Angela Kapp on retail marketing, branding, and stepping out of the comfort zone

About Angela Kapp

featuredAngela Kapp is an entrepreneur, digital pioneer, multi-channel retail expert, and serial traveler. Angela is president of Kappcorp, an advisory and investment company for her interests. She currently works with select fashion and beauty brands in the U.S. and China on consumer marketing and global expansion. She is also the executive vice chairman of The Luxury Club (Hui She Shang), the first brand-authorized luxury e-tailer in China, and a strategic advisor to Baozun, the leading digital and e-commerce service provider in China.

For 17 years, Angela was a senior executive at Estee Lauder Companies. At ELC, Angela created and was the general manager of three different multi-million dollar businesses in three retail arenas: freestanding stores, online, and on university campuses. Internet World hailed her as one of the “Top 25 Shapers of the Net.” Shhe was a member of ELC’s Executive Management Group. Prior to ELC, Angela was founder and president of New York Wise, a fundraising and special events firm.

Angela is a sought-after commentator on multi-channel retailing and global luxury consumers. She is frequently called upon by press, including CNN, The New York Times, China Business Daily, Wired, and Women’s Wear Daily. She is a co-founder of the elite industry group DIG (Digital Influencers Group).

Interview transcript


Dhanya: What’s your story? Where did you grow up, and what was the dream when you were growing up?

Angela: I grew up outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The dream when I was little, at least for a little while, was to be a dancer. I wound up going to college in New York City and got injured. That’s what got me started thinking, “Okay, I’ve graduated college, my major was French and dance, now what am I going to do?”

I was always interested in the arts. I was always interested in travel and culture, but I didn’t really know much about business. I wound up graduating a little bit early from college, doing some work, and then going to business school. At that point my dream changed. Again, I wasn’t sure what it was. I didn’t have something fixed in my mind.

Wharton was a great school for learning. While I was at Wharton, I actually maintained some jobs in New York working in the arts. I worked for the New York State Council on the Arts, which is a government body that gives money to performing and visual arts. I happened to work in the dance program. When I got out of Wharton, as other people were looking at investment banking and management consulting, I actually went to work for the Martha Graham Dance Company. I became their director of development and the director of fundraising.

If I look back, my dreams were always changing. Most of the things that I’m doing I might have bet you 5 years ago that I’d never be doing. That’s part of the interest of life.



Dhanya: I see the connection to your dance school. Initially I was wondering why you graduated out of Wharton and went to a dance school, but now I see it.

Angela: It was a great experience, because I was exposed to a lot of very powerful and artistic people. One of the things that’s true in fashion, or luxury, or beauty (but particularly in fashion and luxury) is that you typically have a creative force. You have Tom Ford at Gucci; you have Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren. But then you have the business side. That duo is really important, and when understanding how to deal with someone who is a creative force, the business person is actually someone who can serve you a lot. You can’t do it unless you are in that kind of situation.



Dhanya: How did Wharton play a role in your life? Do you think that the school you went to mattered, or would you say that an MBA from another school would have changed things?

Angela: Neither of my parents ever went to college. My father was very successful, but he was a self-made man. It was instilled in us that school is the most important thing, but it’s a privilege. In our family, if we ever wanted to go to school my parents would always figure out a way to pay for it.

It’s my thirtieth Wharton reunion this year, and I still have a lot of friends from business school. I do not have a lot of friends from undergrad. Is it important? Yeah. Is it everything? I’m not sure it’s everything because I know a lot of successful people and smart people who never went to graduate school. But I do think it gave me two things. It gave me a different perspective, which I really didn’t have. I wasn’t a business person when I went to Wharton. It also gave me an opportunity to interact with a lot of very smart, opinionated people. Some of those people are still my great friends. Having that kind of group is really important. They used to say that you’re going to make a finite amount of mistakes in your life. The point of business school is to let you get some of those mistakes out of the way where it’s not going to cost you anything.



Dhanya: You work a lot with internet based marketing. How do you think it’s different from physical marketing?

Angela: Let’s give a little history first because I built the Clinique website in 1995. The HTTP protocol for the web was only created in 1993. That means I was pretty early. The internet is a lot of things, and we’re not even sure what they all are. It continues to evolve. In my mind, all the time I was at Lauder, I was basically an entrepreneur. I was an entrepreneur in a big company. I would look for the different things that I could do to take great brands and enhance them in some way. Most of that was developing new businesses.

One of the questions around the internet is: What is it? Is it a sales channel? Is it a media channel? What is it? I would say it’s all of those things. It’s an area of play is the best way I’d put it. It’s almost like opening up a new market. If you are a brand and you want to go online, you have to think of all the other things. There are some things that are different online than offline, but those things are starting to be fewer and fewer. One of the things that is different is that online can be more tactile.

