How the Navy's Retail Store Docks With Shoppers, Employees

CMO Spotlight: Rich Honiball, Nexcom

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Rich Honiball.
Rich Honiball. Credit: Nexcom
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Unless you or a close family member has ever served in the U.S. Navy, you may never have heard of the Navy Exchange Service Command, or Nexcom. Think of it as the sailor's department store, started in 1946 by the Department of the Navy to serve the seamen who find themselves in lands and oceans far, far away from the delights of American consumer goods. Today, Nexcom is a $2.7 billion organization with more than 300 retail stores around the world.

While this may be your introduction, there's at least one seaworthy reason why the brand should be on your radar -- especially if you're a marketer. In line with the branch of the military that created it, Nexcom exists to serve. Aside from providing products essential to everyone from cadets to captains and their families, Nexcom celebrates its customers in a fashion that mirrors some of the world's best brands. Nexcom Chief Merchandising and Marketing Officer Rich Honiball explains just why and how this came to be.

Caring for the crew

When Rich Honiball arrived at Nexcom, one of the first conversations he had with his new boss was not about how the marketing team could better support the bottom line. It was about customer centricity. "Sailor first, profit second" was the takeaway. The organization was founded on that philosophy. Nexcom began by supplying high-quality products to deployed sailors at a discount, and any revenue went to a "morale and welfare" fund (now called Morale, Welfare and Recreation), which provided fun activities to the crews at sea and to their families after they returned home. "That's how we started," says Honiball.

Not much has changed in 70 years. As Honiball explains: "Our mission is really similar to what it was back in 1946: to provide quality goods and services at a savings for our military members, their families and retirees and to support Navy quality of life programs." Today, this mission differentiates Nexcom from the e-commerce and retail shops that have penetrated its market. While Nexcom's own e-commerce site, myNavyExchange.com, is expanding, Honiball say his team continues to find ways to better serve the military community. "It all boils down to the same thing, the customer -- understanding them, meeting their needs, and exceeding their expectations," he says.

All hands on deck

Honiball and his team recently celebrated Nexcom's 70th anniversary by turning the cameras on the buyers. "In addition to the things that you normally do in celebrating a milestone -- exclusive product, promotions and fun events," says Honiball, "we used it as an opportunity to really have an engaging, two-way dialog with our associates and our customers."

They launched a social campaign called #LoveMyNEX and waited anxiously for customers' positive stories about their local Nexcom location. "The response we got was overwhelming," Honiball says. His team received some stories as old as 30 years and some as recent "as yesterday."

"From a brand perspective, that is fantastic," Honiball says. "Sometimes you work for a brand that has to go back to the 1930s or '40s to find that special 'thing' they did. As an organization, we can pick a time at random, and find a way that we made a difference in someone's life."

Many of the employees at Nexcom were first servicemen, and as such had their own tales to tell. This "rooted connection" led to an ocean's worth of content, says Honiball -- "more than we ever expected" -- which let his team share it in avenues beyond social, in email, traditional marketing and video.

Saluting the sailors

Nexcom also used its 70th anniversary to create new connections -- a true testament to customer-centricity if ever there were one. "If you or I travel for business, we're gone for a week or two, and we miss our families, we miss our friends," says Honiball. "A person in the military who is deployed can be away from their family for six, seven, eight months. If you think about one of the touch points with your family, it's that care package that you get from home." The Nexcom marketing and merchandising teams collaborated with vendors and store teams on an event called "Nex Cares," which welcomed children to build and send free care packages to a deployed family member.

"I watched an eight-year-old girl, who went through the entire process, hand the box to the driver and say, 'Can you get this to my daddy on the USS Barry?' Yes, I did tear up," Honiball says. It was a moment that illustrated the power of celebrating those who, in truth, build the brand. "When you have that kind of community connection, and you honor it in the right way, it just takes on a momentum of its own," Honiball explains. "You become more than just a store; you become part of their lives."

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