Why Zappos: Keeping It Fresh (And A Bit Weird) After All These Years

Zappos was D2C before D2C was cool. Shortly after its launch in 1999 as, it answered the burning question, who the hell wants to buy their shoes online? Indeed, the company soon became the poster child of ecommerce’s promise. Part of company mythology involves legendary customer service. In fact, when Zappos's marketers started speaking at our Insiders Summits over a decade ago, they bragged about epic customer calls that lasted in some cases eight hours. 

Even after its acquisition by Amazon in 2009 the brand has maintained an independent reputation for customer relationships. It also tries to maintain an offbeat tone, from whimsical happenings in its mobile app to introducing unpaired show purchasing. And of course, the question now is, not who will buy shoes online, but why should they buy a range of goods from Zappos over a cluttered field of alternatives?



Which is the first question we posed to Ginny McCormick, their CMO. She joined Zappos in April after a year or so as a Marketing Director at Amazon, and before that CMO at Funko. But most notably she had an even longer career in various marketing roles at Hasbro.You can listen to the entire podcast at this link.

MediaPost: So why Zappos? What’s the pitch now for being loyal to this legacy D2C in the face of others? How has this brand evolved to meet the competition?

Ginny McCormick: Zappos has innovated in key areas like delivery speed, return, and raising the bar always on customer service. One thing has always remained true about our brand, and that's our company's commitment to serving customers. We have dozens of stories across the organization that showcase how our customers have really influenced our business in really meaningful ways. And I think that's the secret sauce. 

MP: Zappos used to point to legendarily long customer service calls but give me a more recent example of customer service driving marketing.

McCormick: Three years ago, we launched Zappos Adaptive. That's a passionate team that works tirelessly to source functional and fashionable product that meets all types of footwear needs for a range of customers.

They do surveys, and they ask customers about something, I would argue, has not had any innovation for hundreds of years. And that's the fact that we buy shoes in pairs. In three weeks, we had close to 3,000 responses from customers about why this industry standard of pairs didn't work for them. Their feedback helped us create the Zappos’ single and different size shoe program, which allows customers to order two different sizes of the same style shoes, or in some cases just one.

We worked with brands to get an exclusive program for Zappos. And it [has] allowed us to serve customers who have needs, like prosthetics, braces, or simply two different size feet. Now we see customers tapping into it when they perform a sport where there is one shoe that wears down faster than others, like skateboard. So, it's a great example of how we listen to customers to take that feedback and really change the offerings we bring to market.

MP: How much have you evolved in your advertising and media plan towards brand awareness and clutter?

McCormick: Our brand is uniquely unexpected -- a bit weird, but always authentically positive. Zappos really is about boosting mood for our customers. When you're in our app, you'll often see it raining cats across the screen when you add something to your cart, or it's in those big moments like when we get your product to you sooner than you expected. I would say, after the past two years, we know customers are looking for more of these positive moments. So, you're going to see a lot more of that conversation as we launch some campaigns starting in 2023 to highlight with everyone our distinct point of view and celebrate those weird moments of joy that we can share with our consumers.

MP: What's the media plan?

McCormick: We think about integrated campaigns. And to me, we have to follow the consumer. So that means our consumers across the US are spending more time in social than ever before, so our journey and our brand will be built in social to engage with them across the platforms where they're over-indexing. Most of our consumers are spending 80+ minutes on TikTok a day. You're going to see a social-first campaign that will translate across the full funnel, across owned paid media channels, and also engage with consumers after they shop with us to deliver those surprise moments that only Zappos can do.

MP: So, what are the key challenges here? Who is Zappos’ core demographic, who do you not have that you’d want to get?

McCormick: Our core demographic, typically over-indexed out slightly to women. We have a consumer who is running her household, has children in her family, and is shopping for not only herself. We think about how we can serve not only that individual, but the whole household. And that's why you've seen this expand. Men are growing as Zappos customers as we increase our brands and assortment of products that serve them across many categories, including running, casual, performance footwear, and the broad assortment of the apparel as well. 

