How David’s Bridal is using TikTok to rewrite the rules of formal fashion

Retail Gets Real Episode 290: David Bridal’s Chief Marketing and IT Officer on leveraging social media to go where the brides are.
Sheryll Poe
NRF Contributor

David’s Bridal wants to be more than just bridal. “We’re bigger than bridal,” Chief Marketing and IT Officer Kelly Cook says on this week’s episode of Retail Gets Real. “We’re bridal, we’re bridesmaids, we’re date night, we’re bachelorette parties, we’re girls’ nights out, we’re Kentucky Derby. Anytime a girl wants to make the world her runway, that’s David’s Bridal.”

A seasoned marketing executive with over two decades of experience, including leadership roles at Pier 1, Kmart and DSW, Cook started at David’s Bridal right before the COVID-19 pandemic and had to help the retailer shift very quickly to a digital environment.

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The only problem was that David’s Bridal, which started in 1950 as a single Florida bridal salon, had a minimal presence on social media. “They were absolutely at the point of a transformation, a major sort of revolution,” Cook says.

Over the past two years, David’s Bridal has rolled out a number of innovative technologies, including a first-of-its-kind loyalty program, the Guaranteed in Stock Bridesmaids collection and a mobile planning app.

One of the most visible transformations came in the form of TikTok. A little over a year ago, Cook and her team started investing time and resources into the social platform, increasing spending from 5% to almost 40%. “We are leaning into TikTok because that’s where our girls are,” Cook says. “That’s where they were getting inspiration. And it made sense because one of our marketing strategies here is called ‘content over ads,’ which is storytelling.”

One of the key lessons Cook and her team have learned from being strategically active on TikTok is to encourage and empower the company’s 11,000 stylists and alteration artisans to be content creators.

“The content has been extraordinary, and we went from 25 million hashtags on TikTok to almost 200 million in about eight months,” Cook said. “I think that’s a testament to the culture of David’s because not just any company can do that. You’ve got to have people that love what they do at your company to create that kind of content in the first place.”

Listen to the full podcast to hear more from Cook on other TikTok marketing lessons, the retailer’s experiments with live shopping and influencers, how weddings have changed since the pandemic and the bridal industry outlook for 2023.

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Episode transcript, edited for clarity

Bill Thorne:    Welcome to Retail Gets Real, where we hear from retail's most fascinating leaders about the industry that impacts everyone, everywhere, every day. I'm Bill Thorne from the National Retail Federation, and on today's episode we're talking to Kelly Cook, chief marketing and IT officer at David's Bridal, about the company's forward-thinking marketing strategy and how they're reaching new audiences using TikTok and influencers and what the future of bridal looks like. Kelly Cook, welcome to Retail Gets Real.

Kelly Cook:    Thank you, Bill. I'm glad to be here.

Bill Thorne:    We're excited to have this conversation. It's not our first conversation with David’s Bridal. A couple years ago we had your chairman, your CEO on, and he was absolutely fantastic. It was right at the height of the pandemic with a lot of uncertainty ahead and we left that conversation incredibly impressed with the direction that David's Bridal was going and certain of their continued success. Here you are, talking about success. You made it, but there's a lot of things going on. I want to know about, first of all, Kelly Cook's background in your career to this point, and how did you end up at David's Bridal?

Kelly Cook:    Oh my gosh, what a super fun story, but I'll give you the CliffNotes. I've had an amazing career. I've worked for extraordinary companies, but if you know the movie ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles,’ that's pretty much what happened to me. <laugh> Except it was planes, trash to shoes, then big box retail and now brides. I've had an amazing career. I guess the one thing that's always driven me is learning my number one strength from Gallup StrengthsFinder. Learning feeds my soul — learning new industries, learning new customers, learning from data. I've always been drawn to companies that are in the cusp of transformation because that is the ultimate height of learning. It's easier to maintain a company that's the same thing for a while. But I'm very drawn to companies in the height of transformation and the last, pretty much all the roles I've ever had, to be honest, Bill, have been that way. So that's how I made it here. They were absolutely at the point of a transformation, a major revolution.

