Following 15 years of agency life and then almost two years of heading up digital marketing for Chipotle, Jackson Jeyanayagam was hired in November 2016 by Boxed—the online wholesale shopping club with no membership fees—as its first Chief Marketing Officer.
As CMO, Jeyanayagam is responsible for overseeing all marketing efforts including advertising, research, digital marketing, social media, public relations, content creation, analytics and customer relationship management—a seamless blend of convenience, creativity and compassion, leavened with humor, purpose and innovation such as its Prince & Spring private label Fruitmojis snack.
In announcing his hiring, Boxed CEO and co-founder Chieh Huang called him “a skilled marketer who understands how to reach millennial customers in new and exciting ways. He has proven to be a perfect blend of creative and analytical, and I am confident he will help drive significant growth for our company.”
He recently sat down with Ben Arno, Senior Director of Client Services at Interbrand, to discuss how the digital wholesaler is creating a people-centric culture and tech startup with innovation and heart at the center of everything it does—and how predictive marketing, private label products and having a conscience are all part of its brand DNA.
As Jeyanayagam comments, “doing the right thing because we can, thinking about the customer first and telling that story to the masses is going to be critical for us in 2018 and beyond as we grow and scale to the next level.”
Jackson, does Boxed have a people strategy that you view as a competitive advantage?
Yes. There are two pieces for us, being a tech company. Automation, AI is really central to what we do. When you talk about AI and automation, oftentimes people start to assume that human capital is not a part of that equation and that as we evolve it’s much more scalable and more efficient just to automate everything and have everything machine-run and cut people out, when in actuality it’s the opposite. We need those people to not only build and create the things but to implement it while maintaining a culture that can be productive and beneficial as a result of that technology.
Case in point for us, we have a fulfillment center in New Jersey, one of our three, and we fully automated it over the last few months. We got a lot of press for it but what we got press for was not the fact that we automated it. Automated solutions, that’s nothing new—Amazon’s been doing that for a while. Our story was, we have no intentions to, nor did we, lay off any one.
The assumption was that now that we spent all this money and millions on automating, then you’re going to lay people off—and we actually did the opposite. We retrained our entire staff on new skill sets and implemented them into the process of getting efficiencies. So that’s one way we think about human capital and people as it relates to our core business.
The second piece is just doing the right thing as an organization. It comes from our CEO, and one of our founders, Chieh (Huang), the idea of giving back to the community, giving back to people. One of the things that he did was create a college fund for employees’ children. We have six or seven kids now in college paid for by Chieh. And we did the same thing with a wedding fund, where we pay for people’s weddings up to $20,000. We’ve paid for at least half a dozen weddings so far. So that is another way we think about people.
This Thanksgiving, we were honored to deliver 1,000 turkeys to Rev. Milton Williams in Baltimore. @revmilt will be handing them out to the families of community members struggling to overcome addiction. pic.twitter.com/3YX8Vcud5g
— Boxed Wholesale (@BoxedWholesale) November 22, 2017
It’s really just about doing the right thing because we can. It comes from the heart, it comes from a true place. The insight was built on recognizing those are true pain points for people in terms of financials and if you can help alleviate that, not only is that beneficial for people, obviously—they’re more loyal, they feel vested, they feel like the company really cares for them, which is really important, particularly in this day and age. People want companies and people in leadership positions to have a heart, be sensitive, be authentic. That’s kind of how we think about people.
How do you know it’s right and that it’s working for you?
Retention is definitely one (KPI), you can’t ignore that, but it’s also productivity and performance. We know what we can do, we move fast, and that’s important. But I also believe it’s a little bit of having your ear to the ground and having a culture that you are connected to. Chieh, for instance, interviews every single employee. The officers are also all involved to day-to-day decisions in a very granular way, so we have a really good understanding of what’s happening in the culture. We do a lot of things together as a company. There’s a lot of transparency within our Slack channel, for instance, and we do weekly ‘all hands’ (meetings) as well. For metrics, we have quantitative metrics like retention rate and productivity but also qualitative metrics in terms of the feel, what people are saying. As soon as you walk in, you feel it.
How is technology a competitive advantage for Boxed?
We think of ourselves as more of a tech company than a retailer. Ask anyone at Boxed and that’s one answer you’ll get consistently: ‘We’re tech, not retail.’ We just happen to sell goods. Technology is part of what we do, obviously. Our CTO and COO, both co-founders, the ops, engineering and developer teams—they are core to who we are. They are the DNA of the company. A good example is that all of our tech is built in-house, so we rarely go to tools off the shelf and we rarely license platforms. Nearly everything you interface with and experience—from the Boxed app to mobile website to the dotcom—were created with technologies built in-house.