MP: Are there some emerging channels of special interest to you? You mentioned TikTok a couple of times, so I’m curious about what you're doing there. But are there also other channels that you're exploring for heightening brand visibility?

McCormick: TikTok is hard to ignore. We are experimenting on the platform in several ways. We've done live shopping events. It is almost a throwback to the old days of promotional TV or DRTV spots to kind of highlight brand and performance on the channel, but with a more interactive element. We're taking real-time feedback, having those consumer questions answered and driving conversion and sessions. We're also experimenting in content on TikTok, creating more different types of content to embrace current trends and different themes. 

We are thinking a lot about events where consumers can see Zappos brought to life. We sponsored the Bay to Breakers race in San Francisco, which is an atypical running race that really brings to life our quirky personality in a race that goes throughout the city. It is notorious for having all kinds of weird, fun, uplifting moments, and potentially you may see your boss run naked past you at this event, just to give you a highlight of some of the Zappos moments that we've seen come to life there.

MP: With your famous customer service, you must have an interesting connection to the influencer channel.

McCormick: We work with influencers on multiple levels, because to your point, they are great ambassadors for the brand. We think of influencers really as content creators that are helping us fuel some of our messages. They are creating content for us, not only in social, which you're seeing many brands do. We're amplifying that content. We're also using it on [our] site to help our shoppers get different perspectives on products, authentic reviews, information on how the influencers see these specific products, highlights, and their attributes. We also are leveraging that content in CRM in some of our loyalty information, and email as well. So, we really see them as fuel throughout the ecosystem to give authentic differentiated points of view about products and offering. 

MP: And how large is that group? Are you of the philosophy: the more, the better? 

McCormick: Like many brands, we have agency partners and work with influencers in key campaign moments. We have influencers who have reached out to Zappos directly and said, “I’m super passionate about your brand, I'd love to talk about it.” We have ongoing relationships with them to provide evergreen content. We have influencers that we use for specific platforms because that's where their audience is. I'd be hard pressed to say there is a way we're not either using influencers today or testing how we think about using influencers as we go forward.

MP: One of the things I've always noticed about Zappos is that even though you were purchased by Amazon long ago, you don't look like Amazon. You've really maintained a very separate character. 

McCormick: To your point, we do not look like our parent company very much by design. And that gets back to this desire to really listen to our customer, understand their needs, and their frustrations. We see that obviously in our space there is a lot of online shopping, whether it's for footwear or apparel that is truly a commodity. It's a chore. It's a matter of clicks, and that experience is not what Zappos is about. Again, we really are there because we feel like we can elevate that experience. We can bring emotion to that experience, add those surprise and delights that remind consumers that this is something that can be fun again. It can delight them and surprise them. And that is what we have built into some of our experience, both online and our app and then absolutely when you engage with us and talk to our customer service team.

MP: Let’s talk a couple of specifics. What are the aspects of customer service that you think really highlight and underscore those differences? What do you guys actually do, either in the app experience or the online experience that may be a little different?

McCormick: I think the first thing we do is kind of take that idea of really understanding who that customer is and thinking about curation in different ways. We do have the benefit of being able to leverage technology from our parent company but deploy it in different ways across our Zappos shopping experience.

So, one great example is, we recently launched a virtual try-on product for some of our running shoes and lifestyle shoes. And I think that's a great example of how you can hold the Zappos app up to your shoe, swipe through all different styles to see what looks good on you, what trend you want to embrace. And it's a way to make that experience much more dynamic, enjoyable in selecting shoes, than scrolling through a grid and a page. And bringing that to life is something that we're going to take even further. So simple examples like thathighlight our portfolio in differentiated ways. And also, it allows you that experience to share it. So, I was sending examples of my proposed footwear selection to three very critical daughters, who immediately gave me feedback, on which style was okay for a mom to wear, and which ones I needed to save for later.

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