Bill Thorne:    Totally. You know it's interesting because we share that background. I worked for a big box retailer and I was on the road 85% of the time. I think that what happens is you just have this realization that this is the job for somebody younger, <laugh> somebody hungrier. It's being in airports all the time and actually getting to know the staff at the, whatever club you go to, the airline club, and they greet you like you're the neighbor that they haven't seen for a few days. But it's tough. It's really tough.

Kelly Cook:    It is. I would argue retail is not for wimps. <laugh>

Bill Thorne:    <laugh> Yeah, no, absolutely not.

Kelly Cook:    You have to have a strong constitution to be in retail these days.

Bill Thorne:     Totally

Kelly Cook:    I think you have to, I'm biased, but I think you have to have an even stronger constitution to be leading marketing these days because it's the height of transformation and it changes every single day. Your customer's changing every day. New apps are in every day. But it's fun. I think the balance that you have to have is, you've just got to work with people that you enjoy, but are also in the arena with you, Bill, you know?

Bill Thorne:    Right.

Kelly Cook:     Teddy Roosevelt's quote, the man in the arena, is my favorite quote of all time. It's framed on my wall here in my office, and it is, you're in an arena and it's a street fight every day. Retail is a street fight every day. And strong constitutions, we take what we do seriously, but not ourselves. We're willing to laugh at each other if we screw up or whatever. You really have to have that balance.

Bill Thorne:    It's really interesting. I promise I'm not going to mull on this because I think our listeners will be like, ‘Please, not again.’ But I would just say that the only real constant in retail is change, and you have two choices. You can embrace it and succeed as a result of it, or you can resist it, get frustrated by it, and just find another job. That's really the two choices that you have in retail. 

Kelly Cook:    It really is Bill. Look, if Henry Ford would've asked customers what they wanted, they would've said a faster horse. You're always having to innovate ahead and dig deeper to find out really how you can innovate, solve, surprise, delight, give them things before they want them, catch up, and play leapfrog over technology. We are a data-driven decision-making organization at David's. We allow the customer to be the voice. They're at the head of every table. They're at every meeting. I'm actually writing a book called ‘Living in the Ones,’ a real memoir of a retail transformation because it is a raw, real fun, living, breathing representation of what it's like to transform companies. There's a lot of fun in it. There's a lot of real in it, but I'm calling it “Living in the Ones,” because every single morning, seven days a week, our executive team reads one-star reviews. That's how we start our day.

Bill Thorne:    Yep.

Kelly Cook:    We don't get that many of them thankfully, but we take every one-star review extremely seriously. We have ELT standups three times a week, we go over those one-stars and we talk about, ‘Oh, man, there's something’ — we just instituted a change last week that came from a one-star review, and we're grateful for customers telling us when we do well and when we don't. They are our North Star. There's no way around that.

Bill Thorne:    For sure. Now your company, David’s Bridal, is one that has really leaned into TikTok. Let's talk about that. Can you describe that strategy?

Kelly Cook:    Yeah, absolutely. We are leaning into TikTok, Bill, because that's where our girls are. That's why we're doing it. When we started this journey with TikTok, we started about, seriously, about 14 months ago, probably. To be honest, Meta's effectiveness was starting to come down a little bit and that was because our girls were over, our customers, I said, guys and girls, were over on TikTok. That's where they were, that's where they were getting inspiration. It made sense because one of our marketing strategies here is called Content over Ads, which is storytelling. It's EIEIO, like Old McDonald's farm, EIEIO. It’s entertain, inspire, educate, inform and offer. Those are the five words. So our storytelling, our star is all about that. We thought TikTok is the way that we can actually story-tell that way, whether we're entertaining her or informing her or inspiring her or educating her or even if we have an amazing offer, TikTok was the place for us to do that. She was shopping, she was browsing — our viewpoint was sort of every occasion in her life starts there because we're bigger than bridal. That's part of our strategy right now — we’re bridal, we're bridesmaids, we're date night, we're batch parties, we're girls' night out, and we're Kentucky Derby. Anytime a girl wants to make the world her runway, that's David's Bridal. You should come, <laugh> you know?

Bill Thorne:     <laugh> 

Kelly Cook:     Because we have everything. It was like every scenario in her life where she needs her moment in a gown or a dress or a pantsuit or a jumpsuit, we found that that was happening on TikTok. Last year about 5% of our social spend was on TikTok. We are, almost 40% now is on TikTok.

