It is hard to think of a brand name less appropriate to the conditions of a deadly pandemic, both in spirit and business model, than “Party City.” But the largest retailer of celebration supplies, with 800 stores, is weathering the crisis by rethinking its role in customer’s lives both during and after COVID.
That means teaching us how to party safely and often virtually. And there lies the lasting lessons of the crisis. As CMO Julie Roehm tells Brand Insider this week, “You really have to help people imagine well.”
Whether through a “Joy Squad” of social influencers, online party planners, video inspiration or even retraining their own store associates, this is more about smarter content creation and communication than advertising. There is a lot of lip service around the struggling retail sector having to become more “experiential.” But as Roehm suggests, that involves a deeper, more imaginative rethinking of corporate culture, product mix, and especially content. You can listen to the entire podcast here.
MediaPost: Party City is vertically integrated, and you also supply other retailers. That's key to understanding the impact of the pandemic on your brand.
Julie Roehm: We manufacture 80% of what we sell in our stores. We make costumes, we make plates, we make cups. When you couple that with the actual Party City retail locations here in the States, it becomes complex. We do get a lot of insight, particularly with our balloon business. You do get a bead on how others are faring.
MediaPost: What did you learn about your customers?
Roehm: What is difficult to prepare for is how people will feel. And I think that this has just been a very big eye-opener for all of us. They've just really had it with the lockdown, I think. And so you're seeing a lot of virtual parties now. We feel very good about the authorship we had in trying to help people celebrate differently, safely, through these virtual and other types of celebrations.
Halloween was better than we had initially thought it would be. They were more measured in what they did, with a lot of ingenuity and innovation like candy shoots. We did the scavenger hunts. There was a lot of creativity.
Balloons were great to send to somebody to fill their room, especially with our same-day delivery. It's a very different way to create a very fun celebratory atmosphere. Those learnings are helping us prepare for the next few months, which we anticipate to be a challenge. So we are trying to make it easy for customers to still celebrate.
MediaPost: Pre-pandemic, how much of your business was ecommerce? And how did the shift to Web this year impact your media plan?
Roehm: At the end of 2019, it was roughly 10% of the revenue. We shifted media, of course, when our stores were closed, with 100% directed to driving web traffic. We went very big on search. We went very big on our social. I brought in a whole large group of influencers, we started to do some deeper partnerships with Google, with some of the social platforms.
MediaPost: What exactly is a “party” social influencer?
Roehm: Moms are a big group for us, as you would expect, because she's obviously dealing with the kids’ birthdays, but she's also dealing with the family events. That's where we started.
Now, in preparation for the holiday, we added on to it more of a young adult focus, especially for Halloween. This year we found that actually our sales were fairly equal between young adults and adults and kids.
We then created something that was proprietary to us, called the Joy Squad. Our mission is to help make it easy for people to create unforgettable memories. The Joy Squad were were event specialists and had some influence in and of themselves. And so they were able to take the best of the ideas and the content and create more content about “how to” with easy checklists across the board.
It's something that's going to continue, but it was really timely because people didn't know how to do a virtual party. They created an itinerary of how to do an at-home backyard summer camp completely, whether it was hot or rainy, indoor or outdoor. Here's all the things to buy, here's the things to do, so mom, dad, whoever, didn't have to think about it.
And so the Joy Squad is something that came out as own proprietary influencer set. And to go back to your original question, that has really been a big shift in terms of the media that is really here to stay, because we've made adjustments to our site, because of what we're doing with our influencers. Over the pandemic, we stood up BOPAC (buy online, pick up at curbside) and same-day delivery. We did that inside of eight days within the first month of the pandemic.
MediaPost: So you created entirely new models on the fly. What did you learn in that process about internally, how to make such quick moves go well?
Roehm: It's probably the most important question. If I don't have an awesome CIO, head of ops, my chief merchant, our supply chain guy, this all falls apart. You've really got to ensure a strong leadership team who are very much partnered.
It sounds so trite. But I can tell you that the majority of organizations I've been in, that has not been the case. There's always a little bit of infighting, territorialism. I'm super-happy to tell you it doesn't exist here.
One of the benefits of getting older, is you decide what's the most important thing. For me, the team, the culture, is the most important thing. Then on the operation side, that was our biggest learning, One of the things we didn't do well was explaining it to the associates in the stores.. [You have to] show it and give videos of how it's going to work, so often that by the time it happens, it just feels like it's always been there. We didn't do that very well initially and so there was a lot of confusion.
MediaPost: So the learning is, you really had to overcommunicate. On the operational side, this really needs to go all the way through the chain.
Roehm: Absolutely, to the associate at the store level. The other learning we picked up midway is finding change ambassadors, change champions. By having groups of associates in each region that volunteer because they really want to be the leader, they’re the pilot group, the first to give us feedback. “Here's a better way we think to be able to explain this to associate or to show it to an associate this should have a video.”
It's really the people on the ground who can give you so much richness in how to be more successful more quickly.
MediaPost: And they're invested in the process. It’s not just polling the troops.
Roehm: Absolutely, and that's the key to really empower the team to be able to tell us what's best. As the executive team, we aren't here to dictate; we're here to help. What is it that you need from us to allow you to do your job better?
We know that if we want to make it easier for our customers to shop with us, and to find joy, we've got to make it easier for our associates to do their job. And we don't always do that.
One of the other big learnings is that when you're trying to create transformation and adding some new things, you have to remove as many things, probably more, than what you're actually adding to be successful.
MediaPost: To bring it back to media, how did your mix change as holidays approached?
Roehm: Our biggest media buys of the year come in support of Halloween. Halloween is our Christmas.
Our media mix this year was a much bigger emphasis on search, against social with that influencer component. We took out every one of our sponsorships, except we added one. The Nextdoor app was super-helpful for Halloween. Because in your local town now, you could see where it was safe to go [trick or treating].
We had a little interactive game, Pokemon-Go-ish, but with one of our Halloween people in it. That was a sponsorship, but different than many sponsorships because it was tied exactly into being able to have your candy and your decor and being able to see the houses where it was safe to go and where there was decor.
The other big change was the vast majority of our broadcast was connected TV, which was new for the company this year. And again, I think that worked out really well for us.
Also key, our PR teams were very big and we have a couple of them working very hard to get us involved -- whether it was podcasts or TV shows -- where they were talking about how to celebrate. Their audiences wanted to have ideas about what they could do to not crush the dreams of their children.
MediaPost: A lot of what you have described involves a much bigger role for content. You're literally teaching people how to party under new conditions. Is that a permanent change in your marketing team?
Roehm: Hundred percent. So we would like to be the author of more trends, rather than a follower of them. With the insights and the knowledge that we have about the celebration space, I think it's our purview to do that. We have an entire party planning team that we're setting up B2C and B2B, and it's not paid.
It's not like a party planner, where you have to have a lot of money and go hire a party planner. We actually have party planners who are here to help you virtually. You can schedule an appointment with them in the store. They can help put all of that together in the appropriate way for that customer. But it's all content-driven.
You really have to help people imagine well. And that's where content comes into play. That inspiration is really important when it comes to celebration. They know that they have their kid's birthday and they kind of come in, they struggle through the aisles. Like, I don't know, he liked Spider Man.
This is where we want to help. We want to build it in-store, have inspiration walls. And we want to have self-serve content that you can get on our site or other places that will direct you back [to us], that will help you in terms of ideas and then specific how-tos, and a shopping list. Again, easy is the key theme here for us.