Customer “Divorced” from Victoria’s Secret

By Diane Herbst @DianeHerbst

In retail speak, it’s called a “divorce letter.”
But to the Wisconsin woman who received the letter banning her from buying anything from her favorite store – either retail or online – it’s an outrage.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” Amy Thompson, who first told her story to Madison, Wisconsin, NBC affiliate WMTV, tells PEOPLE. “It’s not right what they are doing.”

The split between Wisconsin’s Thompson and Victoria’s Secret is a particularly nasty one, culminating earlier this year with a Madison, Wisconsin court finding Thompson guilty of a disorderly persons charge after the 41-year-old allegedly cursed and threatened to “batter” a Victoria’s Secret employee after she refused Thompson’s coupons, according to a police report obtained by PEOPLE.

Models walk the runway during the Victoria's Secret fashion show in New York, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2011. (AP Photo/Brad Barket)

Models walk the runway during the Victoria’s Secret fashion show in New York, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2011. (AP Photo/Brad Barket)

Victoria’s Secret also claims Thompson has made over $7,000 in returns, has used fraudulent coupons to buy merchandise, and has resold almost $200,000 worth of merchandise on eBay, according to documents obtained by PEOPLE.

“We acknowledge that Thompson was sent a divorce letter based on her frequent merchandise returns, approximately 65 returns and $7,637 through February of 2014,” Kevin McAlister of L BRANDS wrote on Feb. 25 2015. “Such letters are sent to customers that despite our best efforts we cannot satisfy.”

A spokesperson for L BRANDS, which owns Victoria’s Secret, declined to comment other than to say Thompson is not allowed to shop in any Victoria’s Secret stores in the country.

Thompson insists she has done nothing wrong.

She says Victoria’s Secret won’t accept legitimate coupons from her, she is allowed to resell, the returns Victoria’s Secret says she’s made are overblown, and the allegations in the police report are false (although a court found her guilty of the disorderly persons charge on June 3).

And those fake coupons? She says they were bought from reputable people.

“I want to expose awareness,” Thompson, who did not want her image shown or where she lives revealed, tells PEOPLE. “I want people to know they have consumer rights.”

One retail expert says Thompson’s case, while unusually heated, is not all that unusual.

“This is an extreme case, but companies are doing this all the time,’ ” Peter Fader, PhD, a retail expert, professor at The Wharton School at The University of Pennsylvania and author of Customer Centricity, tells PEOPLE.

“This is the first time I’ve seen that word used in this context, although I am not sure the alternative words are any better,” he says. “What I usually see is firing your customers. They’re both really bad.”

A Relationship Turns Toxic

Thompson has been an avid Victoria’s Secret customer for well over a decade and loves the brand. So it came as a shock while shopping at her favorite Victoria’s Secret in Madison, Wisconsin’s West Towne Mall that an employee handed her the “divorce” letter in March 2014.

“Your large returns are disruptive of business,” it states. “As a result, we will not accept future purchases, returns, or exchanges from you and we ask that you not visit any of our stores in the future.”

The letter was signed by a loss prevention specialist.

Says Thompson: “I said to the manager, ‘I didn’t steal anything.’ She said ‘They told me I was no longer allowed to talk to you anymore.’ ”

That same day Thompson contacted Victoria’s Secret parent company, L BRANDS, and threatened to sue them if she didn’t get an apology letter. The following month the company rescinded the letter invited Thomson to shop with the company again, and gave her a $75 gift certificate.

The reconciliation didn’t last long.

In September she was banned from her local store because she had “unusual requests and demands,” including asking the store manager to call her when new merchandise arrived, and frequently calling the store and harassing employees, Kevin McAlister of L BRANDS later wrote in an email to state officials investigating a complaint against them filed by Thompson.

On January 8, Thompson filed the complaint with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP), for “demonstrating unfair and deceptive business practices,” according to a copy of the complaint.

One week later, police were called after she was forced to leave West Towne Mall’s Victoria’s Secret.

