Welcome  to Social Pulse Podcast: Retail Edition, where we’re digging into the challenges, successes, and stories of social media and community professionals in the industry, just like you.

When I was growing up, the moment we looked forward to the most every year was Christmas morning, waking up to piles of wrapped gifts around the Christmas tree. The second most important moment was always months earlier when we’d get the JCPenney catalog and fight for the turn to spend hours poring over and circling all the toys we hoped Santa would bring us.

So much has changed since those years from how products are shared and marketed to how brands like JCPenney are even perceived. And before you think, “Oh, that’s just a problem for former brick and mortar brands,” stop and realize that we’re in the midst of the fourth Industrial Revolution, thanks to AI, and things are changing once more.

What lessons can we take from brands who’ve been through incredible shifts in society and are still standing? What are some of the challenges they faced and how do they overcome them?

That’s exactly what Briana Vela is going to talk to us about in this episode, hosted by Agorapulse’s head of Strategic Partnerships, Mike Allton. Listen to the podcast below or read the transcript that follows.

Brianna is a Texan native from Grand Prairie who brings her vibrant energy to JCPenney as their social media content senior specialist.

Graduating from Texas Tech University with a Bachelor of Arts in Public Relations and Spanish, Briana has spent seven dynamic years navigating the digital landscape, Along the way, she’s dipped her toes into diverse industries, including sports, restaurants, hair, and retail, honing her craft. Currently, she’s pouring her creativity into crafting engaging content for the iconic retailer, JCPenney, adding her unique touch to the brand’s online presence.

Tell us about your day-to-day role at JCPenney. 

Worklife at JcPenney

Briana Vela: So I actually joined the JCPenney team around June of last year of 2023. I had come from actually Michael’s craft stores, prior to that and was in brand marketing. I really was wanting to get into the social space again. I think that was where my passion was. And I will say I—when I graduated college—I went and did social media, and I loved it.

Thought it was great, but I did take some time away from social media to learn a couple of other things. So I did brand marketing. I did a couple of email positions and responsibilities, even event marketing. So I’m fully into this marketing industry. And so I really loved and wanted to get back to social.

So. I decided to go back to my roots and go with another retailer that was not arts and crafts. I love arts and crafts, but there’s another added element to arts and crafts where you have to be creative, but you’re in a box, you have to come up with multiple ideas for arts and crafts when it comes to marketing.

You’ve got to be extra, extra creative, which I love. Like I said, arts and crafts is not really my thing. So I went on and I was like, “Well, let me go to like an actual retailer like clothes, fashion. And that’s where I align my interest. And so, I had actually a friend that was ready to kind of bring me in.

I went to JCPenney and I will say it’s been really one of the best experiences job-wise that I’ve had. My managers are great. Leadership is great. I’ve truly been really, really happy.

But my day-to-day really does look different every day. For the most part, I am planning. I’m strategizing.

I am fully creating content. I am fostering partnerships and collaborations where we go. And honestly, it’s been such a great learning experience, and, honestly, I’m so grateful for it.

Mike Allton: Love it. I love that you have such a broad background in marketing. You’re not like in this sole pillar of social media marketing. That makes it easier for you to collaborate because you’re able to better communicate and understand what other departments are doing and what other external collaborators are doing.

And it’s funny, you mentioned Michael’s. Most of you listening don’t know that I actually do have retail experience—not with Michael’s, but with a pool and spa company that took over a former Michael’s. So you imagine that giant box warehouse-like experience of Michael’s. Well, we emptied it and filled it up with a couple spools and a bunch of pools and a bunch of hot tubs.

And that was my pool. Big taste of retail, but we’re talking about JCPenney’s here and I know things have changed over the years for JCPenney in a lot of ways, good and bad, but their brand perception has changed. I want to talk about that. What have some of the other challenges been for you because of that?

How Do You Handle a Big Shift in Brand Perception?

Briana Vela: For being with the company for what I think almost a year now, I’ve learned a lot about retail brand perception. And that’s it. And I’ve definitely worked with brands that, you know, aren’t the biggest in the sense, like I have background also in small business, marketing as well.

And so when you’re coming to a big retailer like JCPenney, there’s a lot of, say, perceptions that you’re going to have to face. And that’s just like being a customer in a sense, like you’re going to have to go in with an open mind when you’re going into a retail space. We know that brick and mortar is not the hottest thing right now, but it is something that we’ve had to work against.