Bill Thorne:    Wow. It's incredibly interesting to me because I know that when TikTok came on the scene it was just fun little videos, but it's gotten pretty serious. The audiences intrigue me as well, because I have watched TikTok videos, I'm going to admit it. I'm not really the demographic that you would normally think of that would watch TikTok videos because I'm old <laugh>. But there's — it's a young audience. What lessons have you learned about the younger audience or using TikTok’s platform as you refine that strategy for growth?

Kelly Cook:    That is a very good question, and we've learned a ton. We have a culture at David’s where we celebrate failure, and we do that because we have to try new things to see what works. We've learned three valuable lessons with TikTok that we are continuing to put in our strategy. One is there's a very basic economic shift that you have to realize as you think about the productive spend of marketing trying to drive your business.

Bill Thorne:    Right.

Kelly Cook:    There's been years of history with other channels like an IG, a reel, a Facebook, a paid search, and product listing ads, that have a very clear payback economically. I know when I spend this, I'm going to get this in sales. When we put this content out, this is how she or he will behave. It was very predictable but let's just take the shift, as I mentioned earlier, from Meta to TikTok. Meta tends to be much more action-oriented, meaning more clicks and then converting over into a session and buying. But the views and impressions are way lower on Meta than they are on TikTok. So that's a good thing because you're trying to get your message out. The flip side of that is, just like you watch TikTok videos and I watch TikTok videos, I may watch 500 videos in one day on TikTok. There's never a time in my life that I watched 500 Facebook videos.

Bill Thorne:    <laugh>

Kelly Cook:    In one day. So, there's the model of impressions, stories and views and taking that down the funnel to sessions, traffic and conversion, those economics are different.

Bill Thorne:    Yeah.

Kelly Cook:    There is an adjustment period that we've had to go through over the last year, normalizing the right economics as we shift spend around to accommodate TikTok. That's one, the economics. Two, I guess the most fun thing we've learned is, Bill, we have unleashed 11,000 stylists and alterations artisans in our stores. We turned TikTok over to them. My head of TikTok, our head of social Katie, who's amazing, gave them a set of parameters and said, here are the do’s and don'ts of TikTok. And we've unleashed them. We started seeing the amount of TikTok videos and the storytelling come from our source. These are the ones serving her right now in our experience. Then, the content has been extraordinary. We went from 25 million hashtags on TikTok to almost 200 in about eight months. Part of that growth came from our stylists and alts artisans in the field. 

I mean, these are videos that you can put up against anything that is produced. What's even more amazing is that when you think about the TikTok algorithms, they try to keep those algorithms and one of those components is geotargeting, because they know — well, when our stylists are creating TikTok videos, for example, in Amarillo, Texas, TikTok viewers and users around that area are most likely to see that video. It starts this hyper-local geo content storytelling exercise without us necessarily having to spend that money from a marketing ad perspective to do that. One video, Bill — we actually give away TikTok Oscars every quarter to our store associates. It's amazing. We actually have Oscars, we give them pizza parties and all this stuff. The first time we did the Oscars, the grand prize winner was a TikTok that was done for our Amarillo, Texas, store. It had 950,000 views, one video from Amarillo.

Bill Thorne:     That's amazing.

Kelly Cook:    So, that strategy, I think that's a testament to the culture of David's, because not just any company can do that. You've got to have people that love what they do at your company.

Bill Thorne:    For sure.

Kelly Cook:    To create the kind of content in the first place. So that was the second thing. Then the third thing that we found out is that we have to be very specific about, and very quick to react to things that are trending from a viral perspective, amplifying those things and making sure that when it's popping, we are out there amplifying it from a budget perspective.

Bill Thorne:    Sure. 

Kelly Cook:    So that's the reason why our percent of spend has gone from five to almost 40% of social. You don't market, you don't do that unless it's working <laugh>.

Bill Thorne:    Yeah. That is incredible. I love the idea of using your associates, to the people at the stores, your seamstress, those folks to actually create these videos. I mean, nobody understands what's going on in the minds of the consumer than those people that are on the front lines meeting with those people, talking to those people, going to the parties and having the conversation, ‘You work for David's Bridal, what do you do? Oh, that's fantastic. You know, one of the things I thought’ — and then creating something around what they're hearing. I think that's fantastic. I really love that idea.

