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Interviews/ General Management

The Interview: Denise Incandela, CMO Of Saks Fifth Avenue

by Keith Loria
Contributing Writer

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Article Highlights:

  • "I laid out our vision on how we’re going to transform our marketing capabilities within the first three months on the job, and we’ve been working on that vision since."
  • "Marketing is a combination of art and science, and I think we have underplayed the value of the science part of it."
  • "The biggest challenge—and opportunity—on the marketing side is that everyone thinks they are a marketer, and everyone has a point of view."

Denise Incandela has had a long association with Saks Fifth Avenue. While working at McKinsey & Company, she served as a consultant to the New York-based fashion giant for five years before officially joining in August 1999 to spearhead the development of its Saks Direct business.

That was just for starters. Incandela was promoted to president of Saks Direct and executive vice president of the company in 2007, and then became chief marketing officer of Saks Fifth Avenue in September 2011 when company CEO Stephen Sadove personally asked her to take on the new role.

“My background is not in marketing,” said Incandela, who received a B.S. degree in finance from Boston College and an MBA from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “Stephen asked me to take on the additional responsibility of marketing for the company, with the thinking being that I could apply a lot of the discipline and rigor of the digital space to what we call ‘full-line marketing’ and the overall marketing for the organization. As CMO, my responsibilities are to oversee everything from promotions to targeting marketing, to advertising our loyalty program to social media, to our catalogs, public relations, analytics, and insights—everything marketing-related.”

Laying Out A Vision
Incandela was drawn to the idea of taking on a new challenge and learning a new functional area within the organization. Once in her new role, Incandela began laying out the groundwork for what she wanted to accomplish for both the present and future success of the company.

“My thinking when I took on the marketing responsibility was that I felt like I had a really deep knowledge of the digital space and wanted to build on that and add the marketing skill set,” she told in an exclusive interview. “I did quickly reorganize the organization to centers of excellence, and we now have four centers of excellence. I also laid out our vision on how we’re going to transform our marketing capabilities within the first three months on the job, and we’ve been working on that vision since then.”

Keeping in mind that Saks Fifth Avenue’s average customer is predominantly female, about 45 years old, fairly affluent, and with an average household income of $250,000, Incandela and her team set out to provide an experience that gives a customer confidence, style, and a true sense of herself with a high-level of service.

“One of the big things we focused on was personalization and making sure we are personalizing the marketing to [customers] and that it’s relevant,” Incandela said. “We have shifted a lot of marketing to a more target marketing [platform]. Our emails are more personalized, so across the board we are thinking through our marketing, and we are working with outside partners to deliver more personalization.”

Targeting applied to magazine ads, too. For example, rather than advertising to "In Style" magazine's full circulation, it make more sense to do so only where it was relevant to Saks Fifth Avenue and the brand.

A second big focus was on Saks Fifth Avenue’s loyalty program, catering to the company’s more important customers.

“We just relaunched the loyalty program in early January and are very excited about the results of that,” Incandela said. “We have developed a top customer program where we are very focused on our top 5,000 customers and create very unique, innovative experiences for them.”

Those experiences include everything from flying customers to fashion shows in Europe, to getting them in hard-to-access events, to offering them priceless experiences through its partner vendors.

Leveraging Analytics
The savvy CMO often draws on her earlier experiences in her current position. One idea involves leveraging analytics to better serve the customers.

“Part of the reason I was put into this role is that we were very metrics-oriented on the digital side, and I’ve been challenging the organization to leverage metrics and be more facts-based in our decision-making,” Incandela said. “Marketing is a combination of art and science, and I think we have underplayed the value of the science part of it. There are metrics we can use for almost every initiative we launch.”

Those metrics can be used on the digital side with investments in Google ads or other marketing areas that many say can’t be measured effectively. Incandela doesn’t buy into that theory. While there may not be a lot of data in some of these avenues, she sees no reason why you can’t create your own data and work through the measurements to ascertain whether something will be successful.