And, you know, in 2022, JCPenney did have a hardship with the B-word, so since that’s happened, I mean it’s really been trying to fight the perception of the B-word. So a lot of that is either the perception is that one. we don’t exist, two. that we are still on the way down, which has to be the complete opposite of what it is to work at JCPenney right now.

I mean, we’ve gone through a rebrand since the time that I’ve been here. They’ve had a 1 billion investment into the retail stores. So that means they’re really making big changes. A rebrand. So the new slogan for the rebrand is Make It Count.

 And honestly, it’s taking all of those things and figuring out what works best with their audience. And when I say that, it’s like really putting your ear to the ground and listening to what people have to say. 

So let’s pull that apart a little bit because you’re talking about working with a brand where it’s basically a household name, at least in North America.

Mike Allton: I don’t know how far JCPenney’s reach is. Obviously, like I said at the outset, it’s a brand I grew up with. But as you pointed out, you know, perceptions have changed. Over the years, how are you approaching these kinds of challenges? What are you doing to identify? I mean, you said ears to the ground, but, let’s get specific here.

How Does a Brand Perception Change Affect What You Do on Social?

What are you actually doing to listen to those customers and understand what is the current perception? What does that mean? How does that impact what we’re doing on social media?

Briana Vela: There are so many levels to this that I think about daily, like I go to bed thinking about this type of stuff.

It’s the stuff that keeps me up at night. Cause I, I, I truly enjoy marketing and like, I think it’s so fascinating when you get down to the psychology of it. But, That’s just, that’s just part of it. You know, there’s this other part where you’re strategizing and that honestly, the things that keep me up at night motivates my strategy to be as open minded and just open to the changes that we’re doing.

But, honestly, the strategy that I think anybody in social that is going through, say, a brand perception change is: You have to be adaptable. You have to be resilient. You have to be innovative, authentic, and you have to be customer centric because you have to be able to know for one like, “Okay, like what are the challenges that I’m working against?”

And again, brand perception is a challenge, but it’s a challenge that you’re able to actually overcome when you get down to it. It’s just honestly really breaking down the data that we already know and that we already have in our hands. And it’s honestly being able to focus on the things that we can control.

So, like I said, data is always going to be there. It’s always going to be that fact point that you have to learn from. And honestly, it’s been really fun journey to navigate that because it’s like you’re putting the puzzle pieces together and trying to make it seem flow flawlessly and almost like you have to be, again, adaptable to what is going on in your situation. 

You know, when a brand like this, which is 121-22 years old, there’s so much that you have to be transparent with and acknowledge that you might not be the trendiest brand out there, but you know what?

We still do. We can still show you that we could be fun and trendy and we have items that you’re interested in that we can offer to you and we can offer to you at a great value.

How Does Data Inform Your Workday?

Mike Allton: So could you give me an example of some of this data that you’re talking about?

You know, what is it? Where is it coming from? How is it informing you and maybe how you have adjusted in response? So what kind of data are we talking about?

Briana Vela: Yeah, I’m talking about data. Your content, so Instagram, Instagram, TikTok, Pinterest, Facebook. I’m thinking of all the platforms we’re on.

I mean, honestly, I am going in, and we’re reporting every single week. Every day is a little harder to see some results, but like every week you’re able to see what are the impressions? What are the engagements that people that you’re learning from that people are reacting to?

So if you’re able to engage and see impressions … say like, we know that promo is so big for us on Facebook. Look at the demographic that’s on Facebook. It’s those moms, it’s those grandmas that love JCPenney that are brand loyalists, and they’re really connecting with those promos because they know that that’s there. It’s just being as simple as you can and telling them, “Okay, look, we’re going to have an event,” or “we’re going to have a promo event that is five days long, come in, don’t come in.”

You know, it’s really understanding the platform’s audience as well. I think that is a really big thing. So Instagram, Instagram. In your words, who do you think an Instagram audience is?

Mike Allton: In my words, Instagram’s interesting because you’re gonna see a wide range of individuals.

I’m not a younger person by any stretch. I’m turning 50 this year, and I’m very active on Instagram. But I also know that I’m an exception in the sense that I’ve worked in social media, and I have for over a decade. So I would suggest that the audience trends younger on Instagram compared to, say, Facebook. Not as young overall as TikTok. 