Kelly Cook:    Thank you.

Bill Thorne:    Obviously your growth is a sign that it's working and working well, but let me ask you a question about the influencer. You have influencers on the platform and live shopping events that you've done in working with these influencers. Tell me about that strategy.

Kelly Cook:    That's a great point. That's part of that number two around storytelling. We did a test with influencers in live shopping last April. The partner that we partnered with told us, don't expect a lot the first time out. You're growing this sort of component of your storytelling so just be conservative about your expectations. We went out and we got two influencers, and we had junior bridesmaids, we had footwear, we had these amazing sparkly shoes, we had all of our categories covered. The one thing we didn't do with influencers in live shopping tests was bridal. It's not a spontaneous purchase, and it's not a stock up thing. Bill, you’re not going to go buy 75 gowns on sale, right?

Bill Thorne:    Yeah, no. <laugh> 

Kelly Cook:    It's very specific, it's like a car dealership doing live shopping events. So that test we expected, I think the revenue projections for that test were in the low 10 thousands. We were thinking, we're not going to generate more than that because it was our first one. Well, we were able to get about 10 times those sales from that live shopping event. It was a three-day event — Thursday, Friday, Saturday — and the influencers were absolutely the key to making that strategy work. They are authentic, they are fun and Bill, these were not scripted.

Bill Thorne:    Yep.

Kelly Cook:    We put them on air without a script.

Bill Thorne:    Yep.

Kelly Cook:    We wanted it to come from their soul, from their users. Our engagement rate was like three times the benchmark. Our partner came back to us and said, ‘What the hell did you guys do? You beat every benchmark we had.’  I'm like, great, that's awesome. What did we do wrong? Let's improve that too.

Bill Thorne:    <laugh> 

Kelly Cook:    So that strategy, that test was not with TikTok, at the time. It was a separate partner that we used. Then our friends at TikTok came to us and said, ‘Hey, wait a minute. We've got this new solution that we're going to put in market, which is live shopping. Would you guys be willing to do what you did with the other partner with us?’ We were like, ‘Heck yeah. Absolutely.’ Katie, my social team, they put it all together. When we launched it again with TikTok, it performed three times better than the test that we did.

Bill Thorne:    Wow.

Kelly Cook:    The first time without the TikTok. Again, there were other things we learned — late night, primetime, Friday night live shopping events aren't the best because we're all busy, we're having fun. Thursday night tends to be the best night, that was another thing. We learned what type of product to put on. We learned that when we do live shopping with influencers, we need petite, we need plus, we need petite plus, we need all of women's yummy sort of body types represented. There was a lot of learnings there.

Bill Thorne:    Right.

Kelly Cook:         But that strategy is a core part of our 2023 plan. We are launching them more frequently and every other week throughout the rest of the year.

Bill Thorne:        Well, it's interesting. I'm curious, what is the outlook for the bridal market heading into the 2023 season?

Kelly Cook:         Let me tell you, there is a lot going on, and I know you're just so excited to hear about bridal because we love this so much. Here's the thing about brides and, going, if we think about bridal for next year: One is absolutely — I guess if I was going to phrase it into one thing, I would say that the only rule is there are no rules anymore, Bill. She is getting married in pale blue dresses, blush dresses, black dresses, I mean, there's really no rules. So personal style, personal flair is good. Secondly, and this is one of my favorite ones, the whole flower girl strategy is now there's flower dudes, there's flower Grandmas, there's flower Grandpas, Bill, you've got to see those videos on TikTok. They wear a little fanny back and they're throwing flowers out as they —

Bill Thorne:        <laugh>

Kelly Cook:         It's still amazing.

Bill Thorne:        Flower dudes, I like that.

Kelly Cook:         Flower dudes, and there's ‘bromaids.’ Bromaids is a whole new thing coming. Because a girl, if her best friend is a guy, he stands on her side. So that's what I mean. We just love so much the self-expression.

Bill Thorne:        I've done the bromaid thing twice, by the way.

Kelly Cook:         Did you really?

Bill Thorne:        I have.

Kelly Cook:         Oh, no, I love that Bill. Good for you to have this sort of — that is a very provocative thing to do. That is amazing that you did that. I love that, that you did that for them. That is awesome. You're the — the bride and the groom who got married, I'm just telling you, they are cool if they did that.