It’s a much more immersive experience if you’re in retail. Immersive experiences lead to impulse purchases, and that’s important. However, it’s getting better. You have some good merchandising companies that are doing a great job, and it’s not just about search. In the early days it was just about search. If you didn’t know what you were looking for, that was a problem for retail because a lot of times (particularly women) don’t know what they’re looking for. Things are continuing to evolve.

Depending on the category that you’re in, the internet is either your lifeline or it’s an enhancement to what you do. If you’re in office supplies, it’s your lifeline because nobody’s ever going to walk in to buy office supplies again. You’re not going to walk in to retail. You better invest all of your money in that. If you’re in the beauty business, it’s enhancing and it’s convenient; it has a sense of opportunity and intimacy. Great merchandising makes you want to buy stuff. You have to understand both, and then play them to their best advantage.



Dhanya: The part about women not knowing what they want is really amazing because I’ve been in that place. That really hits home. What about luxury brands? Do you think that all sorts of markets are suitable for luxury brands? A friend of mine works for a big consumer products company. She was talking about how luxury brands are entering markets like Indonesia, Vietnam, etc. I was wondering if these markets are really ready. How would you make a decision to choose whether a luxury brand is ready for a market?

Angela: Remember that luxury is about aspiration. If I look at China, many would argue that I was really early. It was probably too early, but you make an investment in helping to educate consumers about your brand. We’re living in the era of global brands. It depends upon the category. If you’re in beauty, that is a category that is an affordable luxury. You can think about entering markets probably sooner than someone like Chanel might enter. It really depends on what your objectives are.

What people forget is just how much of the luxury business is driven by the aspirational consumer. It’s not the man or woman who can afford everything, but it’s the one that wants to afford just one thing. There’s a lot of business being done by those people. I always like to look at market readiness, brand in market, then online readiness if you’re thinking about going online. In other words, is it a developed online shopping culture or a retail shopping culture? That’s part of the challenge with India. India is a certain culture, and they don’t have the infrastructure. That’s why it’s not growing as quickly.



Dhanya: For a market like Singapore, there’s a Chanel in every mall. What is the saturation point?

Angela: That’s because you’re local. Remember that a great deal of Singapore is all about the tourism dollar, and particularly the Chinese tourism dollar. Singapore is a very mature market within Asia. It’s been a great place to do business for multi-nationals for a long time, much like Hong Kong. Hong Kong is the same. They’re everywhere.

Part of it is a flagship strategy. In other words, if you have a bunch of people that don’t know what’s important, the one that maybe screams the loudest could be what’s important. There’s a certain strategy for making sure you have the right space and location, and you’re in the best malls, and you’re wherever people may go. The other thing is that when you are a tourist, you don’t go to every. You have one day and maybe you do Orchard Street, or maybe you’re over by the Marina Bay Sands.



Dhanya: You work a lot with the markets in China. How do you think people are taking online shopping there?

Angela: Online shopping is booming. It’s getting ready to overtake the U.S. as the largest. It’s a very different market. It’s a different market for a couple of reasons. The first is that in China, in cities like Beijing and Shanghai, you have very developed retail infrastructure. In other cities you may not. It’s what’s called the tier 3 and tier 4. It’s a very traditional, local retail a little bit like India. It’s very local. It’s not really a shop, it’s the guy who does business and carries everything from the oranges to the mops. That’s part of what’s driving online, because suddenly they can get access.

The next thing that’s driving online is price. The U.S. grew up as a B to C, a business to consumer. C to C (the eBay’s of the world) is at about 25%. It’s not as big. In China it’s the reverse. Part of that has to do with the Chinese mentality of, “Hey, I can put something up and I can sell it. If I make 10 renminbi more this week than I did last week, good for me.”

It’s given rise to a number of budding entrepreneurs. It’s very different, and it’s still very much around price. There are a lot of inherent challenges in local pricing and the internet creates a lot of opportunity for people to arbitrage price.



Dhanya: I’m sure you know how the whole glass ceiling thing works in big organizations, and then when it comes to your independent work. Sheryl Sandberg feels that it does exist, but it’s up to women to take more of a place and take more of a seat at the table. What has your experience been so far in all of your years in the corporate world?

Angela: I had some great mentors. You focus on the work. You don’t focus on the power. I don’t agree with everything because I think she was given a lot of opportunities that many women are not. She always says, “Don’t leave before you leave.” I’m a firm believer of that. Don’t start thinking about the next thing. Make sure this thing gets done. In fact, in everything that I’ve done, I always keep a picture of the last thing that I did to remind of where I was, but also to remind me that I’m not doing that. I’m going to go blaze a new trail. I think that part’s the most important part. Just focus on doing a great job.



