Home Depot CMO: We Need to 'Start All Over'

Q&A: Roger Adams Wants Retailer to Refocus Efforts on Service, Other Basics

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Roger W. Adams, senior VP-Chief Marketing Officer, Home Depot, is entering his second year as top marketer at the home-improvement retailer and is credited with bringing some much-needed stability to a CMO suite with a history of tumult. He has also brought continuity to a brand amid upheaval as CEO Robert Nardelli departed and was replaced in January by Frank Blake.
Roger W. Adams, senior VP-Chief Marketing Officer, Home Depot
Roger W. Adams, senior VP-Chief Marketing Officer, Home Depot

Mr. Adams, 51, is charged with overseeing the nation's second-largest retail brand with $90 billion in sales, 2,200 stores and more than 350,000 employees. He joined Home Depot in February 2005, after spending seven years in various marketing positions at General Motors Corp., rising up the ranks to exec director-corporate advertising, marketing and CRM. Prior to GM, Mr. Adams worked in the food industry, including stints at Keebler Co., H.J. Heinz, RJR Nabisco and PepsiCo.

In advance of his speech at this year's Association of National Advertisers meeting, Mr. Adams spoke with Advertising Age reporter Mya Frazier.

Advertising Age: After spending the bulk of your career in the auto industry what have you learned working in retail?

Roger W. Adams: There are a lot of commonalties. ... Certainly from automotive you learn the power of big brands building images and balancing branding and retail. At Home Depot, it is much faster-paced. We live day to day. You have to be very good on your feet.

Ad Age: When you were named CMO a year ago, you faced a tough challenge: Revitalize a retail brand many argue has reached saturation. What was the one thing you sought to change first?

Mr. Adams: It's really the emotional connection and engagement with the customer. We have a great brand concept. We were the innovators in big-box home improvement. We've built our company based on service and selection. We are trying to get back to what made us great: price, service and selection.

Ad Age: Is it difficult for the CMO to affect the frontlines, particularly customer service?

Mr. Adams: It's really how we manage as a company. I work for the chairman and CEO, as do my counterparts in merchandising and operations. We meet weekly on our priorities. The good news is we can impact things at the store level within 24 hours. It's nothing I'm doing by myself. It's a team effort. We have a lot of communication streams to the store.

Ad Age: In your speech to the ANA you talk about how Home Depot decided to "start all over." Can you explain this?

Mr. Adams: What it means to us is going back to what made us great, which is what we call the three-legged stool: Price, selection and service. Looking at that critically and saying "Are we delivering that in a compelling way today?'

Ad Age: But how do you go back?

Mr. Adams: We've done a lot of deep customer research to unearth the motivation of customers and where we had looked at it as a mass audience before of adults, 25-to-54, we are now breaking that down into African-American home-improvement customers; female homeowners; Hispanic customers; English speaking vs. Spanish-speaking Hispanic; and also echo boomers vs. baby boomers to understand the segments. It makes it more complicated, but it allows us to communicate to different groups instead of one message in all channels.

Ad Age: Is there a process you are using for this?

Mr. Adams: I'm calling it "mass customization." Because it really is our basic promise, but explained and made relevant to the right audiences.

Ad Age: Can you give us an example?

Mr. Adams: Eco-Options is a certification program in our stores that identifies products that are better for our environment. It skews younger and more educated. But had we just looked at the mass brand of Home Depot, we wouldn't have done it. We promote it through podcast clinics. It's a more effective way to reach that audience than being on TV because it's not relevant to about 80% of our customers, but only 20%. If this were 1975, we wouldn't be able to do it. We couldn't afford to put everything on newspaper or on TV.

Ad Age: The housing slump has negatively affected results for home-improvement retailers, including Home Depot. How do you manage a brand in that kind environment?

Mr. Adams: This is the time you manage the brand for the long term. It gives us the ability to spend more time on the brand. We have a chairman who believes strongly in supporting the stores and supporting the staffing of the stores in a down period because, at some point, it's going to come back and we want the stores to be in a full state of readiness.
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