Bill Thorne:        Yeah.

Kelly Cook:         That is a very cool thing to do.

Bill Thorne:        Yep.

Kelly Cook:         In addition to that, I guess I would say, even though there's rules — the only rule is no rules, I will tell you that. There is still this iconic, classic modern Grace Kelly sort of style. I predict we'll always be there and it's beautiful. I would say, reusability, rewearability is a big thing. We have a lot of brides coming in after their wedding, cutting the gown off, making it short, putting on their combat boots, throwing on a denim jacket, and wearing that again and again. We have the biggest collection of alteration artisans in the United States. They can literally do anything with any garment, like they can—

Bill Thorne:    That's phenomenal.

Kelly Cook:     I love the fact that women have that option with us.

Bill Thorne:    Are there any other trends that really pop out as it relates to bridal?

Kelly Cook:    I think in addition to what I've already said, sort of the reusability is one, iconic style is two, no rules are three. I would also say that the wedding itself is changing, Bill.

Bill Thorne:    Oh, for sure.

Kelly Cook:    You've got, and again, I love it so much that couples can do it the way they want, but our brides are telling us, ‘Oh, I'm doing cigar rolling at my wedding.’

Bill Thorne:    <laugh>

Kelly Cook:    No, I am serious. I love that idea, I am like, where was that when I was—

Bill Thorne:    <laugh> Amen. Really.

Kelly Cook:    Because I love a good cigar. The other thing too is they're not doing wedding cakes, they're doing doughnut towers. Like that's so, that is like—

Bill Thorne:    That's beautiful.

Kelly Cook:    One bride sent it in and showed us, it was just this huge wall with pegs on it — they're so creative and so beautiful, as I think about that. The other thing is a champagne wall that our brides are telling us. It's just a wall with greenery, that's it. You walk up to the wall, there's nothing there, you ring the bell and a hand comes out—

Bill Thorne:    <laugh>

Kelly Cook:    With a glass of champagne. There's these wedding planners and these brides putting these visions together. It's so inspiring to us to see how they're doing — their mom, the dogs bringing the ring down the aisle, you know? It’s just, it’s so, we saw one—

Bill Thorne:    I just was going to say, I want that green wall. I want that in my house. I mean, that’s absolutely phenomenal. I love that idea. 

Kelly Cook:    Oh, it’s so fun, and it really is, I'll tell you, we talk about this internally. It doesn't matter if there's covid or murder hornets or wintergeddon or hurricane. 

Bill Thorne:    <laugh>

Kelly Cook:    You can’t cancel love. It just doesn’t happen.

Bill Thorne:    <laugh> Murder hornets.

Kelly Cook:    Even when covid happened and people were piled up in a house, and decided to have backyard weddings and parties, a year later, Corona babies started happening, and then our maternity gowns started selling like crazy.

Bill Thorne:    <laugh>

Kelly Cook:    It's a really fun amazing business to be in. We are very grateful and honored to be with her at that moment.

Bill Thorne:    Yeah.

Kelly Cook:    There's not a lot of companies can say that. We feel like — my friend Heather D’Agosta who runs store operations here, she said something to me in my first meeting when I joined the company. I had my onboarding with her, and I will never forget it. It's definitely going in the book. I said, ‘What are you most proud of working here?’ Because she had been here like 14 years, and she said, ‘The most amazing thing to me is when she finds that dress and she rings that bell. Just like her dad gives her away at the wedding, we feel like we're sort of giving her away. It's like a part of us is with her.’ I'm like, ‘Oh my God,’ I had chill bumps. I get chill bumps even saying it again. We all are really super nerdy about being there with her, and we take it very seriously.

Bill Thorne:    Yeah.

Kelly Cook:    Like very seriously.

Bill Thorne:    You know, it's that moment in time and you just have to take full advantage of it. To be a part of it is just unique. David's Bridal does it multiple of multiples of times every single day, in coming in contact with these people, men and women, who are about to embark on a stage of their life that they are very excited about. I think it's wonderful to be able to be a part of that even as a retailer.

Kelly Cook:    Thank you.

Bill Thorne:    I’ve got a quick question for you, and it's a little off the David's Bridal path.

Kelly Cook:    No problem.