Dhanya: I see that you enjoy traveling a lot. What are the most interesting things that you’ve come across, or the most interesting places you’ve visited?

Angela: There have been so many. There are still so many that I want to see. I’ve been very fortunate because I do go back and forth to China. China is a fantastic country. It’s a country with such a rich topography, such a rich geography, and such a rich history.

There are still lots of places that I haven’t been. I can rattle off a bunch of places that are incredible places from Bali to Peru to the Amalfi Coast in Italy where I was married, etc. Travel is about trying to see the world through different eyes, and that is the most interesting thing. It’s not just about seeing the monuments; it’s talking to the people. That’s where language is important – getting to understand how people think, how they’re different, what their frame of reference is, etc. I think that’s most interesting. Of course there are still a lot of places to see. I still have a long list.



Dhanya: You’re learning Chinese. How is that going?

Angela: It’s very difficult. I wish I could take a pill and be better at it. I like to say I’m on a 5-year program. I’ve been studying for 9 months, and the good news is when you’re there you get to practice, mostly with cab drivers. You also start to understand them more when you understand the language.



Dhanya: I can imagine being an independent consultant that you have to plan your own time, you have to make sure that you do your things because no one’s running behind you. You have to make sure it all gets done. What are your productivity hacks?

Angela: I had my own business before I went to go work for Estee Lauder. I’ve always been the kind of task-oriented, get things done kind of person. When I was running a small business, we got a lot done with a small team of people. I’ve made a career of identifying the next thing, and then becoming the champion for that and bringing people along. That requires a different kind of discipline. It requires the discipline to not be embarrassed to say, “Okay, I don’t understand that, can you explain it to me?” You have to go to people and ask because you’re not really going to learn if you don’t, and you can’t be the champion unless you know.

From a productivity standpoint, we all go through periods in our lives where we’re working seemingly insane hours. Some people don’t do that, but I don’t know many of them. Then things start to change. I like to describe it as going up the mountain. When you think about your career, you have maybe two or three stages. If you’re smart and ambitious, the first stage is when you’re going up the mountain, and all you can see is the top of the mountain. Your number one priority is work and getting on top of the mountain. Everything in your life is all about getting to the top of the mountain.

Once you achieve whatever that goal is that you’ve set for yourself, most people look around and say, “Oh wow, it’s really pretty up here. Look, there’s that valley over there. That’s really interesting. I’ve never noticed that there.” And so that’s when in some case some people may marry or start to see other things in life. For a very small few, when they get on top of a mountain they just see another mountain.

When you think about how you organize your time, or what you do, think about where you are in that stage. Are you in the stage of just wanting to achieve this one thing? I always say the most difficult time in starting your business is not the first year because in the first year, you’re going up the mountain. All you want to do is get this idea realized and start the company. The most difficult year is always the second year because now you have to beat what you did in the first year. Now you may not be on top of the overall goal, but you’ve started the company. You have to think about it in those terms.

I’m a big list person. My husband always says that my lists have lists. I make lists for me, I make lists for him. It just helps me organize my thoughts. In my advisory and also my investment world, I work with a small number of companies, but I work very deeply with those companies. I have to keep track of all of them and what’s going on.



Dhanya: Do you have an idea or one gem of knowledge that you have learned that you would like to share with us?

Angela: I have a couple. First, I’m going to tell you the one that I’ve always tried to live by. It was this stupid little thing that my mother gave me when I was in my teens. It was one of those little wall-hanger things and it says, “Do not go where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path, and leave a trail.” In my work life, that’s always what I’ve tried to do.

The other thing that I would say is I think that what you gain with experience is the difference between trying to achieve something and trying to grow people, and trying to mentor people. I’ve found that the more experience and the more success I’ve had, the more interested I am in mentoring people and seeing them succeed. I want people to overtake me. I want my team to be better than I am. I want to learn from them. I want to make them better, stronger, faster, happier, etc.

I’ve had a couple of great mentors, and I’m still in touch with them. I still feel very close to them because I know that I would never have achieved the success that I have without them guiding me and giving me that way of saying, “That’s a clunker idea, but I’m going to let you do it so that you learn.” They always say that if you’re going to fail, fail fast, and fail cheap.

We learnt many things talking to you, Angela! Stepping out of your comfort zone is an education everyone must undergo. You seem to live your life entirely around that principle. We are in awe!

Real Leaders Team