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Cover Story: Digital Determination

1 Jul, 2017 By: Thomas Haire Response

Charlie Cole’s titles — chief digital officer of Tumi and global chief e-commerce officer of parent company Samsonite — scratch the surface of what he and his team are doing for the luggage leader’s marketing efforts.

“Digital marketers can become so concerned with that last click, they forget that brand building is part of the process, ” says Charlie Cole, chief digital officer for luxury luggage brand Tumi and global chief e-commerce officer of Tumi’s parent company, Samsonite. “We may not want to buy a billboard on the street or an ad in Vogue, but there’s attributable success there. We want to be as efficient as possible — and the way to accomplish this is to embrace an analytical fabric from the top of the funnel down.”

Tumi was founded in 1975 and made its name during the next 40 years as a high-end, high-quality manufacturer of luggage. Cole joined the company in early 2016 — shortly before Tumi was acquired by luggage behemoth Samsonite for $1.8 billion. Tumi notched nearly $550 million in sales in the year prior to Samsonite’s acquisition — and the brand helps round out Samsonite’s wide array of luggage brands, which also include American Tourister, High Sierra, Hartmann, and more.

Cole brought a wealth of e-commerce and marketing experience to Tumi — from the client and agency sides, as well as from the startup and major brand worlds. One of the keys to his decision to join the company was that the chief digital officer position held an equal role to the chief marketing officer and other division leaders in the company.

“It’s important that digital has a seat at the table in the decision-making process,” Cole says. “As CEO, Jerome Griffith’s role is to share his vision and, below him, we are the day-to-day tactical team that’s here to accomplish things. The second reason it was important to me is more touchy-feely: if you put your digital division ‘under’ something — marketing or retail or something else — you can’t deny that it sends the message that the digital team is an underling. When Jerome hired me, he made it clear that digital — as a functional area — was as important as marketing, retail, IT, you name it.”

Cole added the title of global e-commerce officer of Samsonite in January — symbolic of his success with the Tumi brand and also of Samsonite’s belief in the future of its e-commerce arm.

Maverick Histories

E-commerce has become a way of life for Cole since he departed the University of Washington in 2004 with a business degree.

“I started working at a dot-com in the real estate lead-gen space out of college (, which then became Market Leader),” he says. “It was a beginning that kind of signified what my career would become — I’ve worked for every type of company at every stage in the process. There, I helped build the ad practice, shifting spend from TV and print into Google AdWords.”

During his four years there, the company went through an initial public offering (IPO) after which Cole made a move to the agency side, becoming an executive vice president of online marketing at Integrated Media Solutions (IMS).

“The agency was doing a lot of direct work — particularly traditional DRTV — and wanted to build a digital capability,” Cole says. “It was a different dynamic and I was no longer in a support role. It was a different relationship to what I’d experienced.”

MDC Holdings bought IMS in 2010, which prompted Cole’s next — and perhaps most crucial — move: becoming vice president of online marketing for Lucky Brand Jeans.

“In the two years I was there, I learned the most about myself — both positive and negative,” Cole recalls. “I came at it from the perspective of a digital guy, a numbers guy — but now I was also on the brand side. I was too insular and didn’t understand the other dynamics, and I didn’t earn the level of respect needed to be a great leader. While we had great results, I wasn’t good at the give-and-take with the rest of the leadership team. I affectionately refer to it as the ‘first job I ever quit.’”

He continues, “I was 26, and had really only worked with analytical DR marketers. I applied what I knew with a great amount of financial success — but I alienated an entire culture. Being aware of my role in those cultural deficiencies made me a better leader — and peer. I’m not sure I could have learned it without getting my butt kicked a bit.”

Next, during a stint at Schiff Nutrition — marketer of products like Airborne and MegaRed — as its vice president of e-commerce, Cole connected with its CEO, Tarang Amin (who’s now CEO of e.l.f. Cosmetics).

“I recognized right away there was a lot I could learn about leadership from Tarang — I still consider him a mentor today,” Cole says. “It was a great match — he’s a consumer packaged goods (CPG) guy, through and through. He said to me, ‘I don’t know anything about digital and you know nothing about CPG. Let’s learn from each other and build something great.’”

Cole says that Amin gave him a presentation when he first started at Schiff that sticks with him to this day. “It was, basically, ‘Here’s what you need to know about working with me.’ I’ve ripped it off in every leadership role I’ve had. I have no tolerance for passive aggression,” he says.

Cole was part of the executive team that helped sell Schiff to pharmaceutical industry titan Reckitt Benckiser for what was widely reported as the highest multiple ever in the nutraceutical space. That gave Cole time to advise and consult while looking for his next move — which came more quickly than he’d planned for.

“I got a call from an investor who wanted to build, a luxury fashion e-tail site,” Cole says about the genesis of a deal that saw him serve as the company’s New York-based CEO for more than three years. “It was a great experience. The creative was luxurious, and the digital team had the funding to operate at a high level.”

