01 Oct 1999


Q & A: Jeanne P. Jackson: A New Regime at Banana Republic


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President and CEO of Banana Republic since 1995, Jeanne Jackson (MBA '78) has been credited with transforming the faltering safari clothing brand into one of the nation's leaders in - and definers of - casual attire. In 1998, Business Week named Jackson one of the top 25 managers in the country, and Fortune ranked her among the 50 most powerful women in American business.

Business Week said you had "worked magic" at Banana Republic. What has your strategy been?

I would love to take the credit for it, but I can't. The changes at Banana Republic were started in 1989 by Mickey Drexler, long before I arrived. The Gap, Inc., our parent company, was struggling to find a niche for Banana Republic. They knew that the original safari theme was no longer working, and they were aware that they needed to make serious changes. When I got here we did some classical marketing equity studies. What did the customer like about the brand? We found that they associated the brand with quality, a sense of adventure, and a pleasant store experience. Then we did some opportunity analyses on what people wished was out there. We found a gigantic hole, which was the stuff between blue jeans and suits. Call it "dress casual." So, we combined that need with our equity, and we found our mission.

Defining a mission is just the beginning. How about the implementation phase?

We started with the product. We took inventory of what we had and found we were too skewed toward casual. We needed to shift our focus to be more dressed-up: more options in suits, woven shirts, fine-gauge sweaters. These were the elements of a dress-casual wardrobe that we needed to own with some authority. Then we moved to the stores. We needed to modernize - get rid of the elephants, jeeps, and giraffes that went with our safari theme. We wanted to go to a much more contemporary canvas against which to place the product. Communication was the last piece, which was about advertising and training the sales associates to improve communication with our customers.

Who is your target customer?

Interestingly enough, if you slice our customer base with traditional marketing cuts, you don't come up with a traditional demographic distribution. The thing that our customers have in common is an attitude: they are confident people who care about how they look. They are interested in style and in looking appropriate. And they look to us as a source of information to help them with that. They can be seventy years old and care about how they look, or they can be seventeen.

How have your product lines evolved?

We started with a core brand definition of providing a "modern, versatile wardrobe" and realized that some things were brand-necessary. For instance, it's hard to have credibility as the source for a versatile wardrobe if you don't provide shoes. So, having a terrific shoe business was critical. And the shoes have been wildly successful, particularly in smaller cities. In bigger cities, we've also had a tremendous response to our home business, probably because there are a lot of young people who are starting their first homes.

Action Jackson

As a student at HBS, Jeanne Jackson worked two shifts at the pub in Gallatin - as a short-order cook in the morning and a bartender at night. One night, while she was reading a case between serving cocktails, an Executive Education participant who was a CEO in retail gave Jackson a tip that would change her future. "He told me that anyone who worked as hard as I did was made for retail," she recalls. He put her in touch with Federated Department Stores, which at the time had an excellent retail training program. "They actually hired me over the phone," Jackson says with a laugh. After eight years at Federated, she worked for a series of top retailers - Saks Fifth Avenue, Disney, and Victoria's Secret.

In 1995, when Gap CEO Mickey Drexler asked her to lead Banana Republic, Jackson eagerly took the helm. "Mickey is one of the most amazing people, not just in our industry but in any industry. The opportunity to work for Mickey was one I was not going to pass up under any circumstances," says the enthusiastic Colorado native. "And it has been even better than I'd hoped."

What is Banana's relationship with Gap, Inc.?

We're a division of Gap, Inc., which has three brands: Gap, Banana Republic, and Old Navy. In November of last year, I was put in charge of Gap, Inc., Direct Business, where we took all three brands and put them under one group to leverage them across catalog and online channels. I'm currently in charge of Gap Online and the Banana Republic catalog. Soon we will bring Banana Republic and Old Navy online.

What will the Web bring to Banana?

Having a presence on the Web will be a natural extension of the brand. An e-commerce site for us will be an even better communication tool, because we can convey our versatility. We will be able to show customers the different ways our clothes can be worn and help them find looks that are appropriate for them. People rely on us for advice, and they'll be able to find it on the Web.

What is the role of the newly revitalized catalog business?

Back when we were creating the new Banana Republic, we needed a very strong communication vehicle. Publishing a clear, cohesive catalog that is directed at the customers we want to talk to has allowed us to get our story out and, at the same time, to generate revenue. The response - in increased direct-mail sales and in the growing number of customers who come into the store - has been terrific.

What is the philosophy behind your flagship stores?

The flagships are a way for us to get our story out. When we looked at our overall communication strategy, we found that there were thirteen markets in America where the majority of fashion goods are sold. In each of those markets, there is a central place where people do their serious shopping. We've designed the stores to be an oasis for our customers. By putting in a flagship store, we are able to make a statement in those markets about what the brand is. We will soon open two new ones - one in Manhattan, at Rockefeller Center, and one in Santa Monica. They will be the two largest flagships yet.

What do you see as Banana's biggest challenge over the next few years?

Quality growth. That is a challenge for any business of our size. We also need to stay focused on our customers and their needs. We need to stay ahead of them, to try to anticipate what they need, and to have it there for them when they are ready.

We've talked about your company's mission and products. What about its values?

Our corporate values are articulated on a concise, seven-line card we all carry. From "Everyone counts" to "Do the right thing," our values are much like our brands: simple and clear. We truly believe in doing "the right thing" and are involved in wide-ranging efforts, such as paid days off for our corporate employees to do volunteer work, sponsorship of arts endeavors, and a Gap foundation to help at-risk youth to realize their potential and experience success.

Not to put you on the spot, but what do you usually wear to work?

I dress Banana Republic. Think how badly my designers would feel if I showed up at work and wasn't wearing their stuff. Everyone around me is dressed in Banana head to toe, near as I can tell.

 
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