Bill Thorne:    What is your best piece of career advice for people getting into this industry?

Kelly Cook:    In this industry? Fasten your seat belts. <laugh> If I think about overall advice, I would say over-prepare, go with the flow. I would say miracles are everywhere. I would say stop, take a deep breath and enjoy what the teams have done. Do that more often than you think about the future. The best is yet to come. It's, leadership is, it's a team sport. It is not top down. The best thing I would share is find a way to motivate, set the vision, get the heck out of everybody's way and let everybody else be heroes.

Bill Thorne:    100%. I think that the amazing thing is, I always think about what if I could go back in time and have a conversation with the 27, 28-year-old me who was all anxious about what is the future? How do I do it? What's right? What's wrong? How do I make the right decision? Mulling over things and stressing over things that I didn't need to mull and stress over. Everybody goes through it, and it's called gaining wisdom, knowledge, experience and expertise. I think that even if I was able to talk to the 28-year-old me, I don't know that it would've changed that much, to be honest with you.

Kelly Cook:    That's a really good—

Bill Thorne:     <laugh>

Kelly Cook:     No, but I like that, Bill. I really do. I read something that stayed with me forever and ever, and it was a very successful billionaire. He was being interviewed and somebody asked him, ‘What's the key to your success?’ He said, ‘experience.’ 

Bill Thorne:     Amen.

Kelly Cook:     And he goes, ‘Well, how do you get experience?’ He said, ‘good decisions.’ And he said, ‘Well, how do you get good decisions?’ He said, ‘Bad decisions.’ What I would tell my younger me is, it's okay to learn from mistakes and bad decisions. You don't have to beat yourself up for 27 years just because you made a mistake, which I used to do. I don't do that anymore.

Bill Thorne:    Well, you make mistakes, but it actually, as you get older and wiser, they're not mistakes, they're opportunities for growth, for learning and for helping others to not make the same mistakes.

Kelly Cook:    It's thousands — that is so true. Well said, Bill. Very well said.

Bill Thorne:    Last question, I promise.

Kelly Cook:    <laugh>

Bill Thorne:    I could do this for a long time. I have enjoyed this conversation so much.

Kelly Cook:    Oh, thanks.

Bill Thorne:    With that in mind, what do you find exciting about the future of the retail industry?

Kelly Cook:    Oh wow. Good question. Look, I think the thing that excites me the most and gets me out of bed in the morning is — I guess one philosophical approach to retail. I heard this from a, I can't claim it as my own and I will give this company credit for this, but it's stayed with me and I love it. What gets me out of bed and motivates me is, how can this company get customers to say, ‘Oh my God, that's amazing. Did David’s Bridal do that? That's David's? Oh God that’s awesome!’ To live for that response, regardless of what it is. I can't take credit for it. I was totally inspired by a different meeting I had with the CEO of Domino’s years ago. He said, ‘that's what we live for,’ they live for, ‘That was Dominoes. They're filling potholes. They have an app. They give you a rebate.’ They just keep going and going. I think that is a beautiful philosophy and I've borrowed it in every role I've had. I think me and my 11,000 colleagues, we call ourselves dream makers at David's. We're dream makers.

Bill Thorne:    Yeah.

Kelly Cook:    I think me and my fellow dream makers, we live for that reaction. ‘Oh my God, this is amazing. That's David's, this is David's, this experience is David’s?!’ We partnered with Black Tux, one of the best tuxedo companies in the world. We've partnered with Little Tuxedos, now we have little bitty baby tuxes and pretty soon they're going to be getting Diamond points on that and getting a free honeymoon. So we keep going and going. I think that's what, because retail is probably, Bill, one of the only industries besides food that you can have that point of view.

Bill Thorne:    I totally agree.

Kelly Cook:    It's not like, electricity companies can have that <laugh>, you know?

Bill Thorne:    Exactly.

Kelly Cook:    Or something like that.

Bill Thorne:    I think it's a great philosophy. Kelly Cook, it has been a great pleasure talking with you.

Kelly Cook:    Thank you.

Bill Thorne:    I really enjoyed it. Thank you for joining us today, and thank all of you for listening to another episode of Retail Gets Real. You can find more information about this episode at I'm Bill Thorne, this is Retail Gets Real. Thanks again for listening. Until next time.


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