Christopher M. Nicklo '86, Brand manager


Chris Nicklo '86Economics, French

The Record, August 2005 -- WHAT YOU BUY, from where, and how often means a lot to Chris Nicklo '86, vice president of brand management for Banana Republic, a division of Gap, Inc.

"I am really passionate about what I do. I have really thought about what drives me, what excites me, and I have tried to align my career choices with that," says Nicklo in his office overlooking the San Francisco Bay.

"At Hampden-Sydney, I was a double major in management economics and French. As I honed my education and went to Darden [Graduate School of Business Administration] and added a lot of marketing focus, that idea of being able to use marketing as a tool to drive business emerged as what I really wanted to do. I'm not focused just on great advertising. I'm not focused just on a great in-store experience. I'm focused on what this brand needs to be to ultimately drive the business."

This is challenging for Nicklo, as Banana Republic is in the midst of a brand transformation from "elevated American classics" to high-end design-driven apparel company. As brand manager, it's up to Nicklo to make it all work.

Banana Republic was a two-store safari and travel clothing company when Gap, Inc., bought it in 1983. Now more than 450 Banana Republic stores across the United States and Canada sell high-end fashions for men and women.

"Many people are still very familiar with Banana Republic's 'safari heritage,'" says Nicklo, "but we moved from safari heritage to 'elevated American classics,' which worked in the '80s. Now we're more in the design-brand season approach. Quality evolution is a characteristic of our brand; it's one we feel very strongly about." The goal is to position the company among retailers like Kenneth Cole and Ann Taylor.

As brand manager for a multibillion- dollar company, Nicklo directs three teams to maximize Banana Republic's image. "One is our media strategy team," he explains. "How are we going to spend all of our money to reach the consumer? What magazines are we going to be in? Are magazines even the right place? Should we be shifting to the Internet more and more as our consumers are going there?"The second group is in charge of relationship marketing, which builds longterm relationships with consumers, including the more than two million Banana Republic credit card holders. Once a person buys something at the store, it is up to this group to keep that person coming back. Nicklo's third group is consumer strategy-basically consumer research. He says the data discovered by this group benefi t many different parts of the company: "Our job is not only to collect that information, but also to educate the rest of the organization so that we all have a shared understanding of what's going on in this brand. The designers are experts in what they do, but having the consumer information just informs them better to take their inspiration and focus it on our customers."

Banana Republic routinely uses phone surveys, focus groups, and internal databases to determine how the company relates to both consumers and its competition.

This information gives insight into why people buy certain clothes from certain retailers and others do not. "That's what I've always been fascinated by," says Nicklo. "That's what our job is here, trying to understand that and to use that information." And that information ultimately contributes to Nicklo's and Banana Republic's shared goal: building business.

This goal was in its infancy when Nicklo graduated the College in 1986. "When I fi rst came to Hampden- Sydney," he explains, "what I thought I really would be interested in was the State Department. So I've always had an international interest. Even today part of that is still with me. That's what brought me from Florida to Virginia and Hampden-Sydney. When I was at Hampden-Sydney I stopped wanting to apply this passion to politics and really started thinking about applying it more and more to business. I started taking some economics courses. I had the opportunity my junior year to spend the year in France and I had an internship there with a company. I found the idea of international business to be what I was interested in, especially the marketing aspect."

When Nicklo left Hampden- Sydney he was pretty clear what he wanted to do; he just had to fi gure out how to do it. "I thought the idea of brand management, driven by a passion about the consumer-why they buy what they buy and how you apply that-is really fascinating to me, and ultimately doing that for a global company was attractive. I knew that in order to make that happen I needed to get an MBA, but I needed to apply myself for two years before any of the programs I was interested in would even consider bringing me on. They wanted some real-life work experience, so I worked for AT&T in sales for two years and got some great experience."

After getting his MBA he faced a decision that turned out to be a major turning point in his life: he could join General Mills to do traditional packaged-goods brand management or join the advertising fi rm Leo Burnett.

"What I saw was that a brand manager-especially in packaged goods-is basically a business manager. You are focused on everything, including marketing and the customer, but also distribution, packaging sizes-all of that. At Burnett I could really focus on the consumer. Why do they buy what they buy? Why are they interested in our brand? And how do we put those together to build the brand for longterm success?"

He worked there for many years before joining Landor Associates, an international branding company where his clients included the likes of Charles Schwab, JetBlue Airways, Intel, DowCorning, and Banana Republic. It was as a result of this work with Banana Republic that Nicklo eventually joined their staff. He was still working at Landor when his future boss at Banana Republic told him about a new position being developed at the clothing company and asked Nicklo to think about someone who might fi t the position. Later Nicklo recalls, "I told him I had thought about it, and the person I came up with is me. He said, 'Good, because you are the person I had in mind when I wrote the job description.' "

"One of the reasons that I've been able to be successful-and not so much successful as measured by other people's views but by my own-is that I've tried to find what really motivated me, what I was really excited and passionate about, obviously coupled with what I was strong and good at. I would recommend that you do that kind of self-assessment, then orient yourself to where you want to go."