What if the key to your brand strategy was right under your nose?

Crowd-sourcing your employees might be every brand’s hot ticket according to Michael Mendenhall, SVP and CMO of HP. At least that’s what he told the attendees of the National Retail Federation panel “The Crowdsourcing Game Changer” at the 100th annual conference in New York City.

The crowdsourcing panel -- the only one of its kind at the event -- was moderated by Brian O’Malley, Partner at Battery Ventures and featured a dynamic all-star cast including Alexis Maybank: Founder and Chief Strategy Officer for the Gilt Groupe, Michael Mendenhall, SVP and CMO of HP and Hamilton South Founding Partner of the HL Group.

What was possibly one of the most important panels of the event had lighter attendance than expected.

Crowdsource Your Employee Base

Of the many mantras at the NRF expo -- possibly the most notable was “don’t be so product-focused.” Retailers are starting to realize their employees represent the face of their brand.

Mendenhall’s case study was the most relevant to the topic among all the stories referenced.

Mendenhall, a resident of HP since 2007 and (formerly with Disney for 17 years) encouraged the attendees in the crowd to start tapping into their employee base to create brand ambassadors.

He said “One of the top five channels that consumers listen to are your employees and what they are saying online.” Mendhenhall said, “if 300,000 HP Employees do not believe in what we are saying, we will fail at the marketplace.” At HP labs Mendenhall and his team started crowdsourcing the HP employees -- with videos eventually becoming the one of the highest ranked channels on YouTube.

HP doubled its positive sentiment. These programs work.

“Culture Eats Strategy For Lunch” [CEO Panel Day Four]

Perhaps HP is an obvious candidate for an employee crowdsourcing program.

They are a company that embraces social technologies; it’s in their culture. HP recently conducted a study looking at Twitter for predictability on box office success. Mendenhall’s team took 12 feature films to test their hypotheses around predicting first and second weekend numbers based on Twitter.

What they found was consumer sentiment on Twitter provided a 97.3 accurate percentage on every single film. Meaning HP Labs predicted the success of the box office via Twitter.

At the panel, Mendenhall told the audience of about 50, “the scale of twitter becomes immensely popular for behavioral brands.” He believes Twitter is a more accurate predictor of behavioral trends than any other statistical tool.

Gilt Group Flashes Appreciative Consumers

Alexis Maybank is co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer of Gilt Group -- a provider of access to men’s and women’s fashion brands at 70 percent off the retail price.

Gilt is the leading provider of online flash sales w/over 3 million members in the U.S. moving around half a billion products. Gilt gives consumers a feeling of exclusivity and access -- members have to be invited to join.

Maybank was a highlight of the speaker faculty not just because she is a she -- but rather because she represents a new wave in thinking about retail.

For Gilt Group and other online specialty retailers, Maybank told the audience that web design and creation needs to be a part of the grander fluidity of user experience. Maybank is no dummy -- she was one of the only speakers I heard at the conference who used the phrase “user experience.”

Introducing Gilt Group

Storytelling At Blog World, Storytelling at NRF

Hamilton South of HL Group -- the third panelist (in no particular order) -- has that je ne sais quo when he talks about branding.

A partner at HL Group, he emphasized the importance of the storytelling around the brand rather than a story that leads you to a transaction. And the way he told stories about content creation at Mattel and Ralph Lauren was captivating.

For those of you who were at Blogworld last year, South’s discussion of storytelling conjured the same ideas as espoused by “Survivor” producer Mark Burnett.

Hamilton brought up an issue that was a motif of the NRF event. “Should everything be measured by transactions?”

Much of retail has historically been measured by transactions. But that is subject to change in an era where “culture eats strategy for lunch” -- a comment from the CEO panel on the last day of the NRF event.

Start With Something Small, Good and True …. A Story

I asked the panel two questions at the Q&A section.

  1. How do you measure influence?
  2. Do you have a CRM or Social CRM?

Alexis Maybank of Gilt Group, in considering influence, said Gilt Group measures share of wallet, and Net Promoter Score.

She had the best answer with regard to influence aside from the moderator’s mention of Klout.

Mendenhall gave a circuitous answer about influence -- a tangent about knowing customers’ interest in sustainability. Realizing he was veering from the question, Mendenhall refocused his answer and said “if you don’t have a CRM, or CI [consumer intelligence] system, you are just dumping data to nowhere.”

The panel concluded with a final question from the moderator Brian O’Malley who asked the panel how brands can standout among the constant barrage of marketing messages. Hamilton South of HL Group told the audience, “All this advertising is affecting the human condition. Start with something small, good and true -- build a story and then communicate to the consumer.”

In Conclusion

I was not the only one who noticed the scarcity of topics hitting social business this year. Altimeter analyst Lora Cecere tweeted, “Observed Payvent booth @#NRF11. Most retailers wr amazed that they could have a channel on facebook. Long way from social commerce. #NRF11

The NRF event reinforced the notion that collaboration content thrives at niche tech events but remains too far away from the practitioners who need it.