Briana Vela: Right. So again, like Instagram, you’re still going to have, say, your mom’s. You’re going to have moms, you’re going to have men that are interested in supporting a family, and things like that. So the demographic is slightly younger, slightly younger than Facebook.

But it’s not that much different. It’s not. And then TikTok. TikTok is very Gen Z centric, but I will not lie: My mom and my dad are on TikTok as well. They’re learning things and they’re taking from that. I think one of the things that I learned from my brand days was how to really navigate or like categorize a type of content.

I always have this thing where I’m like, “You have to understand if you’re with your piece of content, are you inspiring? Are you entertaining or are you educating? 

Mike Allton: Yep. 

Briana Vela: And all three of them are to engage the audience. When I say that, that’s like a messaging category that I’ve taken down to my core because I really do sometimes look at content and I’m like, “Okay, what is this piece of content trying to do for me?”

At least. “Is it educating me, giving me knowledge of something? Is it giving me motivation and inspiring me to go out and buy something on Amazon or Target? Or is it entertaining me?” Like it’s a meme. I relate to it. And I feel like it’s so funny because for JCPenney, we test and learn these memes, and they do so well because they’re just so fun.

And when you think of, again, JCPenney, you’ve said it. It’s nostalgic. It’s a nostalgic brand that everybody has always said, like, “Oh, when I grew up, I remember the brand being this,” or the catalog, like, “Oh my goodness, the catalogs.” Everybody loves them, and they are like, “Bring that back, bring that back!”

So, it’s definitely like I said, when you have to listen, you have to watch, and you have to test and learn to be able to understand what your audience likes. Because, I mean, honestly, I love a good test and learning environment because again, when you’re going back and looking at that data, you’re analyzing that.

Based on the content that you’re posting. I will tell you, I’m still trying to figure it out myself. I think it is very much a test and learn environment at JCPenney, which I absolutely love because it really gives you the opportunity to learn from your audience.

Mike Allton: I’m glad you said it that way because there’s a core truth there that everyone listening, whether you’re in retail marketing or not, should understand. Social media should be a constant test and learn, and then test and relearn environment, because social media is constantly changing.

It’s not something you learn once, and then you just do the same way over and over again for the rest of your career. That’s not possible. Our audiences are changing. Their behaviors are changing. The platforms themselves change not as frequently as we think, but they do change a lot. And they’re almost micro-societies.

And it almost takes a sociologist plus a historian plus a computer programmer to really pull apart what’s actually happening on social media because it’s a complex system and you can’t talk to and communicate successfully with a complex system without changing and adapting on a regular basis. Like I mentioned at the outset, I grew up with these catalogs being shipped to my house. I just thought it was genius.

Because this catalog, it went to the entire household, and there was literally something in that catalog for everybody. But social media today—a lot of people think it’s this one to many marketing channel, but it’s truly a one to one marketing channel. Each post is seen and read by. Individuals making audience determination, targeting, just this huge challenge.

How Have You Approached Marketing Channels at JcPenney?

Briana Vela: Absolutely. And I think this is such a thought-out question. I love it. Cause it is, it, that is such a great, I guess, like reflection of where we are now. but honestly, it’s just focusing our strategies back to our customers, analyzing our data. And the number one thing is sticking to our values and our brand pillars.

I think one of the things that we’ve really, really tried to, to show and feel is that we are making the products and the things that we’re selling truly accessible. So we’re trying to make fashion accessible. We’re doing really cool brand collabs with different stylists and things like that where I think we’re hitting those strategies where we are trying to gain a new audience.

And we’re doing that by, again, testing and learning through these collabs. We’ve done collabs with influencers, we’ve done collabs with, again, stylists. And, we have some really cool ones coming soon. But it’s been a really good opportunity to put out a feel for what people are interested in and stick to our values. We truly want people to know that you can get everything at JCPenney’s. It’s a one stop shop, and I think it’s, again, being adaptive to what that looks like for everybody.

And, again, it’s all that to say that we just want to genuinely connect with people. And that’s what we really want.

Mike Allton: I love that approach. You’re talking about working with influencers, you’re collaborating with partners, but each time you have your core values in mind so you’re not sacrificing those for a quick win. Everything is reflected in the work that you’re doing. And that’s a fantastic approach. It’s something I’ve preached off and on for years about influencer marketing. Particularly, don’t work with an influencer that doesn’t reflect your values and your worldview, because that’s not going to work out the way you want.