A sales associate would not allow her to use what she said was an expired coupon, according to a police report, so Thompson cursed at her, calling her a ‘b—‘ and ‘c—‘ and pointed her finger in the associate’s face, saying, “You better watch it. I know when you get off work.”

Thompson was removed from the store and later charged with disorderly conduct after admitting to police she called the sales associate “a condescending b—,” the police report states.

Thompson, however, denies she cursed at anyone or that she was removed from the store.

In February, the state closed its investigation, saying “the two parties were unable to come to a resolution,” DATCP spokesman Jerad Albracht said in an email to PEOPLE.

And in June, a judge found Thompson guilty of disorderly conduct and ordered her to pay a $187 fine and, according to an L BRANDS spokesperson, was banned from their stores all over the country.

But Thompson refuses to give up. Earlier this month she wrote a long letter to the DATCP responding to L Brands’ allegations against her.

“They are going above and beyond to get me out of there,” she says. “People don’t know this is wrong.”


Why Companies Need Their Customers to ‘Love’ Them

Everyone today realizes the importance of digital technology and social media. For most firms, however, the road ends with “likes” on Facebook and promotions on Twitter. According to Barry Libert, Jerry Wind and Megan Beck Fenley, these limited strategies leave a lot of value on the table when customers are looking for a company to “love.” The winners in the market will be those firms that can pivot their business model for great customer intimacy and inclusivity, they write in this opinion piece.

Every morning, like us, you probably pick up your Apple iPad, check your Facebook feed to see what family and friends are up to, and then Google something that catches your eye. If you like what you see, you probably purchase it with your Amazon Prime account and receive it the next day. All we now need is for our iPads to dispense our morning Starbucks coffee and we’ll be happy campers.

For many of us, Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon (the GAFA four), feel as essential as the air we breathe. It’s hard to imagine our lives — working, socializing, shopping and entertaining — without them.

Sure, we may interact with other companies. But it’s less frequently and with a lot less enthusiasm. We merely “transact” with these other firms. They have not created endearing or profound relationships with us, and we don’t want to share much, if anything, with them. We save all that good stuff for Facebook.

The GAFA four are outstanding in the intimacy that they create with their customers. They make a strong effort to understand the unique characteristics and preferences of each customer and use the insights that they gain to serve the customer better. Further, they see each customer as a complete personality with needs around different facets such as work, play, socializing and self. They serve these needs wholly — and this, in turn, encourages more sharing and openness from their customers.

In short, these four companies are building a long-term, holistic and generous relationship with their customers. It’s almost as if they love us — not like our parents or spouses, of course, but by way of “unselfish, loyal and benevolent concern for the good of another.” And the result? In 2014, Google’s revenue was up 19% year over year, Amazon’s sales were up 20% year over year, Facebook’s revenue was up 58% year over year and Apple’s revenue was up 7%, ending the year with their best-ever quarter.

Likes vs. Love

Traditional brands are trying to join the game and gain that essential-as-air quality. But they find it difficult to move beyond a transactional relationship. Usually, we only see and hear from them when they want something from us. These companies are very focused on whether or not customers are loyal to them, but they rarely consider how loyal they are to their customers. Their actions often seem self-serving; soliciting Facebook “likes” to promote themselves. This short-sighted approach stems from a common view that customers don’t have much to offer beyond what’s in their wallets.

Traditional companies are very focused on whether or not customers are loyal to them, but they rarely consider how loyal they are to their customers.

For example, you have probably purchased many cars over a period of time, but it is unlikely that any car company has offered you a loyalty program that allows you to buy four cars and get the fifth for free. Nor is it likely that they have asked you to partner for the design of their next car — except, perhaps, a company like Local Motors. They probably haven’t asked you for anything other than your purchase, and haven’t offered you anything other than a vehicle. The once-every-few-years transaction you have with a dealer is unlikely to create “love.” A car company that wants a relationship with you would act differently.

