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Passion Fueled, Creativity Driven | The Lion’esque Group’s Melissa Gonzalez

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Opportunities are everywhere. You just have to take advantage of what is presented to you. Just ask Melissa Gonzalez, who grew from a VP on Wall Street to CEO and Founder of The Lion’esque Group – a creative agency focused in experiential retail. Rooted in finance with an affinity to be creative, Melissa walks the line balancing the pull between her right and left brain tendencies.

In 2009, Melissa was working in institutional equity sales on Wall St and TV production on the side when she was presented with an opportunity to really explore her creativity. Leaving Wall Street behind, Melissa and her partners did their first pop up shop. Proving to be a success, it became clear that this was something on the rise.

“At the time, we saw a lot more emerging brands. Then around the 2013/2014 time frame, we started to see a lot more of digital native brands, which were at a faster growth trajectory, becoming interested in the hybrid model of physical digital. Over the last couple of years we’ve also started working with more real estate developers, who are realizing that times are changing and are rethinking their space and how they offer space.”

Melissa and her team at The Bookmark Boutique Pop in San Juan

In the last 10 years since The Lion’esque Group’s founding, Melissa has explored different aspects of the retail industry  but ultimately focused her company in creating physical spaces – from pop-up to permanent. “We work the full gamut of digital natives to mass brands who are just understanding that there’s a store transformation happening, that physical does matter and that we have to think differently about its purpose. We are there from ideation all the way through execution.”

What drew Melissa to this path wasn’t simply a passion for retail but rather for innovation, technology and storytelling. Retail was an industry where all three could meet. However, Melissa shared this piece of insight about a passion we all share, “I think subliminally retail is all of our passion. We are all consumers, every day, all day. It’s part of life as you live it.”

The Lion’esque Group is excited about its clients’ success. When Melissa first co-founded the Market at RS Hotel, their first partnership space, they came up with a brand’s tagline that they should have coined for themselves – “helping you grow turns us on”. Seeing themselves as an extension of their client’s team, their client’s success is their success. Melissa characterized the type of relationship they strive to establish between her team and the client. “We are a true partner when we come in. We try to think ahead of what our client might be challenged by. We are super responsive. We do speak up when we disagree, but we really do put our clients first.”

“We want our clients to succeed.”

Pop up or permanent? Pop up to permanent? We asked Melissa the what’s what on her approach to physical retail spaces. “I think of a pop up as building a set and a store front as building a home. For a permanent location we think about where the brand will be in 3 years and for a pop up the focus is on what story we are going to tell today.” In either situation, it’s imperative to really know the brand to the core. “A very clear point of view is important. We really target what the value proposition of the brand is and what the emotional connection that we want to tap into is. We always start with a mood board. We are looking for creative inspirations.” Once they have the inspiration, they mold it to the brand.

“You can be inspired by something but then you have to really drill it down to who is the customer and those main aspects.”

According to Melissa, capturing mindshare is the key to pop up success. “A successful store isn’t just that you created something beautiful – can the consumer walk out of your store and describe what they did in a sentence? If so, that’s when they’re going to remember it.”

A Lion’esque success and one of Melissa’s favorite projects was a pop up for Amazon Prime Video. “It is an example of every brand being able to tell a story in a physical space. The idea was to reincarnate the Carnegie Deli. The Carnegie Deli shut down a few years ago and its very nostalgic in New York City and the series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”- which features the Deli- is getting a lot of attention. We recreated the 1958 version of the Deli in collaboration with announcement of season 2. It was really fun. It brought out two sets of people- those getting to know the Deli because of the show and those getting to know the show because of the Deli.”

“People want to walk into an experience. We are in an experience economy. Experience is social currency.”

In addition to her role as Founder and CEO of Lion’esque, Melissa participates in some other ventures. Two years ago she was a guest on ABC LA radio to talk about retail. They decided to make “Retail with Melissa” a regular thing, so once a month Melissa picks topics to discuss. Rather than talk from the B2B perspective, she focuses on how what is happening in retail benefits the consumer. Then last year, Lion’esque started “Tuesday Talks”. “Tuesday Talks” is a 20 minute Instagram live session where Melissa and her guest discuss a topic that brands want to hear about and answer questions those tuning in have. “It’s really fun and usually were riffing really naturally so it’s a really fluid conversation.”

Melissa has become an influencer in the retail design world. Through these platforms, she is able to share what is happening in retail and why consumers or business should be excited about it. Now that she has built out her design team, she is working on embracing her role as a thought leader. “I’m actively going to conferences and always reading and trying to write more. I try to get out of the office every so often to walk down 5th Ave and other key pockets, and talk about the new stores and why we like them.”

“We have to push things forward, that’s what I think is our job, as well as opening people’s minds.”

With that role and influence comes pressure but Melissa takes it in strides. “That stuff isn’t fluff. It’s part of the job. You have to do it. It’s important for thought leadership but it’s also important for the company. Reading, writing, and getting on socials is the most organic marketing you’re going to get. Get out there and be authentic about it, be very well educated about it and see what’s out there.”

When discussing the future of retail, people talk about all different transformations happening. According to Melissa, the future lies in the omnichannel transformation with a real emphasis on engagement. Melissa shared her thoughts with us. “I think you’re going to see the store footprint continue to be more efficient. I think people are going to really put value around engagement per square foot, not just sales per square foot. If you up engagement, then you grow your lifetime value of customers. I think you’re going to see a lot of unexpected collaborations. Everyone says collaboration is the new competition and I really believe that.”

“Technology is going to continue to shape who we are and so it’s going to shape what retail has to deliver.”

Of course technology is at the forefront of everything today and will continue to be as we move forward. However, the human engagement is still an important piece of retail. “Store staff is the most important touchpoint. If you make the most beautiful store, market it well and draw traffic in and someone is really excited about a product, but the staff can’t properly explain it to them, then you’ve lost the customer. You’ve failed. I think brands are thinking about experiential people now. Because technology is going to answer the transactional part more and more, and it’s going to give brands so much more information, they need to know how to use the information to better train their store staff to be more experiential. Services are a big part of retail now, to drive more traffic but also to build more trust. I think store associates are going to need to have a greater skill set going forward.”

Melissa also talked about the significance of pop up staff. “Pop-up staff, which are usually underbudgeted, and often aren’t allocated enough time for training, ends up being the area  which is complained about the most. I think we are getting smarter about it. I always say treat everyone who is a part of your retail team, whether they are the store manager or not, as entrepreneurs within your business and encourage them to give you every day feedback. They’re at the pulse. They are the closest to your customer.”

“Stores aren’t just experiential environments for consumers, they are learning environments for brands. Always position yourself to learn.”

As you can imagine, Melissa’s ventures keep her pretty busy but when she’s not talking retail, you’ll find her being a mom, working out, maybe even doing yoga with her daughter, and squeezing in some travels with scenic hikes and wineries.

A role model and true success, we asked Melissa what advice she had. She left us with this: “Make sure you carve out time for who you are and who you want to be. I think it’s really easy when you’re starting out to run in a lot of directions and say yes to everything and to not carve out the time to evaluate progress. Just because you’re busy doesn’t mean you’re productive and successful. I think you can be seduced by booking yourself up all the time so make sure you’re carving out time too.”

By Sarah Elaine Rossi