NARS’ Benjamin Lord on AI-driven Experiences, CRM and Growth in Asia

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As the Executive Director of Global Digital Marketing & Omni Consumer Journey for NARS Cosmetics, Benjamin Lord has a tall order, tasked with connecting shopper strategy, experience and innovation across eCommerce, CRM, technology and omnichannel retail. His team is working through a digital transformation at NARS that affects every single customer touch point — both on and offline. From the development of AI-driven cosmetic tools to leading-edge O2O marketing strategies in Asia, the brand is innovating at a rapid pace while ensuring it doesn’t overshadow the irreplaceable in-store, person-to-person experience. Read on for our Q&A with Benjamin to learn more:

Why did you choose to join your current company?

Our senior leaders are in the trenches with us, and that’s very unique.

I chose NARS for a few different reasons: I had an instant human and business connection with my boss, beauty is one of the most innovative industries out there, the prestige category is growing globally at a rapid pace, and NARS is a forward-thinking brand with a strong creative heritage. Our parent company Shiseido Group is tangibly supporting the transformation of the brand through our Digital Center of Excellence. It was the dream white-canvas. Very early on in the process, I also realized Shiseido’s leadership team deeply cared about culture, employees, and causes that go beyond delivering exceptional products and services. For instance, our global president Barbara Calcagni, alongside a team of other NARS triathletes, competes in the Lavaman Triathon in Hawaii every year to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Our senior leaders are in the trenches with us. And that’s very unique.

What current developments in marketing are most inspiring to you?

Let’s start with what I have reservations with today: VR, programmatic and the transformation of Instragram into another Facebook. I am uncertain VR is able to compete with mobile gamification or augmented reality at the moment. Programmatic and automated media buying is literally a hole is advertisers’ pocket. Finally, Instagram’s influencers are increasingly lacking authenticity and the Insta ads model is becoming as intrusive and aggressive as Facebook’s. Creativity and storytelling remain the foundational pillars of good marketing – not ad networks.

I believe direct-to-consumer is going to be game changer for marketers, as we’re now able to tell our story directly while capturing first party data and further personalizing communications.

On the other hand, I believe AI is going to be an imperative in the marketer’s toolkit moving forward. Virtual try-on, while it’s mainly entertainment, is showing strong engagement and conversion results. Pattern and image recognition is going to grow, as we live in a visual culture and a world where selfies and capturing content is a second nature. And of course, as it touches my scope directly, I believe direct-to-consumer is going to be game changer for marketers, as we’re now able to tell our story directly while capturing first party data and further personalizing communications. Lastly, I am excited about the digitalization of physical spaces. if you think about it, we spend more time away from home so connecting our devices with environments and physical items is going to be key to influencing the consumer journey. It’s also going to help cater to younger audiences who want speed and convenience of service and payment while in-store.

What are you working on now that you see as innovative?

Innovation can take many forms and shapes. At NARS, our teams are working on new ways to optimize the experience digitally and in-store in order to capture data all the while educating audiences and inspiring loyalty. For instance, we will soon be deploying native video commerce across platforms, offline and online virtual try-on, as well as a suite of AI-driven tools, including a chatbot and shade matcher. That’s the newsworthy stuff. I am also excited about new programs that will help us build our brand with and through our wholesale and retail partners. Finally, we’re spending a lot of time developing CRM tools to support the success and long-term relevance of our makeup artists. The human experience at counter remains indispensable and most of our digital innovations are designed to support the person-to-person interaction.

“House of Nars” pop-up in Beijing Sanlitun supporting the O2O strategy for Asian markets.

“House of Nars” pop-up in Beijing Sanlitun supporting the O2O strategy for Asian markets.

UGC content generated from the Beijing pop-up event.

UGC content generated from the Beijing pop-up event.

From a market perspective, we’re paying a great deal of attention to Asia, where we see most growth in prestige beauty. We recently launched NARS on WeChat and Tmall and we are closely looking at the entire Ali ecosystem. Tmall requires custom marketing across the board – from advertising, to product page designs and assets, and promotions. Although Tmall is an eCommerce platform, it truly was an integrated marketing effort and cross-functional team work, and it’s really how we operate in general. Any point-of-sale is a door to us, whether it’s a physical door (store, counter, etc.) or online door (e-commerce site, retailer.com, social, etc.).

