Co-Creating a Secret Brand: Hill City

As the new Head of Marketing at Hill City, Gap Inc.’s newest brand, Eric Toda is leveraging his background in digital to bring a new retail brand to life…from scratch.  We spoke with Eric just after the launch of Hill City at Opal’s annual customer appreciation event, Brand Futures Summit, in Portland this past month. After learning from Eric about his vision for the future of marketing, it’s clear this bright leader is dedicated to changing the way marketers work.

Read on to learn more about this exciting new launch, how Eric assembled a dream team to co-create a “secret brand” within Gap Inc. and has so far relied on a powerful digital-first approach to collaboration to bring Hill City to life.

Started from the bottom now the whole team here

Hill City is Gap, Inc.’s newest brand. But unlike the common scenario where a big brand buys a younger, hotter startup, Hill City was started from scratch from within Gap, Inc. — one of this country’s most storied apparel brands. It’s the first time the company has created and launched a new brand in over a decade. And it’s no small undertaking.

Since his start at the company over just a year ago, Eric said his first 48 hours involved building the soul of the Hill City brand. From the very start, it was about “creating a brand with you, with the customer, not just a brand for a customer,” said Eric to a room full of marketers at Opal’s Brand Futures Summit. “When I joined, there was no company. We had to create the name, the logo, the trademarks, work with legal… all of it. I’d never done that before and I was excited to create something from scratch.”

But Eric isn’t working alone. The Hill City team is made up of a small group of people who share Eric’s passion for the young brand. They may be a small team, but they’re nimble. And they’re incredibly diverse. Something Eric says has just always been a part of his career from the beginning. It’s this team-centered approach to co-creating Hill City that gives Eric the energy to break the mold of the traditional marketer, expanding his role to function more as a general manager of a brand rather than staying within the limiting “Brand Marketer” box.

And a digital-first approach to collaboration, both internally among the team and with their customers, has played an important role in bringing Hill City to life.

Digital-first, but with heart

Hill City is a digital brand at its core: there is no traditional storefront like with Gap, Inc.’s flagship brands. By leveraging the latest digital communication technologies like AI, chatbots and personalization, Hill City is co-creating its line of clothing with its audience. “We’re creating a brand with community front and center,” said Eric.

“We’re creating a brand with community front and center.”

A key piece of Eric’s brand strategy is an innovative influencer program that puts the product in the customers’ hands, sometimes before the product even goes to market. Hill City calls these customers “wear testers” and has asked those interested in participating to apply, review new styles such as the eco-friendly Reversible Puffer or Everyday Pant, and provide the brand with feedback, primarily through social. Wear testers will communicate with Hill City via chatbots on Facebook and direct messages on Twitter. The 1:1 communication opportunities that these and other emerging forms of digital media provide are what excite Eric about this program.

This digital approach allows for deeper engagement and listening, providing for a feedback loop that directly improves the product.

A secret worth keeping

With an impressive background of digital leadership roles at Facebook, Nike, Snapchat and Airbnb, Eric approached this opportunity with a digital-first and customer-first mindset to build and launch a new brand within Gap Inc.’s footprint. This was no small feat to launch a startup-like effort within such a storied brand known for its physical approach to retail.

Eric was part of a small hand-picked team of diverse skill sets and backgrounds. Like a startup, the team managed tasks across the spectrum, from operations to design to strategy. Each team member had five or six roles to play while all remained focused on one goal: build a brand and a community that’s honest and brave.

Using the Opal platform allowed Eric and the team to plan and orchestrate the launch of Hill City across channels, giving them a central workspace to start and stay organized without getting sucked into the silos that traditionally build up within larger organizations. Rochelle Lee, Hill City’s Head of Site Operations, said it best: “We wouldn’t be as organized as we’ve been without our Opal team!”

Opal also played a key role in keeping the brand a secret until launch. Again, in an organization with more than 10,000 employees, you can imagine this was not an easy secret to keep! With Opal Access baked into the team’s workflow, Opal provided the crucial visibility and alignment needed to go-to-market with this exciting story — ensuring that key stakeholders were informed of the strategy at each critical stage of launch.   

Explained Eric: “I’ve utilized the Opal platform at three companies now, and with a constant push away from the give and take of email and into collaboration Opal is still one of a kind for marketing.”

Community-first

Now that Hill City is alive and kicking, the next challenge will be maintaining the agility of Eric’s nimble team as they scale and keeping community at the forefront of everything they do. This impressive strategy will serve as a world-class example of digital activation. It’s not your standard hub-and-spoke model of building an e-commerce site, pointing a lot of media spend at it and hoping that people buy. It’s a deliberate, digital-first approach to brand building.

“It’s what can happen when you give your digital talent the green light,” said Eric.

Working with consumers this way will bring them into the journey of the brand and, most importantly, create long-standing brand advocates for Hill City. And that’s something we couldn’t be more excited to be a part of.

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