#RICE24: Where Authenticity and Vulnerability Took Center Stage

Retail industry events are typically designed to showcase the brands and executives that have it all figured out: they’ve conquered business challenges, embraced industry disruptions and charted their own unique path to growth. But the reality is that the retail industry is always changing — and so are consumers. That means even if leadership teams have tools and systems for tracking and responding to these changes, they may not always have concrete answers and playbooks for success.

Although the Retail Innovation Conference & Expo agenda was replete with topics and trends around driving next-gen commerce experiences, from connected TV (CTV) to social commerce and retail media, the heart of each session was brimming with a candor — and even a vulnerability — not often found on event stages.

Take for example keynote speaker and fashion designer Rebecca Minkoff, who has built her namesake brand by being the sole connecting point to its customer. As a result, she is often the star of marketing campaigns, and is even the host of her own podcast, to make consumers feel closer to her and, in turn, her brand. It is this innate connection that challenges her to establish work-life balance and visualize what the brand will be when she is ready to step away (if she is ever ready at all).

“I don’t know how to disconnect — that’s why I’m still there,” Minkoff admitted. “I don’t know how they do it without me because of my connection and my voice. And it worries me, [but] I also don’t want to leave and have my name become something else. So right now, I don’t have any plans to go anywhere. I know it’s very rare for a founder to sell and stay…but because I’m in half the Instagrams and have the podcast — all these spokes that connect to the hub — I’m not sure how that would happen without me.”

Minkoff has been using her voice and connections for the benefit of other women and society at large through the Female Founder Collective she spearheaded (along with such luminaries as Chelsea Clinton). “The genesis in 2018 was being severely lonely as a founder,” said Minkoff. “Fashion wasn’t, and still isn’t, the most inclusive community — sometimes you have to be born in the right family to be invited to the right table. We’re stronger when all of us at the table can share tips, tricks, roadblocks and who to avoid. There’s also power in the consumer ‘voting’ for a woman-owned business.”

Additionally, [female founders] “often don’t know all the things [they should] about raising money or customer relationship management or what their tech stack should be, so it’s about finding experts in the space who have done that and hearing from them. There’s now 25,000 members, and the goal is to make women rich. When we are wealthy, we hire women, we pay them fairly, we give them proper maternity leave — they will change society and reinvest in their community.”

Click here for the full recap of Minkoff’s fireside chat with author and reporter Daniela Pierre-Bravo.

Vulnerability as a Leadership Virtue

Similarly, the C-level executives that participated in the session aptly titled “What Keeps You Up a Night?” were refreshingly candid about the pressure and responsibility of leading a business. “There are a lot of times where I’m crying on the floor,” said Karen Robinovitz, Co-founder and Co-CEO of Sloomoo Institute. “But sometimes a good cry is just what you need to move through things, because the only way out is through it.”

Nick Bodkins, Founder and President of Boisson, has experienced what are likely many retail executives’ worst fears in the last year as his company moved through bankruptcy. He talked about the difficult process of earning back the trust of his employees and investors, but also said that the lessons he’s learned through the process have helped him refine his strategy for the future. “A high point for me was just last week when I was able to hire back one of the company’s first employees, and her response was, ‘When can I start?’” he shared.    

Why ‘Authenticity’ is More than a Buzzword

“Authenticity” is in danger of becoming an overused attribute for brands, but there’s a good reason so many brands want to claim its mantle. As several RICE speakers noted, it goes to the heart of the customer-brand relationship, particularly when consumers are going through their own sometimes difficult journeys.

For example, executives at Bubble Skincare, which started approximately four years ago with just 3,000 or so brand ambassadors and now has 30,000, recognized that the beauty industry has typically not supported consumers’ self-esteem. “Beauty brands had not been the most positive, and it’s a vulnerable time for teens, which is important to remember when talking about something personal like skin,” said Lindsay St. Clair, Executive Creative Director of Bubble Skincare during a session entitled “Creating Content that Builds Credibility and Trust Along the Customer Journey…at Scale.” “For example, unexpected acne is a huge confidence-killer.”

Noting that some of its customers are as young as 10 years old, St. Clair said that’s a big reason there’s so much educational content on its website, and why this necessary level of sensitivity extends to all customer interactions: “The customer experience team answering direct messages have really clear guidelines on how to respond about these products,” she said. “We don’t want to make teens feel they have to change to be beautiful — we want them to be confident.”

Another speaker at the same session, Babylist’s VP of Strategic Partnerships and Business Development Liz Primm, said the company has begun to think about its users’ needs more holistically. “Our focus for the past few years has been about expanding utility and support to parents,” said Primm. “Last year we acquired a mental health app and destination, Expectful, because we saw a white space in supporting moms — there wasn’t a single destination for parents from trying to conceive all the way to post-partum.”

Babylist continues to do “deep research, using surveys, feedback and examining all its customer service tickets to discover what users want,” said Primm. “A big focus now is understanding the time post-birth. We’re looking for ways to make that an easier time in someone’s life. We can’t solve for everything, but we can support both baby and mom, and that involves listening to users. Do they need content? Tools? Something to buy? We’re using that as the foundation to keep the registry as delightful and useful as it is.”

Successful Consumer Connections Rely on the Fact that ‘Consumption is a Cultural Act’

While it’s always great to hear from top retail executives, the keynote session from marketing expert and professor Dr. Marcus Collins offered a refreshing “outsider” take on the larger role of commerce in our world. Founded on the basic truth that majority of the goods people buy are not “needs” but rather “wants” that help us signal who we are to the world, Collins’ philosophy around brand-building involves throwing out the traditional playbook. For one thing, forget demographics — they are arbitrary buckets that won’t help you make meaningful connections — in order to focus your content on your brand and its attributes. Collins said companies are often more successful when they speak to what their brand means to the customer. 

Dr. Marcus Collins signing his book on the RICE expo floor.

“Our muscle memory is to put people in these boxes, but these labels that we affix to people are not real,” he said at RICE. “We have to see people for who they are, their identity. Why does that matter? Because the way in which we describe people gives us a sense of what they’re likely to do. Who we are informs how we see the world, which demonstrates and informs how we show up in the world. Our demographics are just the hardware — they’re easily observable, they’re easily attainable, but they don’t get insights to what people are likely to do. We don’t run on hardware; we run on the software: our identities, beliefs and ideologies.” And that’s what marketers should be speaking about in their outreach.

Click here for a full recap of Collins’ session and the insights he shared.

Technology’s Role is to Facilitate, Not Obstruct

Of course, there was plenty of talk about AI and other innovative new technologies at RICE this year, but across these many discussions, and with a series of in-person visits to stores in the Chicago area, one overarching truth emerged: It’s easy to get excited about new tech, but never lose sight of your customer.

Whether it be new AI-powered search results that annoy long-time users (and in some cases give flat-out wrong answers), or computer-vision enabled screens on cooler doors that look fancy but add friction to what was previously a simple shopping experience, tech is only as good as its implementation. As retailers look to stay ahead of the curve and gain an edge in today’s competitive environment, speakers at RICE reiterated again and again that none of that can come ahead of retailers’ raison d’etre: helping customers access goods and services. Google and Walgreens are just two of the companies that have recently learned that lesson.

“Good technology facilitates the process, it doesn’t obstruct it,” said retail consultant Ian Scott, who hosted store tours during RICE.