Clienteling is our #1 acquisition driver today in Asia. Because we have artists/humans as the first touchpoint of the NARS experience, we’re able to build trust more quickly, and as a result, capture more data from highly engaged consumers. We do this at counter, in store and online. We are currently using WeChat for Work to connect artists with consumers 24/7. Just in Hong Kong, customer acquisitions grew +235% vs. last year. The next big endeavor for us in Asia is Chinese-driven communications. We’re looking at targeting and converting mainland Chinese while they’re traveling internationally, or buying online from cross-border platforms.

Clienteling is our #1 acquisition driver today in Asia.

What big learning moments have you had along your career and have you had any notable mentors?

Most of my career has been on the agency side, at IPG Mediabrands, Omnicom and WPP, so I always operated in multinational, matrixed organizations. I joined NARS at a time where I felt I accumulated enough marketing and innovation expertise to power the acceleration of a large, global brand from all angles and be part of that brand’s story. Agency work is fast paced, exciting, innovative, but limited. You never get the full story of the brand; there is a start and end to each project. I was ready to make a move in-house but I also was very picky about the culture. Coming from agency, and being exposed to ongoing stigma and misconduct, I wanted to be in a place where integrity and respect come from the top. I had the chance to meet multiple senior NARS and Shiseido executives during the interview process and I saw a mentor in each of them. I knew NARS would be a place that is “people-first” and where I would learn, and at the same time, teach. As a NARSissist now, I can tell our Culture & Values are forged in boldness, open-mindedness, and kindness – and that’s what makes our work so authentic and impactful.

How do you pick and develop the talent on your team?

Quirky and nerdy is good! I usually hire people coming from different industries and with non-linear experiences. My point of view is that there are enough legacy, industry experts at brands. The role of emerging leaders is to diversify the talent pool and be advocates for a more inclusive workforce. Of course, the cultural fit is needed, but I put a great deal of importance on diversity of background and thoughts and tend to bring in people who can challenge traditional thinking, including mine. To that end, I pick people with higher EQ. Emotional intelligence is what’s needed to navigate through change and the cross-functional teams that carry out business transformation. It’s also what’s helping collaborators remain professional and empathetic in whatever circumstances. Empathy is a very strong value of mine, and that I seek in new hires. I want my team to feel safe so they can speak freely to me, about anything, so I can then be the most honest in return.

What one thing do you need from your CMO to help you be successful?

Prioritization. In today’s landscape, we’re never short of ideas and possibilities. However, what we are short of is brands with strong identity and equity. That’s where I see the most valuable function of the CMO from top to down: Knowing the brand and market so well they can guide and model innovations for a long-lasting impact on the brand’s growth. There’s a frenzy around first-to-market opportunities these days, while in the end, it’s about finding the best and most unique opportunity for your brand.

What advice would you give to marketers who are just starting their careers?

I come from agency, and while it’s been an industry shaken by the lack of morale lately, I have also met some of the most wonderful friends and mentors over the year, and they’ve made me a full-rounded, integrated marketer on the flip slide. I would encourage young aspiring marketers to work on the vendor or startup side and get their hands dirty at some point in their early career. Because of the smaller size of these businesses, you have more responsibility – you get to touch every marketing discipline and you learn how to manage projects and people with limited resources. Also, praise and savor every little achievement, and pay it forward. Appreciation goes a long way.

The Fun Questions

  • Favorite place to vacation? Mykonos, Greece. Vacation for me means: fresh delicious foods, blue water, good wine, family and dancing on tables!

  • If you were a superhero, what would your special skill be? Teleportation. I’m always on a plane and I’m starting to feel bad about my personal carbon footprint…

  • Name something that most people don't know about you.  I am a US immigrant with a European passport who lived in about six Asian and African countries and speaks four languages. Being an immigrant, especially in this day and age, forges your character and makes you as resilient as empathetic. I’m proud of that. It’s made me a better person, and as a result, a better leader.

  • If you weren’t a marketer, what would you be?  An architect. I like to build and design new concepts.

  • What's the best thing you've read/listened to/watched recently? Patagonia putting their 10 million tax cut back into the planet. That is #goals to me.