For those organizations that take a new perspective and build genuine and mutual relationships with each customer, it is a win-win situation. These organizations move their customers along the spectrum of affinity from “transactors” — who have no relationship beyond the purchase, to “supporters” — who regularly interact with the firm, to “promoters” — who share their enthusiasm for the brand with friends and family, to “co-creators” — who actually feel that they are partners with the organization (Figure 1).

Sponsored Content:

Figure 1: The four types of customers

The good news is that your customers are already there, seeking to share and collaborate with corporations. For example, customers are already sharing opinions on Yelp and TripAdvisor; they are helping create advertising for Danone yogurt, designing new Nike shoes, offering products on Etsy and eBay, and creating content for LinkedIn and Facebook. And by doing so, they are offering these companies their skills and assets, plus a great deal of insight into who they are.

Need to Change the Business Model

But most established firms remain hesitant when it comes to this type of customer equality and mutuality. Our research on the business models of the S&P 500 Index companies (based on data from 1972 to 2013) indicates that at present more than 80% of companies employ older business models where customers are valued only for their dollars and not for their assets, insights and contributions. If your organization can break ranks and adopt this new way of thinking and acting, you will see that the more you share with your customers and the more you understand them, the more they will love you.

Some companies are building initiatives and the technological capabilities needed to develop co-creation relationships with their customers — lasting relationships that are mutual and self-reinforcing. Nike, The North Face, Jeld-Wen and many more firms now offer customer co-designed products, and the sharing economy is growing from cars (Uber), to lodging (Airbnb), to clothing (Rent the Runway). Many firms, however, are only building a token Facebook page and Twitter account. In the journey towards “love,” creating a social business is only a small step. The final destination is one where [both] customers and companies enjoy success, fulfillment and shared value.

So, the real question is: “What does it take to love our customers and be loved in return?” The answer: Serve your customers the way they want to be served. Fulfill their needs not just for products and services, but also for connection, community, participation, recognition and fulfillment. Of course, we recognize that customers are not heterogeneous and have unique preferences in how they wish to interact with different companies. What we suggest is that you create opportunities for those customers eager to have a relationship with you.

Changing your relationship with your customers means changing the way you interact with them. Most companies attempt to do this through marketing initiatives and social media. As mentioned above, this is a very superficial approach. The most successful and most loved companies adapt at the level of the business model and find ways to share value creation with their customers.

Changing your relationship with your customers means changing the way you interact with them.

The Winning Moves

Let’s return to the GAFA four, and see how they have created network businesses that expand the customer relationship.

  • Google: Google made the decision to make two of its most popular products open source: Chrome (a browser that is open source through Chromium) and Android (an operating system). This allows users to help guide the development and get bug fixes and desired features faster. People love Chrome so much that it dominates the browser market with three times as many users as the next popular browser.
  • Apple: Along with its wildly popular products such as the iPhone and iPad, Apple formed a developer network to help outside parties create software for its platforms. This ensures that there is a great market for the apps the customers want, and allows those with an interest to participate. In 2014, 59% of iPhone users described themselves as “blindly loyal” to the platform.
  • Facebook: The world’s largest social network, where the users create all of the content, Facebook allows users to communicate with their friends and family and share whatever they want to with the world. In Q1 2015, Facebook had 1.4 billion users, nearly 20% of the world population, and 70% of them interact with Facebook on a daily basis.
  • Amazon: The behemoth Internet retailer allows both individuals and companies to sell through its online channel. This increases the selection available to customers and probably also brings down the prices through increased competition. According to the 2014 Harris Poll Reputation Quotient study, had the best reputation among U.S. companies (for the second time), and it also was the leader by way of emotional appeal.

If you would like to join this movement and expand your business model, partner with your customers and cultivate “love,” we recommend a simple, five-step process, PIVOT, to build these capabilities in your own organization:

  • Pinpoint: Know your starting place. Gauge customer sentiment and how well you know your customers and how well they know you.
  • Identify: Take inventory of the places, if any, where customers contribute to your organization. Take inventory of your customers’ groups and their characteristics.
  • Vision: Envision a new future where you partner with your customers in a new business model, allowing them to participate and share in the value.
  • Operate: Begin shifting a small amount of your capital (including time, talent, and money) to this new business model. Start small, insulate from the politics of the larger firm, and prepare to iterate.
  • Track: Put in place new metrics appropriate for this customer-centered, network effort. Add key performance indicators (KPIs) such as number of interactions (sales or other), number of customer-partners, and value returned to customers, to your standard financial measures. Use these to guide rapid iteration.

