2019 MOY: Susan O’Brien streamlines Canadian Tire

The marketer shows how smart data strategies and a desire for consumer insights wins the race.

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This week, strategy is rolling out the profiles of the 2019 Marketers of the Year. Check out all of the stories as they are published here.

This story originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of strategy.

When Susan O’Brien was named SVP, marketing and corporate affairs for the Canadian Tire Corporation in 2016, she was charged with making CTC’s family of stores the number one retail brand in the country by 2022, the company’s 100th anniversary.

Pursuing the 2022 goal has meant rethinking the composition of marketing teams, launching a new cross-banner loyalty program and investing in a better understanding of the customer experience.
She called 2019 “an accumulation of things we’ve been working towards for several years. It feels like we’re finally on the path to where we want to be… We’ve truly become customer centric. It’s been foundational in where we’re taking our marketing.”

Industry watchers and consumers have noticed the change. In 2019, an annual Leger survey of 30,000 Canadians named the Canadian Tire retailer the “most admired brand” in the country, jumping from #3 in 2018 and topping global behemoths like Google and Amazon.

Many of O’Brien’s challenges are tied to integration. Think of all the retail chains that have joined CTC in the last 20 years: Mark’s in 2001; Sport Chek, National Sports and the other FGL Sports stores in 2011; and PartSource in 2013. At every step, those marketing teams have had the unenviable task of trying to work harmoniously across a group of formerly independent companies in the housewares apparel, sports and automotive markets.

“If you looked at our organization three years ago, there’s been a [lot of] change,” says O’Brien, who is now the SVP of CTC Marketing. Perhaps the most notable of these changes was shifting loyalty programs to the marketing team, which immediately set out to create a single, unified program for every store in CTC’s family.

Triangle Rewards launched across three retailers – Canadian Tire, Mark’s and Sport Chek – in 2018. “That conversation started, literally, the second week I was SVP marketing,” says O’Brien, who calls the program “essential” to her 2022 goal.

Triangle_4_Family_Cards_CMYK_Transparent_LoyaltyThe new loyalty and credit card program was meant to digitize Canadian Tire Money coupons. And while convincing customers to put another app on their phone or card in their wallet is an uphill battle, the value of spending money in exchange for points across CTC’s banners was quickly made apparent to Canadians, beating O’Brien’s acquisition targets.

“We have about 10 million active customers in the program,” O’Brien says. “There are about 13.3 million households in Canada, so those are very good penetration rates. And that’s up year-over-year.” Today, the program’s overall awareness is 52% nationwide.

“I think that’s extraordinary for a new program,” she says. “For a company that had worked siloed, it was the single most collaborative launch I’d ever seen.”

Digitizing the program was about more than just modernization. “We talk a lot about ‘one company, one customer,’ and a single loyalty program helps build towards that,” O’Brien says. “We want to create more of a marketplace effect with all of our retail banners. So in that way, Triangle is the foundation of our strategy for the future – making sure we understand our customer and being able to deliver value beyond an individual retail brand.”

O’Brien championed Triangle internally, getting marketing, finance, operations, communications and IT on board with her vision and marshaling their input leading up to launch. She also liaised with Canadian Tire’s diverse network of more than 500 independent dealers who have input on marketing and branding issues.

Beyond loyalty programs, promotion planning has also been centralized on O’Brien’s watch. “Canadian Tire had really strong data and analytics informing its flyer, but we weren’t using that across all banners,” she says. To make sure each store’s insights and processes scaled up to serve across CTC, O’Brien says she’s hired data scientists and engineers “in the double digits.”

CTC has been data rich for some time thanks to its retail, online, credit card and banking operations. “But cleaning that data up to find real insights is a very in-demand skill,” she says.

As an example, she points to Canadian Tire’s recent Big Red Weekend sale, which made use of cross-store data to change its ad strategy to great effect. Formerly relying on paper flyers with some supporting mass advertising, O’Brien’s team dove deep into customer data across all banners to find who had spent money at the event before — a simple data slice, but a valuable one.

“This better informed how we spent money with Facebook and Google,” O’Brien says, who, with the help of Touche!, put more frequent digital messaging in front of previous Big Red shoppers, “which dramatically improved our return on advertising spend.”

Laying over top of her investments in data and insights, O’Brien also led a new CTC-wide focus on Net Promoter Scores (NPS). It became the marketer’s go-to metric — “one measure for us all to rally behind” — to track brand health and long-term success.

While many see NPS as limiting because it’s a lag measure (it can take time for positive changes to offset customers’ perceptions to move the needle), she’s using it to steer future strategies, as well as identify customer experience problems and how to fix them. This approach led to the creation of a new marketing program that has driven strong results.

NPS showed that Canadian Tire customers wanted the newest, hottest products but did not see the retailer as a place to get them. So O’Brien led the charge on “We Do New,” a Taxi-created campaign that launched in January 2019 and promoted the newest products on Canadian Tires’ shelves across all customer touchpoints.

“[‘We Do New’] isn’t just marketers making TV campaigns,” O’Brien says. “It’s a program that surfaces new products and examines how we do that from a merchandising perspective,” spotlighting items on the retailer’s website, in-store and across its media spending footprint. “After we launched, the very next quarter, we had increased nine points on the measure ‘Is Canadian Tire an innovative company?’”

O’Brien’s quest to steer the number-one Canadian retail brand is an audacious one, and a lot can happen before 2022. The marketer acknowledges that shifting customer expectations keep changing how brands move forward. But if she can overhaul a near-century-old company’s marketing teams, lead a new loyalty program and find success in the online shopping arena in just three years – think what the next three years might hold.