So folks, we’re talking with Brianna about some of the challenges facing brick and mortar brands, particularly those who’ve weathered decades of change and how they’re solving social media today. And I’ve got a few more questions for Brianna that you’re not going to want to miss. Let me share with you a quick story about how another retail brand is solving for social media.

How Does an Iconic Brand Like JcPenney Adapt to New Generations?

Briana Vela: Yeah, absolutely. I think just first off, like Gen Z, can we give them a round of applause? Because truly they have turned social media upside down, and they’ve changed it so much in the fact that we are no longer in the Instagram world way where we want really pretty, commercial-loved pictures.

We’re not there anymore. We are in a place where they love content to be really organic, really authentic, and really, again, something that they’re going to either be inspired by, educated by, or entertained by. So, I feel like there was a really big shift after COVID, when during that time we were all on our phones, we were all reacting to COVID the same way.

And I think that has changed so much of this. Like, we want social media to be perfect, and it’s done such a number on all of us that I think that it has changed for the better because we are able to really show that authentic side of our brand and to engage with our audience a little bit more.

And I feel like in a more organic way, it honestly has gone away from this perfect image. Like, we’re not looking for perfection.

We’re looking for what’s real, what’s there. I mean, so UGC was like a really big thing around this time. But ever since, say, I think in the last year, employee generated content has gone up in interest. 50%. I’m not even kidding you. I just read this here recently, not too long ago, but employee generated content is what everybody wants to see now from brands.

Like everybody’s doing it. Duolingo. We’ve even tried a little bit, and we’ve gotten really, really, really good interactions with it. Because when you’re able to see an employee come up and be funny and have a brand connection, it gives a face to the people that are really coming up with the things that you’re, you’re working on.

And so I just think it’s a really beautiful thing because it really feels genuine and authentic to me, and I’ve learned so much from it. I’m no longer scared to be in front of the camera when it comes to content creation.

And it’s a great thing and I think it’s a great movement that they’ve just been fully leading through in the last couple of years. So, again, I think it just rounds out what they’re wanting to see. And it gives a perception of we’re people too. We’re not just a brand.

We’re a group of people that have put a lot of love and work into our everyday lives of just working and going and feeling the brand that we love. 

Mike Allton: This is such a fascinating observation to me, because again, I grew up with this, which meant I grew up with the imagery that was in the catalogs.

And if you can visualize that, you’re visualizing highly polished models, photoshoots, right? There was nothing authentic organic at all in a JCPenny catalog and the seventies or the eighties.

How Are You Creating Content Today?

Mike Allton: I mean, you mentioned you’re more confident now in front of the camera. You mentioned a little bit of UGC, but the organization overall … how was it going about creating this kind of authentic content? 

Briana Vela: I think it’s genuinely created this dynamic where it’s okay that things aren’t perfect, that things don’t need to be fully laid. You don’t have to have a full photoshoot to have a good piece of content, and I think that’s been such a light bulb for everybody, because I think that you’re able to just push out content as you feel it. I love going into the stores, and that’s any store. I love going into any store and just taking content.

I’m like, “This is a great piece of jewelry, like it’s a trendy jewelry piece, how people will react to that.” And honestly, it’s been great. And like, you just, you learn so much that a piece of content doesn’t need a whole studio team to come together and think of.

It’s just like, again, being quick. And I think the other thing is being on top of trends. Like, you have to know what’s going on, around you in the fashion world, in the retail world, in the social world. You just have to know what are the trends that people are going to react to. And that’s how you really gain the interest of Gen Z.

Mike Allton: Fascinating. And we’re going to come back to that trend in a second. I want to ask a follow up question there, but before I get to that, I’m super curious. You’re talking about posting imagery to Instagram and Pinterest in particular. 

How Are You Measuring the Business Impact of Your Social Media?

Briana Vela: Oh, absolutely. It’s on a weekly basis. It’s measuring impressions. Engagements, conversions, conversion rate, trying to think of what else we really hone in on. Honestly, we are working on it so closely that you are able to see a difference when someone likes something.