For instance, we have an awesome tool called SMART Stockup which predicts when you’re going to run out of something with a very high degree of confidence. It’s based on your behavior, especially after three or four visits, along with other cohorts that look like you in terms of shopping behavior and makeup, so we have a really good sense of when you’re going to run out of something.
As a result, instead of you having to prompt a voice-activated command, we can actually just drop you an email/text and say ‘hey, it looks like you’re going to run out of peanut butter. Would you also like these two other things that you’re likely to run out of in the next week, delivered to your door? Click yes and we’ll ship it right out for you so you don’t even have to open the app.’
We refer to this bigger vision as autonomous shopping; that AI technology is built in-house, by our data science team, which sits within the technology team. The automation of our fulfillment center that I referenced earlier is another way that we’ve executed against that vision.
A third example is our biddable marketplace within our platform; something fairly unique in the e-commerce world (aside from what Amazon has been doing). We’ve always sold placements on the site and give the CPG’s (consumer packaged goods companies) a chance to do custom promos and deals, but we’ve never had a CPC (cost-per-click) bidding model where they can come on and bid for certain audiences in certain occasions or placements on the site (or both). We’ve now built that out and have been rolling it out with a few partners, so it’s pretty new but that’s an area where technology is at the center of the experience.
It gives our customers the best opportunities to score deals, specific to them, but it also gives all of our CPG’s a level playing field. That’s one of the best advantages—the smaller companies have a chance to bid and be competitive during key moments as well as with specific audiences. So as you can see, technology’s core to all those solutions. Every day we’re building out an optimizing our technology to improve the customer experience. That’s core to how we think about the business and we don’t see that ever changing, no matter how the market shifts.
How are customers responding to the predictive tool?
People love it. If you’re a first-time customer and you’ve bought one thing from us, we’re probably not going to serve that up to you, or you’re probably not going to take advantage of it but it’s great for our most loyal customers; additionally, our B2B customers also love it. Imagine that audience, that busy office manager doesn’t want to spend a lot of time thinking about what snacks and beverages to order for the office. So the B2B potential is massive but it also makes sense for parents, for instance. If you think about diapers and other baby products, it’s a no-brainer. I have a two-year-old and I definitely can’t want to run out of certain things—I would never be able to get her out of the house without her fruit pouches!
People can’t afford to forget things, nor do they have the luxury of time to go shop and think about it. Even if it’s only a few minutes to go on the app and browse and check out, that’s 10 more minutes to put towards something more important—like your family or work. We’ll continue to optimize Smart Stockup and it will also continue get smarter and smarter as more customers continue to come to the platform and use it more. But it’s obviously not for everyone, which is why it’s an opt-in service.
How is brand part of your growth strategy?
It’s funny. ‘Brand’ and ‘brand building’ are very broad terms that get tossed around a lot within the marketing industry (and even beyond). I believe we have a great ‘brand.’ We know what we stand for as an organization. Now, have we communicated it the way we need to or at the appropriate scale? Have we built out the tentpoles to tell that story to the masses, across all the relevant channels where we need to be? Not at all. That’s the difference.
When people say you’re going to build the brand—I would say ‘Actually, our brand is built. It’s very clear what our brand is.’ But how we communicate and articulate it is what we/I spend a lot of time thinking about. It’s pretty simple, what we need to accomplish. From a value prop standpoint, but also just as a brand presence, do you understand what the brand stands for as a consumer? Can you relate to it? Do we get you? And of course, do we have competitive pricing and fulfillment experience that is best-in-class? All of that has to be table stakes. But how we communicate what the brand really stands for and why consumers should care is a significant part of our growth strategy.
— Boxed Wholesale (@BoxedWholesale) October 12, 2017
The litte we have done, it’s clear that Boxed resonates with consumers from several perspectives from the technology to the CX to the wedding and college funds. One good example of that is the tampon tax, or what many referred to as the #rethinkpink campaign; the tampon tax is essentially a tax placed on feminine hygiene products in 30-plus states. So, if you’re in the one of those states buying tampons you could be paying nearly a 20 percent tax—so last year, we decided to cut tax off the price, at our own cost, if you happen to be shopping with us from one of those 30-plus states. That’s what our brand is—doing the right thing because we can, thinking about the customer first and telling that story to the masses is going to be critical for us in 2018 and beyond as we grow and scale to the next level.
So how we communicate all of that—what channels, where we spend—are all a part of that strategy for us because we will never have the budgets that the largest retailers have so we have to be smart and prioritize. So while our big priority for this next year is telling that brand story, that doesn’t mean we can and should be on all platforms and in every market. Certain markets make a lot of sense for us based on our customer profile, and there are certain channels that align very well with specific types of audiences; and then of course, there are things we’ll always test and learn—after all, we are a startup! So that’s how we’re thinking about telling our brand story to drive awareness and ultimately, growth for 2018.
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