Using email marketing effectively for and consistently with your brand

The Neiman Marcus Group’s Neiman Marcus brand has been a standout brand and concept for years.  Their brand position as a premium retailer of luxury goods has sent a very clear message through their retail stores and catalogues and that incredibly valuable brand asset has been a key driver of the company’s historical growth (not to mention historically putting a premium valuation multiple on its parent company in the financial markets).  However, I believe that Neiman Marcus has a potentially serious problem on their hands with that incredibly valuable asset.  Neiman Marcus is not using their premium brand in a high-end fashion (pun totally intended) in the realm of web marketing.

Now I am the first to admit that I am neither Neiman Marcus’ target customer nor an enthusiast of premium beauty, housewares or apparel products.  Neiman Marcus’ goods are at the high-end of the market and I shop more at the “Maxx for the Minimum” end of the spectrum, particularly when shopping for myself.   Actually, the only time I ever shop at Neiman Marcus is if I am trying to impress someone with my gift, such as for clients at the holidays or for special friends or occasions.  I am what you would categorize as a very light user of Neiman Marcus (and my bank account thanks me for that).

Back during the 2007 holiday season I sent a few gifts to clients using Neiman Marcus’ online site at (sorry if you are a client and didn’t get one).  Either I unintentionally opted-in to their email list or since I ordered from them they believed they had permission to email me- I can’t really remember either way.  Nevertheless, I began receiving NM email updates.  Generally speaking, I really wouldn’t mind an occasional email from Neiman Marcus.  In fact, each year I receive somewhere between four and six print catalogues from them and read each one of them front-to-back to come up with good gift ideas.  However, since my fateful purchasing spree over a year ago, I have received a lot of email from Neiman Marcus.  I mean a LOT.  I am not so great about cleaning out my personal email box and I started noticing pages and pages of Neiman Marcus emails.  So, starting in the spring of 2007 I decided to do a little experiment and deliberately made sure not to delete emails from Neiman Marcus, and what I found was shocking: I got an email from them almost every day and in some months every single day!  I have received well over 300 emails from Neiman Marcus in the last year alone.  There are some days which they have sent two emails (e.g. February 12, 2009: email one: “Start Spring with a rosy outlook + Free earrings with purchase and online shipping” and email two: “Coat & Fur Sale starts today at Neiman Marcus”- and emails were received the days prior and after as well!)

If you examine the context, this is a perfect illustration of what not to do.  Neiman Marcus is an upscale brand.  I am not an avid Neiman Marcus customer and do not need nor want an update virtually every day.  Neiman Marcus, by employing this strategy has made their brand appear to me, the light customer, as non-exclusive and non-aspirational- the exact OPPOSITE of what they have spent decades cultivating their brand to stand for.  Also, given the number of free shipping and promotional offers, NM can rest assured that if and when I do shop with them, I will never do so without a free shipping offer and a promotional code, as they seem so easy to come by.  I can almost guarantee you this was not the intended effect.

So how could this marketing strategy be more effective?  One suggestion would be to segment the users.  Those who are elite users and enthusiasts of Neiman Marcus and their products could have the opportunity to sign up for first-to-know special updates.  This should be very easy for Neiman Marcus to do given that they already have a loyalty program (called InCircle) in place- they know who their top enthusiasts are.  They can combine their email program with their broader loyalty program to reward and target their most avid customers.  I have put similar programs in place for many clients and it is clear- while enthusiasts love the constant attention, other customers do not, so you have to be very careful in targeting the right email marketing to the right customers.

For light to moderate customers, why not combine the emails into one email that is noteworthy?  Instead of sending light customers an update for Fendi one day, Prada the next and La Mer the next, combine the content into one monthly newsletter.  Perhaps the “Top 10 Trends for May” could be the subject, with interesting content, featured items and links included.  Then the light-to-moderate user would be excited to open the email and engage in a well put-together newsletter instead of thinking “geez, another Neiman Marcus email” and ignoring it, knowing that since another one is coming tomorrow, this one probably isn’t worth opening.

There is absolutely nothing aspirational or premium about sending out that much email to light-to-moderate customers.  It screams low budget and desperate, even if a premium item is in the subject line.  And Neiman Marcus is not the only company going overboard with email solicitations.  There are dozens that come to mind, but in some cases it is not quite as damaging because their brands are virtually synonymous with overzealous solicitations.  Victoria’s Secret is one that comes to mind as a borderline-spammer; however, I am used to getting a VS catalogue about twice a week in the mail, so a frequent email from them is more expected than it is from Neiman Marcus.

So Neiman Marcus, don’t damage that brand that you have spent so many decades honing and revamp your email strategy to be consistent with your market position, pronto!