And so I think impressions in my sense, because every platform has different metrics that you can pull from. And I’ve learned that when you’re able to understand the metrics on a platform, you’re able to then decide what metric you’re going to use in order to pull out the fact of something working or not working.

I’ll give you an example. For TikTok, we’ve noticed, we’ll get so many engagements but not a lot of impressions. And we’re figuring out what was it? It’s great that we’re getting engagements, but why is the impression not there? And so it’s trying to understand. Was it the piece of content?

Was it the hashtags? Was it? Was it the actual content? It’s like itself visually. What was the quality like? It could be anything. And that’s honestly how you can understand what’s going on and what people are reacting to. 

Mike Allton: Makes a ton of sense. I’m curious what tools you’re using because I know you’re on a lot of different platforms.

What’s in Your Tech Stack as the Social Media Manager for JCPenney?

Briana Vela: Oh, tech stack. I love listening tools. So anything that you’re able to get a feel for and really understand like what people are interested in, has been really, really helpful. I will say before we do any major campaigns or anything like that, social listening tool is the first thing we go and do because we want to know what the conversation’s about.

So, I think it’s very important to have conversations around that particular topic. And we want to understand what people are saying about it. Is it worth going after that topic? Is it worth going and doing a whole campaign about it? And that goes back to research, that’s just understanding, like your basic conversation around that topic.

That is my number-one. My number two is—I am such a social person. and when I say social person, I’m a social media nerd. I will follow anything, and everybody to get any type of information I can. So, I’m not scared to follow 10,000 other people while I have 3,000 on my personal account.

If you’re able to see different types of content from different types of topics and things like that, I think you’re able to really get an idea of what are the possibilities of content that you can create. And I think it’s such fun to do that. I love that. I’m a creative person, so I love moodboarding.

I love moodboarding. Love putting my ideas all in one place becauseI’m a type of person that has to think things through and have to connect the dots. So, I love mood boarding. LinkedIn. I love LinkedIn. LinkedIn Learning, LinkedIn anything. I’m all about it just because it’s so helpful to understand that you’re not the only person going through the same things that other people are in other industries or in different industries.

I think it’s eye-opening when you see posts from different people from different companies explain, “Today was not a great day because we didn’t get impressions,” and sometimes you just have to understand that you’re not the only one. You’re not the only one that’s having a hard time figuring out impressions on TikTok.

Mike Allton: Right? How much I love the fact that you included people in your tech stack. I don’t know anyone who’s ever said it that way before on any show I’ve ever been on, host, guest, or anything of that nature, but it’s such an intuitive answer because we can and should rely on so many other people for so many other things.

So give me a couple of examples. We talked about trends earlier. Are there other people, blogs, podcast shows, newsletters, or anything like that you follow that are helping you stay on top of trends, changes in the industry? Or they’re just fabulous resources for you.

It’s so funny cause I always say I am a fashion girly first. I am. I love fashion. I love all of that entertainment. So I was always that little girl that knew she wanted to work in marketing but didn’t know how she was going to get there. But I love magazines, and I love magazine cover stories because you learn so much about what people are taking in from the news and the media.

I think that’s such a big thing because you will see the hottest and the latest news translated onto magazines, brands, and things like that, so the New Yorker, the Cut, I’m trying to think of what else. Harper’s Bazaar. All of those magazine brands I love to follow because again, they’re the ones that are actually going and researching all the trends that are going on.

I remember when I used to work. I’ve always worked in a really trending industry. And so, back when I was at Toni and Guy, that was my first job out of college. I was a social media coordinator, actually. And I remember one of the things I did own was blogging, and I feel like blogging is so different now, but a lot of the inspiration I got from my blogs were very much heavily centered around the magazines that I used to read.

Now I follow those on social media. And so they are always just always like bringing out new news, new trends. They’re really the ones that are rounding out all the information for me. And I love that. It’s a little hack to the trend research. But from there, I grab that information and I moodboard.

That’s where my moodboards come from, and you will learn so much from a creative side, as well. When you sit there and open like an actual magazine versus going and seeing it on social media … I’m very old school in that sense. I feel like everybody likes podcasts.

I always listen to podcasts. That’s where I get all my information, which I do sometimes, but podcasts are more entertaining for me. 

Mike Allton: Thanks so much for listening. If you haven’t already, please find us on Apple at the Social Pulse Podcast: Retail Edition, and like us, subscribe, leave us a review.

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