But the call to return to his beloved Seattle eventually became too strong. He linked up as a consultant with venture capital firm Maveron in mid-2015. While he calls the six-month experience there “valuable,” Cole adds, “It forced me to look at what I am passionate about, and — honestly — I’m not bullish on traditional VC multiples in retail. For every Dollar Shave Club with a great exit, there are dozens of NastyGals that rise up quickly then die.”

He continues, “I wanted to go back to a brand I was excited about and get a truly global experience. Jerome described what his expectations of the role at Tumi were, and it sounded like exactly what I wanted. Now, post-Samsonite acquisition, it’s an opportunity to go to the next level. I have my hand in more than a dozen brands around the world. I’m a better grower and builder than I am a creator.”

Cole’s day-to-day includes overseeing not only the company’s internal e-commerce sites, but also all of the company’s international e-commerce partners — think Amazon, Zappos, and more. “Functionally, I’m divided across operations, customer service, technology, merchandise analysis, marketing, creative, and more. We work hard to create a symbiosis between digital functional leads and their offline marketing counterparts. That means creating cross-functional digital best practices to support our larger brand initiatives.”

While Cole’s role is evolving daily, it fits within Tumi’s maverick history and Samsonite’s powerful growth plans. Tumi was founded in 1975 by Charlie Clifford, an entrepreneur and importer of South American leather bags who had served as a Peace Corps volunteer and named the business after a ceremonial Peruvian icon. Within a decade, the company became a leader in luggage design thanks to its introduction of ballistic nylon.

By 1997, the company had opened its first retail store (in Santa Monica, Calif.), while also expanding internationally. Its high-end price points first drew in luxury luggage aficionados and then the business traveler market. By 2007, Tumi had more than 50 shops worldwide, and the company went public in 2012.

By late 2015, Tumi had been targeted by Samsonite, which — despite is size and scope in the luggage market — did not have a brand in the high-end, luxury space. The $1.8 billion sale that closed on Aug. 1, 2016, paid Tumi shareholders $26.75 per share and Tumi became an indirect, wholly owned subsidiary of Samsonite, which is a publicly traded company listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange).

At the time of the sale’s closing, Samsonite CEO Ramesh Tainwala, said, “Tumi is a perfect strategic fit for our business. The brand is beloved by millions of loyal customers for it’s high quality and durable premium business and luggage products. The acquisition will meaningfully expand our presence in the highly attractive premium segment of the global business bags, travel luggage, and accessories market.”

On a ‘Perfect Journey’

Not only does Samsonite gain from its Tumi acquisition, but also Cole says that Tumi’s marketing efforts gain immensely by becoming part of the Samsonite brand landscape.

“Before the acquisition, we had a solid plan in place for Tumi for the next 18-24 months — it was right in line with the natural evolution for an analytically and technically progressive company,” Cole says. “Now, we have access to data from 12 additional brands. How does that turn our attribution model on its head? With that data, we’re now just scratching the surface of understanding — from American Tourister to Samsonite to Tumi, what’s the real story? How much are we cannibalizing or competing with each other in big markets? How can we change that?”

In his added role as global e-commerce head for Samsonite’s brands, Cole says there are many added layers of understanding what marketing programs work to support the company’s varied digital storefronts.

“If you’re managing the Samsonite brand P&L, and some guy comes along and says, ‘Hey, decrease your spend in this area because it works better for Tumi,’ how are you going to react?” Cole asks. “Sure, we had a solid digital plan in place for Tumi that would drive that brand as a lone entity, but now we have to understand how Tumi fits into a group of brands. There are long-standing cultural structures we need to respect — but if your results are good, it gives you more time to build those relationships.”

What does all of this mean when it comes to focusing on Tumi’s current marketing message and campaigns — not to mention all of Samsonite’s brands? Cole says that his team is there to support the creative and brand efforts generated by the marketing team.

“At a premium brand like Tumi, it all starts with creative and brand,” he says. “Sometimes, digital marketers can get a bit ahead of their skis and try to exert too much influence. We are here to make sure the consumer’s journey through our marketing and e-commerce experience goes smoothly.”

He gives a pair of examples of recent work, first noting Tumi’s expanding strength with female consumers.

“Our women’s business is blowing up,” Cole says. “With that, corporate initiatives are coming at us rapidly — both product and creative based. Our role is to design our digital campaigns with the brand in mind: how do women experience Tumi? What do our female customers want from an e-commerce experience with the brand? It’s been a great learning experience.”

Cole also notes Tumi’s most recent addition to its “Perfect Journey” campaign for the Tumi 19 Degree luggage line, featuring 2017 NBA Most Valuable Player Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder. “The idea of the campaign is to expand our appeal beyond the business traveler demo,” he says. “Russell is not a spokesman that many would think of reaching what’s been our core Tumi customer. So how do we build a campaign and initiatives around this — and what’s our definition of success for this campaign?”