“One of the things we focus on is getting our arms around the real value of these initiatives. An example would be we will amp up and spend in certain markets and turn other markets black and find doppelganger markets and see what the impact is,” she said. “I think we’ve been innovative in those areas and getting our arms around measurement in those areas where other people have said it’s not possible.”


Of course, this approach all goes back to life-cycle marketing, target marketing, and really understanding the value customers are getting from marketing—ideas conceptualized through her Saks Direct background.

Another one of Incandela's goals is for Saks Fifth Avenue is to be very innovative on the social media side. That includes everything from having online contests, leveraging Foursquare, and enabling customers to go to the store and get product review information via apps.

“One of the big opportunities we have is leveraging rich product content on the commerce side and bringing it in. We do a lot with iPads at the stores with store associates,” she said.

The company is constantly creating customized assortments, not necessarily on, but on its own; Incandela said her team is always thinking of what they can do to improve the customer experience.

“There’s been a huge emphasis on digital marketing, of course, and that has changed a lot of what we’re doing as our customers’ behaviors are changing,” Incandela said. “We do a rigorous rapid test-and-learn approach where we throw things out there and see what resonates and iterates. We also have a very extensive social media presence and are focused on localizing that social media program.”

Each Saks Fifth Avenue store has its own marketing and business plan, and that is emulated on the social media side with individualized store blogs and other localized features.

“We know the social media customer tends to be more of that aspiration customer, not necessarily ours, but the next generation of customer,” she said. “Therefore, we have a twofold social media plan: cultivating and engaging that aspirational customers but also engaging our current customers, whose needs are very different.”

Speaking of the future customer, Saks Fifth Avenue’s marketing team believes that the emerging customer—be it a younger customer or international customer—is very focused on socially conscious programs. The company is looking to move the brand along this avenue as it predicts who its customers will be in 2015 and 2017, evolving the brand to ensure it stays relevant and engaging.

C-Suite Dynamics
Obviously, it’s important for Incandela and CEO Sadove to be on the same page, but all C-level interaction is important to her. Because a lot of what the marketing side does is directly related to technology and systems, Incandela has an exceptionally strong relationship with company CIO Michael Rodgers.

“I would say we speak several times a day, and he is a tremendous partner to me,” she said. “I am very reliant on that relationship.”

Additionally, it’s important for marketing to have a close relationship with merchants and stores, so staying in touch with Ronald L. Frasch, president and chief merchandizing officer, and Jennifer de Winter, executive vice president of stores, is just as vital.

“The biggest challenge—and opportunity—on the marketing side is that everyone thinks they are a marketer, and everyone has a point of view. Everyone is involved,” she said. “On the digital side, it was easier to position yourself as an expert, and [fewer] people were involved. Merchants are involved, finance people, store people. But it’s all good because you learn how to create a structure where you can get input, and it gets you to a better answer.”

Because she became CMO toward the outskirts of the recession, it was especially important for Incandela to balance taking the brand to the next level given the realities of the economic environment.

In a recent company webcast, Sadove termed 2012 as “challenging,” noting that the retailer’s sales and earnings were below initial expectations due to continued macroeconomic concerns, the election, the fiscal cliff distraction, and Superstorm Sandy. He did, however, point to the positive headway made on several marketing initiatives designed to create an omnichannel shopping experience.

“I can’t say enough about the growth at,” he said. “There’s so much integration between store and online sales that we can’t report the numbers separately—they just don’t make sense because we are moving inventory from one to another all the time. And we feel very good about our site, investing in more photography, more editorial, personalizing the experience, and enhancing our mobile capabilities.”

For her part, Incandela is proud of what she and her team of 90 on the marketing side and several hundred on the direct side have accomplished so far—especially the success of the loyalty program—and is excited about taking the innovations to the next level.

“I have a wonderful, excellent, talented team whose role is to make sure we are constantly ferreting out and assessing new opportunities out there and bringing them to the rest of the team,” she said. “Everything is a lot of fun for me. There are so many different aspects to focus attention on—advertising, catalogs, promotions, analytics, and insights—I really enjoy learning all these different disciplines and working with my team to be the best. It’s been a wonderful challenge.”