At first, Victoria's Secret had modest expectations for Pink, its sleepwear line for female teens. A brainchild of Leslie Wexner, CEO of Victoria's parent company Limited Brands, the extension had launched in 2004, appearing on a few racks in Victoria's Secret stores. The clothing (mainly T-shirts, sweats and pajamas in polka dots and stripes with slogans including "I Like Boys") was inexpensive and cute, and much tamer than the racy, lacy lingerie that dangled provocatively from hangers nearby. With a laser-aimed demo of 19-year-old female college sophomores, headquarters was happy with Pink's $300 million in yearly sales. But a billion dollars? Not likely.
Then Jessica Simpson's shapely derriere entered the picture. Literally.
Sara Tervo, vp of pr and event marketing, still recalls how it happened. MTV had recently premiered its Newlyweds series starring Hollywood's sweetheart couple of the moment, singer Jessica Simpson and her then-husband, Nick Lachey. But while audiences would remember inimitable Simpson moments (such as her pondering whether a can of Chicken of the Sea contained chicken), Tervo would recall the moment, on the Feb. 19, 2005 episode, when Simpson strode on camera wearing a pair of Pink sweatpants. It was all over.
"The phone rang off the hook," Tervo, 32, said. Young women everywhere wanted to know where they could buy sweats like that. The Simpson appearance, of course, had been a fluke, but Tervo, savvy to the possibilities, wasn't about to let it fade. Tervo was an eight-year vet of Secret, heavily involved in fantasy catalogs and the brand's annual fashion show. Until her arrival at Pink's offices, headquarters seemed stymied over how to make Pink—a chance "to bring in a slightly younger target to Victoria's Secret," in Tervo's words—into a major brand. Tervo, apparently, did not share the confusion.
"I moved over to Pink when I saw an opportunity," she said. Once Jessica Simpson appeared in her pajamas on national television, Tervo saw another one. If the MTV Newlyweds episode "reaffirmed that we were gaining traction and could be a bigger business," Tervo said, it was time to start crafting marketing that would fuse the powers of celebrity appeal and peer influence together. "Our customer base was growing rapidly," Tervo added, "and it wanted more."
A Pier for Your Peers
Reasoning that there would be few better ways to promote a sleepwear collection than a slumber party, Tervo, with some outside pr and event-planning support, staged what was quite probably the biggest one in history. Taking over Manhattan's largely unused Pier 54 on a hot July night in 2006, Tervo's marketers rolled out a pink carpet and stocked the old steamship dock with mountains of pink drinks, pink food and pink candy. In what Tervo called a case of "stars aligning," Ashlee Simpson (Jessica's sister) had a break in her tour schedule and was booked to play live. It was a move that gave Pink a nod to the sweatpants episode with the elder Simpson that had started it all.
It was an ambitious idea, one that would be embarrassing if it flopped. Young shoppers had been alerted to the party via street teams, e-mail blasts and fliers stuffed into shopping bags at the flagship Victoria's Secret store in Manhattan. Still, Tervo was worried. "It was like, OK, do you think anyone's going to show up?" she recalled. But they did—in droves. The Victoria's Secret Pink Pajama Party drew close to 3,000 people, all dressed for a night's sleep. Most were college girls, though a quick look at Flickr confirms some intrepid boys were in the crowd, too.
Local-event marketing usually can't generate the buzz that a national commercial can, but according to NPD chief retail analyst Marshal Cohen, playing to a local crowd was the smartest thing Pink could have done. "It's more effective and communicative to the 24-and-younger generation," he said. An event like a pajama party, he added, "is tangible to them."
This past July, it was tangible for more of them. Taking her cue from the success at Pier 54, Tervo staged "Pinkapalooza" on the Santa Monica Pier, where pink drinks flowed and the band Fall Out Boy took the stage. This time, 10,000 people showed up, a threefold-plus increase over the East Coast count. Pinkapalooza and similar events would feature another of Tervo's creations: pop-up stores where attendees could buy items from the new Collegiate Collection. In some instances, they purchased $40,000 worth in just five hours.
You're Only Young Once
The way Tervo sees it, Pink was a brand whose time had come. Marketing would merely help consumers recognize as much. Pink spoke to women's budding desire to stay young, but not too young; to be hip without (heaven forbid) being teenish. Success would mean slicing the population as thin as a lingerie strap—women aged 18 to 22—but the brand message, if delivered correctly, was just what that group wanted to hear. "It's a very smart strategy," Cohen said, "because every 16-year-old wants to be a 19-year-old and every 24-year-old wants to still live like a 19-year-old."
According to Pink COO Richard Dent, it wasn't until Tervo infused an aspirational element into the brand that it really took off. What Tervo did, Dent said, was akin to taking a solid brand and pouring "gasoline on it and lighting a match." Tervo, in other words, "took pr to a different level." But Dent's appraisal of Tervo's talents also refers to how the marketer helped to bring Pink out from under the shadow of its parent brand. That, he and others said, required a vision for continuity and an understanding of how events that were threaded cohesively through online marketing, plus catalogs and store displays, can not only build a strong marketing message but create a unique consumer community.
That takes more than local parties. Tervo and her team followed up the pier events with a new program that selected brand ambassadors at 33 colleges and universities (mostly big state schools such as LSU and the University of Florida) around the country. The ambassadors plug the Pink brand, of course, but these are no Avon ladies. The young reps build Pink's all-important community image by running charitable programs including the popular Recycle Your Sweats, which asks students to donate gently used clothing. It's then sold to benefit the victims of domestic violence and other abuse.
Accompanying the outreach is an online campaign with videos specially created to promote the ambassador program, along with Facebook and MySpace Pink pages. All of this is orchestrated to create a buzz across a multitude of platforms like special events, video, social networking sites and college campuses.
Today, with sales of $1 billion, Pink has indeed become that megabrand that headquarters dreamed about just a few years ago. Pink is, in fact, one of the bright spots in a year in which Victoria's Secret has suffered a drop in business. Cohen predicts that Pink will continue to be a pillar for the company but, in fairness, that's partly because Pink has no real competitors (for now) within a category it largely pioneered on its own. "No one is nipping at their heels," Cohen said. "You could look at Abercrombie [& Fitch] and American Eagle, but not quite. Pink is an attitude. American Eagle and Abercrombie are lifestyles." More to the point, the analyst said, Pink is ahead of the market curve in product offerings.
Undoubtedly, it's also far ahead of the curve in terms of its marketing and outreach. Most of the credit for that, at least in Dent's view, goes to Tervo. "What qualifies Pink as a brand?" he said. "It touches a nerve and resonates with customers."
Not a bad return on a pajama party.
Photo by Peter J. Coe