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Interview with Retail Visionary Melissa Gonzalez

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As a recognized expert in creating immersive retail experiences, what do you believe sets apart a truly memorable brand experience from the rest?

I always say, can a guest walk out and describe what they experienced in one sentence? If the answer is yes, then you’ve made a successful impact. A memorable experience is sensorial and has a clear message. Every touchpoint and element should further one cohesive throughline. For example, if the value proposition is frictionless, then as much as possible about the experience should communicate that. The way you navigate and discover should make you feel the transformation that a frictionless lifestyle can bring.

How do you define thought leadership in the context of the retail industry, and what role do you believe it plays in driving growth?

The retail industry is ever-changing, as is the consumer it serves. Thought leadership is about being constantly curious and investigative. It’s not just about staying on top of trends but foreseeing what lies ahead based on data and insights, ideally from a global perspective.

Being future-forward allows for the opportunity to catalyze and drive progression and innovation. By performing beyond being on the offensive of responding to market forces but be a pioneer with a more disruptive mindset that allows you to evaluate strategic initiatives, find the white space opportunities that are grounded in viability and derive new areas of value creation.

In your experience, what are some common challenges brands face when attempting to integrate digital and physical retail experiences, and how do you recommend overcoming them?

Often, there’s a desire to create phygital experiences, but the priority for the elements that make integration successful falls short. Some of the common challenges I witness are:

  • lack of key stakeholder alignment,
  • lack of clarity on use case and success metrics,
  • an inability to prioritize the associated IT support needs,
  • the challenge of keeping associated content fresh and exciting for the end user.

Having the right stakeholders involved at the start is critical for not just integration success but also for longevity. Ideally, the store design and construction team, marketing team, merchandising team, and tech teams should all communicate to align on what success looks like and what it will take to get there.

As a thought leader, how do you navigate the balance between inspiring audiences with visionary ideas and providing them with actionable takeaways they can implement in their own organizations?

This is a very important balance. I always like to ensure three key elements in my presentations. First is grounding via data and insights to build credibility. Second is inspiration by showcasing global trends and tying them to overarching insights. Third, I wrap it all together by explaining what it means for the audience and how they can actualize the ideas presented.

The third section is the most customized portion of my presentations as I take a deep dive into my audience, their goals, their capabilities and what the kinds of outcomes they associated with success.

The retail landscape is constantly evolving. How do you advise organizations to adapt and innovate to stay relevant in an increasingly digital world?

In a world where innovation is so rapid, yet successful implementation has a longer timeline, I advise organizations to stay curious and mentally explorative. Much of the tech we see today, especially AI, is in infancy stages yet it’s already reshaping consumer behaviors and expectations. So it’s critical that organizations take the time to stay educated but also ensure they take the time to evaluate the use cases around implementation, how it flows within the customer journey, if it’s intuitive or disruptive to current natural behaviors and what implementation it will require such as changes in workflow and process management. Then, fail fast.

It’s essential to have set parameters for testing, get it out in controlled test settings, track and benchmark the learnings against what you’re defined as success and recognize with instore tech, operational implementation usually have shorter term ROI and experiential, consumer facing ones usually contribute to a longer tail HALO effect.

Could you share insights into the importance of storytelling in creating immersive brand experiences, and how brands can effectively incorporate storytelling into their strategies?

People crave a sense of purpose and being part of something bigger than themselves. They also crave community, especially Generation Z. Through storytelling, a brand promises something beyond just the product or service they sell. Storytelling opens the door to offering the intangible value of being part of a lifestyle or a movement that means something to them.

For example, with Good American, the story is “I am my own dream come true.” That is a powerful confidence to put into the world. They facilitate this through inclusive size runs, stretchy materials, accessible price points, and flattering cuts. While it’s a product company, what they are promising to their customers is much bigger than an article of clothing.

As a thought leader in the industry, what advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs or professionals looking to make an impact in retail and experiential marketing?

Be constantly curious and a student of the world. It’s often underestimated how fast the consumer evolves while the industry tries to keep up. Know who inspires you and follow them, take trips and explore experiences outside your immediate surroundings, attend conferences, and stay open to possibilities in everything you discover.

In your view, what are the key qualities or characteristics that distinguish a true thought leader in the retail and experiential marketing space?

Have a rookie mindset. It probably goes without question that you are intelligent and educated, but to be a true thought leader you have to have a constantly curious, always open to learning mindset. Once we assume we know all we need to know or we think we know how everything works, then we inhibit our ability to add value. It’s our job to have interest in understanding the opportunities in things, or have enough fresh information to understand why something may not be working which also enables us to decipher good ideas from bad ones and identify opportunities to approach ideas differently.

Collaboration seems to be a recurring theme in your work. How do you approach collaboration with clients and other industry experts to drive thought leadership and innovation?

The power of collective thought cannot be underestimated. For so long, competitors would never be seen coming together, but COVID-19 forced that mindset to evolve due to survival necessity. I think it broke down some barriers. With our clients, I see the relationship as a collaborative partnership because we are intersecting in what they are looking to achieve from very different vantage points. Our clients live and breathe their vision daily, while we come in to drive positive change and challenge them to embrace new ideas. A successful partnership takes trust and communication.

My first step is to listen, understand, and align on what a successful outcome looks like. Then, I bring ideas based on our experience, research, data, and insights. I also recognize that I don’t know everything, so I lean on my extended, vetted, and trusted network of thought leaders to complement our efforts. For example, if we are embarking on a wellness development I will bring in a neuroscientist to complement my vantage point.

Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring thought leaders in the retail and experiential marketing space who are looking to establish themselves as industry influencers and drive positive change?

To drive positive change, you have to be invested in listening and understanding first. t. Many times, I see blanket approaches based on macro trends and canvassing Pinterest for ideas, but staying that high level doesn’t truly allow for successful impact. Understanding the macro trends, micro trends, key drivers for those trends, the year-over-year changes and evolution are all examples of the various inputs that must be thoroughly examined to glean the comprehensive insights that allow one to be a thought leader that drives positive change.

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