Cole contends that, as with any campaign in today’s digital marketing and consumer response world, the first goal is to fill Tumi’s funnel. “Tumi products have a longer journey for customers to go from recognition to purchase,” he says. “So at the top of the funnel, it’s about getting the consumer to watch the ‘Perfect Journey’ video online. Once they do that, it turns into a traditional digital effort — retargeting and more — to, essentially, hold that consumer’s hand until they type ‘Tumi’ into their search engine. The message of ‘perfecting your journey’ is designed to catch consumers at the right spot.”

Agreeing on the goal of any campaign is Cole’s first rule in launching any type of performance-based marketing campaign — whether online, offline, or (usually) both.

“But it’s not just agreement on what success or failure looks like,” he adds. “You also need everyone to buy in and make sure you can accept failure as an outcome. Test, fail, iterate. While that makes sense to anyone who’s done direct marketing on any level, it’s not something that’s necessarily permeated across any corporation’s entire culture. Failure is a possible outcome, and that must be understood.”

Cole’s second key to launching a campaign? “You must have the infrastructure of data analytics to properly track your desired success metrics. Most single brand retailers still don’t have the access to the tools they need,” he contends.

Last but not least, Cole says that understanding “where to nibble vs. where to take a big bite” is crucial. “Where do you decide to take those big swings at a campaign that could be a game changer?” he asks. “You have to keep that first challenge in mind — what is success? With our expanded corporate structure, we’re still learning. We’ve gotten better at mitigating risks, and we’re starting to feel comfortable taking that bigger swing. It’s a natural progression.”

Mutual Respect, Cultural Fabric

As the digital and e-commerce leader for Tumi and Samsonite, a huge key to Cole’s success is how well he partners with cohorts inside the company — think of IT, or the offline marketing team — and outside vendors. With so many different groups having a say in the success of Cole’s work, it can be a hard line to walk.

“As a digital guy, you have to embrace education across the organization, and always know what’s needed to be best in class digitally,” Cole says. “It’s about creating a cultural fabric where the brand marketer is asking you for more attribution. If you have an analytical fabric to tie together the story of success or failure, you’ll build a cultural fabric across the company.”

Cole recalls a recent conversation with one of his fellow Tumi leaders.

“Just last week, I was speaking to our head of IT for North America, Bill Morrison, and I said, ‘Let’s make a new rule: let’s never say “no” to each other,’” Cole says. “And what I’m getting at is creating a more conversational relationship. I can come with a challenge to the IT team and if they ask what we’re trying to accomplish then follow up with a better idea of how to do it, that’s far preferable that starting at ‘no.’”

He continues, “It’s our job to come to IT with challenges, not questions. Don’t treat IT as an order taker. ‘Can you install this tool for me?’ is not helpful. At the same time, IT needs to understand that — just as digital is at service to the brand — it is a service organization. That can be a hard pill to swallow. They are there to solve problems for the larger business. Getting past the mutual delusions of grandeur on both sides of this equation helps set the right tone for the relationship.”

Cole does believe, though, in “healthy tension points” in an organization like Tumi. “Merchandise, creative, brand marketing, and digital — those are the four legs to a good stool,” he says. “There’s more mutual respect in those four groups at Tumi than I’ve ever seen. Yet, we have a constant back-and-forth debate about our overarching goals.”

He shares an example. “Right now, we’re striving to drive more regular full-price sales in our retail business,” Cole says. “We start with that challenge, and those four groups come with their own ideas and methodologies — many of which might be contrarian to any of the others. On the digital side, we might say, ‘Let’s double down on CRM,’ while the brand group wants to ratchet up spending on offline video ads.”

He adds, “We do not have a ‘command-and-control’ creative director. If your group disagrees with a proposed idea, you have to be transparent. There’s no passive aggression or disrespect tolerated. But if, say, a video will slow the website to a crawl, which will cause sales conversion to drop, I have to have a functional veto of that idea. And the other way around — if I say I can sell 1,000 units in 12 hours by doing a specific promo that doesn’t fit our corporate or the product’s strategy, the creative or merchandise team have to be able to interject.”

Cole also carries a sense of realism about his expectations of Tumi’s agency partners. “I’m a firm believer in agency partners bringing and iterating expertise to the table,” he says. “There’s no reason, if you’re buying $1 billion in media across 10 different industries, to think I’d be better at buying media than you. There are certain things we’re really good at internally but if I think an agency or vendor can do better — and they prove it — I’ll give them all of my business.”

He also says that the best agencies help keep Tumi’s internal capabilities in check. “I love our CRM technology — but I’d never want to build it internally,” Cole says. “And our branding agency that buys media is incredibly thoughtful and helpful. They keep our focus where it should be — building great luggage.” ■

About the Author: Thomas Haire

Thomas Haire

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