Despite their incredible size, the GAFA four are still rapaciously eating up companies and expanding into new industries (see Figure 2, excerpted from FABERNOVEL, GAFAnomics, October 2014). They are gaining more and more attention from, and forging deeper intimacy with, their customers. And it’s not just Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon that incumbents should be worried about. Their emerging and younger siblings like Uber, Airbnb, Pinterest, Instagram and Alibaba have hundreds of millions of customers the world over that spend a significant time of their day with them.

Figure 2: The industry-consuming growth of GAFA


The stumbling block that most companies encounter on the path to “love” is simple: Leaders believe that “love” belongs at home and not in business. Companies also believe that customer partnerships bring dangerous risks and loss of control. But that old way of thinking now brings its own significant risks as Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon garner our “love” across an expanding industry profile.

To capture customer attention, organizations need to move beyond their everyday tactics of “faster, better, cheaper.” They also have to elevate their game beyond the current mantra of “delivering a quality experience” or the latest fad, Facebook “likes.” These steps are important, but still insufficient to compete in a world where your competitors know your customers as unique individuals and partner with them to create shared value.

In short, remember this phrase: In a world of likes, “love” matters. Companies and individuals used to believe that our business lives and personal lives are, and must be, separate. But that is no longer true. Cultural changes and technology have broken down these traditional silos, creating an environment where people want to interact with organizations in new and very personal ways. If you don’t believe us, just watch what happens over time to your top and bottom lines as customers contribute their dollars, plus their assets, skills and ideas, to the companies that listen to them, share with them and love them.

Interested in learning more? Take our Customer Type Assessment to help figure out what type of customers your organization has.

Barry Libert is CEO of OpenMatters, an angel investor, digital board member, and senior fellow at Wharton; Jerry Wind is director of the SEI Center and a marketing professor at Wharton; and Megan Beck Fenley is a digital advisor and research associate at OpenMatters. Susan Corso, a leadership consultant with OpenMatters, contributed to this article.


Susan Fournier Interview re DeflateGate and brand relationships on WBUR

‘Deflate-Gate’ Report: Good For Ticket Sales, But Key Moment For Patriots Brand

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady gestures during an event at Salem State University in Salem, Mass., Thursday, May 7, 2015. An NFL investigation has found that New England Patriots employees likely deflated footballs and that quarterback Tom Brady was "at least generally aware" of the rules violations. The 243-page report released Wednesday, May 6, 2015, said league investigators found no evidence that coach Bill Belichick and team management knew of the practice. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, Pool)

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady gestures during an event at Salem State University in Salem, Mass., Thursday, May 7, 2015. An NFL investigation has found that New England Patriots employees likely deflated footballs and that quarterback Tom Brady was “at least generally aware” of the rules violations. The 243-page report released Wednesday, May 6, 2015, said league investigators found no evidence that coach Bill Belichick and team management knew of the practice. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, Pool)

Here we are in May, in the middle of the NBA playoffs and the NHL playoffs. And what is everyone on sports radio and TV talking about? An NFL team that’s not even playing right now.

“I mean, the Patriots are the team that people love to love and the team that people love to hate,” said Susan Fournier, a branding professor at Boston University Questrom School of Business. One of those fans is her father, and she says “he’s so upset by this.”

Full Story

An Agency CEO and Brand CMO Write Each Other’s Resolutions

What Each Side Wants from the Other in 2015

Clients and agencies notoriously misunderstand each other. Their mutual complaints make great water-cooler fodder but rarely come out in the open. That’s why this year, we decided to write New Year’s resolutions for the other side. And while we may seem tough on each other, we have actually enjoyed a close agency-client relationship for over 10 years, hopefully without most of the issues raised below.

