Retailers have endless ways to position themselves to capture shopper attention. And the merchants featured in the 2019 Hot 100 marketing category are among the industry leaders, using a variety of marketing methods ranging from cutting-edge practices like artificial intelligence to old-fashioned methods, such as billboards—yes, billboards.

On the far end of the spectrum are retailers like luxury sleepwear brand Natori, which are leveraging the latest technological tools to build brand awareness and drive sales.

Tech learns over time

Natori uses artificial intelligence, which is a machine learning tool that learns over time the more information that is fed into it. The brand uses AI to find the best-performing social media ads. Here’s how it works: Natori uploads its individual creative assets into the tool, such as product images, advertising images, videos and advertising copy text. The tool then produces different types of ad formats, mixing all of these elements, such as carousel ads or sidebar ads on Facebook.

The AI tool has a whopping 700% return on ad spend, making it Natori’s best performing ad category, says Ken Natori, president of Natori. What’s more, paid social went from almost nothing to up to 25-30% of its digital marketing budget, he says.

Hot 100 Natori

Then there are the retailers finding success with “old school” techniques, such as offline channels, like billboards, as well as more traditional digital methods, including video and search engine optimization.

For instance, Pet Comfort, a retailer that sells a line of healthy pet feeding systems, is building brand awareness via highway billboards—a decidedly old-fashioned channel. It is hardly alone; outdoor advertising spending is expected to increase 3.1% this year, according to ad measurement company Zenith. That’s because billboards enable retailers to cut through the panoply of digital clutter that is constantly bombarding consumers.

A number of retailers, including beauty products brand Glossier and luxury consignment retailer The RealReal, are taking a similar offline marketing approach by opening up physical storefronts where associates can interact with shoppers.

This year’s Hot 100 showcases how many marketing methods, old and new, yield results.

Fashion Nova: Finding the right influencers

With celebrities Kylie Jenner and Cardi B constantly singing the praises of Fashion Nova on Instagram, the fast-fashion giant has perfected the social influencers game. Founder and CEO Richard Saghian has said the company is profitable and grew by 600% in 2017—all without employing traditional marketing campaigns.

The brand targets millennials with a decidedly urban vibe and a focus on minority and curvy or plus-size shoppers. Fashion Nova recruits its customers to help build buzz: “Do you have what it takes to be a #NovaBabe? Are you the OOTD [Outfit of the Day] Queen who can literally rock anything?! Do you have your own style that is admired by others?? If that’s you, we want you to join our Nova Squad!”

The merchant engages its social media-savvy demographic by asking customers to take selfies while wearing Fashion Nova outfits, tagging the brand and using the #NovaBabe hashtag. This gives them the chance to have their photo reposted or featured in the Instagram feed on FashionNova.com.

But as much as the grassroots push has worked—Fashion Nova now has 13.3 million Instagram followers who see staffers’ posts every 30 minutes throughout the day—it’s the big names that do the heavy lifting. A single post from Jenner, who gets paid for wearing the label and promoting it to her 116 million Instagram followers, can mean $50,000 in sales, Saghian has said.

According to SimilarWeb data through the first half of 2018, an impressive 8.6% of FashionNova.com traffic came from social networks—more than double the median of 4.0% for Top 1000 apparel retailers in 2017.

Cardi B, who has been a longtime promoter of the brand and has even memorialized the label in some of her rap lyrics, is collaborating with Fashion Nova on a massive collection that’s set to launch in the fall. The artist’s “out-of-my-closet”-esque posts to her 33.9 million Instagram followers undoubtedly have increased the retailer’s name recognition. And that helps explain why Fashion Nova was one of the most-searched fashion brands in the United States in 2017 along with Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Chanel, according to Google’s year-end data.

38.0% of FashionNova.com’s traffic came from organic search in the first half of the year while the 2017 median for Top 1000 apparel retailers was 30.0%. The legitimacy that’s come along with celebrity endorsements has resulted in 46.9% of its traffic stemming from consumers typing in the retailer’s web address, higher than the collective apparel group’s median of 35.5% from this source in 2017.

Casper: Sleep on it

Casper has long employed some goofy marketing ploys: podcast ads for its dog beds, building mattress-testing huts in shopping malls and partnering with Target on exclusive products that are only tangentially sleeping related.

This summer it took those efforts one step further with the Dreamery, a “physical sleep experience” that lets city dwellers book 45 minutes of downtime in one of its nine private rooms. The concept store, located just behind its Manhattan flagship in Greenwich Village, provides pajamas, essential sleep oils and meditation through the mindfulness app Headspace, for $25.

Sign in to see the rest of the marketing category winners, or download the complete 2019 Hot 100 list from Internet Retailer.

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