downturn, and have seen sales triple since then. How?

Mr. Brand: What we've acknowledged through the economic downturn is that customers are going to be very discerning and looking for something unique and special. More than 70% of our products are proprietary and can only be found on HSN and our platforms. So pairing that with this idea that we never stopped investing in innovation and technology during the challenging economic environment allowed us to emerge with strength. For example, we made a shift from fine jewelry to a higher percentage of fashion jewelry. [Our customer] still wanted to shop and enjoyed the experience, but perhaps she didn't want to spend as much going in.

5 Tips

1. Study your competitors, and find your point of differentiation. That will anchor your strategy.

2. Create events the whole company can get around, and consumers will reward you.

3. Build long-term partnerships, not one-off stunts.

4. Start conversations; don't play catch up.

5. Make your product available wherever your consumer is.

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