Agency resolutions (from the brand)

1. Learn our business. Too many agencies pitch us without having done their homework. We even had a well-known boutique agency allow a junior social-media strategist to lecture us on Social Media 101. #Fail. You need to be a sponge and participate in our business as much as you can.

2. Be a real partner. We see a huge correlation between curiosity about our company and effective work. Agencies need to make sure their core team is fully engaged, not just the account people.

3. Understand our objectives. Our goals should be the guiding light for everything you do. Things change in marketing. We get that, but you still have to keep a laser focus on our objectives. Fight for great work only when it clearly addresses what we are trying to achieve.

4. Be transparent. Always. Openness is a must for a healthy partnership. And don’t hesitate call BS on us when we deserve it. We’re adults, and we can take it.

5. Know yourself. You should know what your agency is good at, and more importantly, what it isn’t. That will define the type of clients best suited to your success.

6. Be proactive. Pitch us on an idea even if we didn’t ask for it. That shows that you know and care about our business.

7. Play to win. That’s all we want. Always strive for the best and we’ll celebrate success together.

8. Ask us for an endorsement. I’m proud of our agency partnerships and like to tell others who deserve our agencies’ attention.

Brand resolutions (from the agency)

1. Commit to grow. Too much cash is sitting on the sidelines these days. Let’s go for 10X-type ideas together, not the boring, single-digit growth budgets that are popular today at publicly traded companies.
Ad Age Reports
Research Report New School Video

Get this report and learn how some of the biggest marketers and agencies are shifting their production process to account for this demand, and give tips on how to work with production company partners in way that is both efficient and effective.
Learn more

2. Mandate ROI. Three-quarters of marketers say they have at best a qualitative understanding of the impact their activities are having on their businesses. A measly 15% know the value of their social media. Your digital ecosystem can be measured and should be. Commit to a model for gauging its value and by all means hold us accountable to it.

3. Go where your customers are. Build apps (again). Over half of all digital time and traffic is spent on apps, so you need to make credible investments there. Also, if you want to reach millennials, you have to commit to YouTube and content in a big way.

4. Tell the truth. Be transparent about your goals and what success looks like to you. Make sure your agency understands that and works closely with your teams to make your goals reality.

5. Truly commit to innovation. We’re all talking a bigger innovation game than we’re playing right now. So partner with us to innovate on new platforms.

6. Don’t be assholes. (Not talking about Kieran, of course.) Culture matters. If your agency’s people like you, you will get the best work and best value out of them. If you behave like jerks, their top people will rotate off your account as soon as they can. It’s that simple.

7. Invest in agency relationships. The world’s most respected brands have long-term relationships with their agencies. But it seems like half of all companies are now reviewing relationships annually. To get the most out of an agency takes time, patience and commitment.

8. Think before acting. Right now everyone is reading the same blogs, following the same trends, and feeling pressure to respond to every competitive move on a new platform or technology. You can’t retweet your business model. You have to stop and think about what makes strategic sense (or ask us to help you).

Women, power and popular culture

There’s a business school in the US in which female students routinely use the “interrogative lilt” when speaking in class.

This “lilt” turns assertions into questions. The phrase “this strategy looks promising” is made to rise at the end, becoming “this strategy looks promising?” The speaker is now asking for agreement instead of insisting on it.

In a business school!  If women are not learning to be forthright here, something is entirely wrong with the world.  I mean, really.

Popular culture continues to cultivate images that make woman look little, unassuming, unthreatening, unintelligent, and incapable.

Happily, some women are fighting back and using popular culture to redefine themselves. Videos from Ingrid Michaelson (Girls Chase Boys) and Meghan Trainor (All About That Base) give us two great cases in point.  But neither of these go after the “lilting” problem.

I am persuaded that this work will be done by actresses in the world of film and TV. They will portray women wielding power. They will show us how to transcend acts of deference.

The early days were frustrating.  Some actors would overcorrect. They “butch up” their performances but this had the unhappy effect of costing them nuance, as actors and as characters. There was a lot of growling and shouting.  But of course real power usually comes in a more subtle form (and is more effective for its subtlety).

But we are getting signs of a new approach.

In Murder in the First (TNT), Bess Rous as Ivana West and the acting CEO of Applsn confronts her boss.  She is leaving the company and wants to let him know.  He’s a world class bully and tries to intimidate her.  She doesn’t blink.  She doesn’t back down.  In a great performance of self possession,  Rous/West just doesn’t care. She meets his hostility with an attitude that sits somewhere between pity and contempt. No bluff, no rattling of arms. Just an implacable presumption that he doesn’t matter and that she does.  No lilting here. (Please could someone get this scene on YouTube.)

iu-1In episode 3 of The Killing (Netflix) we get Joan Allen (pictured) as the head of a military academy. And the pity of this performance is that it is designed to make her look a bit of a monster. But even as Allen satisfies this requirement of the role, she works in little grace notes everywhere. Which is to say this actress can deliver an overbearing authority and not lose control of subtle messages. This aspect of Allen’s art, the ability to assume authority without diminishes it or herself, was also on display in the Bourne Conspiracy.

Tea Leoni as Madam Secretary (in Madam Secretary, CBS) is giving us a variation on the theme. Her approach to power exhibits a light hand. Madam Secretary leaves no doubt that she has power and what she will do with it when dealing with people who disappoint her, but mostly she is alive to the humor and the ironies of the moment.  Call this a sprezzatura performance of power.It’s a welcome addition to our power vocabulary.  (Men have something to learn here.)

Compare this performance to the one being given in Homeland by Clare Danes as Carrie Mattheson.  This is a wonderfully ferocious “let it rip” approach to power. Clare/Carrie goes at it. (She succeeds in making the men around her look like time-serving careerists.)  This is sheer intensity, with no trace of ego or self aggrandizement.  (Men could learn something here too.)

Our culture is under reconstruction.  Gender, especially, is changing. And I think of all the ways the US qualifies as a “city on a hill,” as a prime mover in social progress, it’s surely here on the question of gender that we are most watched and most admired.

Ralph Lauren, the 80s called, they want their ad back

Here’s a recent ad for Ralph Lauren’s fragrance Polo.

It’s a cultural antique. This is what advertising used to look like when designed to flatter male egos and sell goods that were designed to flatter male egos in a cultural moment designed to flatter male egos. These days, its “Really? Get over yourself.”

Ralph Lauren has not been superbly in touch with the cultural moment. (Not since the 1980s when he helped define the cultural movement.) But this is really egregiously out of touch. I guess he doesn’t have a Chief Culture Officer.

What looks and feels more contemporary?  Have a look at this Fitbit ad.

The difference?

It’s not about one person.  It’s about lots and lots of people.

It’s not about young males. It’s about a variety of people.  Because some years ago, advertising and branding learned it had to let in everyone, not just the Young and Beautiful…and Male.  Who gets the credit here?  Sylvia Lagnado and Dove? Who else?

And it’s not about someone with that terrible look of self congratulation, that overweening red speedboat of an ego.

It’s not about speedboats but the diversity of ways people have found to entertain and exert themselves. This is plenitude in action.

Yes, this ad is an exercise in diversity because the Fitbit is designed to capture data generate by any activity. But notice the tone, the reckless, frenetic charm of this spot. It’s not about anyone’s ego. There are no beautiful people here. No celebrities. It’s a “Here Comes Everybody” exercise, to use Shirky’s phrase. There are a variety of deep cultural reasons why diversity is so important when crafting cultural meanings.

We are on the verge of a season that shows a relentless stream of James Bond movies, and with each season, Bond looks a little stranger, a man so besotted with himself that it’s hard to imagine rooting for him.  How do we identify with a monster of vanity? Those days have passed. This is where you are, Mr. Lauren, on the wrong side of history.