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Inside Target's New Marketing Playbook

By Published on .

Rick Gomez.
Rick Gomez. Credit: Target

An endurance athlete, Rick Gomez has completed numerous marathons and half-Ironman races. He's even done triathlons. But running the marketing department of Target Corp. might be his toughest challenge yet.

At a time when the retail landscape is littered with empty storefronts and pimpled by sales declines, Gomez, who was promoted to the CMO position at the Minneapolis-based retailer in January, has the task of restoring the once-mighty brand to its former glory. And after four consecutive quarters of same-store sales drops -- Target reported a 1.3% decline in first-quarter same-store sales on Wednesday -- it's an uphill battle.

"It's incredibly competitive," said the 47-year-old exec now in charge of Target's $450 million measured media account. "The headlines are constantly talking about how retailers are shutting stores and on the verge of bankruptcy. There's going to be a lot of consolidation of winners and losers. We at Target are going to fight like hell to be a winner."

Goodbye law school
A 20-year veteran of the industry, Gomez has certainly trained for the experience. Though he initially planned to attend law school as his father did before him and had been accepted into Columbia, Gomez followed his undergrad at Dartmouth by working as an assistant brand manager for Cap'n Crunch cereal. Changing the colors of Crunchberries and choosing the toy-in-the-box proved entertaining enough to convince him to continue with marketing and forget a legal career. Gomez went on to stints at MillerCoors and PepsiCo before joining Target in 2013 as senior VP-brand and category marketing.

"It was the best decision in my career to stick with marketing and not go to law school," he said, noting that his upbringing in Texas and New Jersey, which included a lot of moving around, prepared him for the industry because he learned how to meet and empathize with people.

Already, Gomez has implemented operational changes at the 1,800-unit chain. To ensure better communication across all of Target's departments, he now meets regularly with the chief merchant, head of stores and head of ecommerce -- collectively, Team C4 -- to collaborate. He's also devoting more dollars -- like most retailers -- to digital, where shoppers are increasingly spending their time. That means consumers should expect to see more Target content personalized for them on platforms such as Facebook and Pinterest.

Gomez is also tasked with building up Target's media capabilities. He manages the company's in-house programmatic platform as well as its private marketplace, a program launched last year which offers targeted ad buying opportunities to vendors based on Target shopper data.

Quick trip to Target
As part of Target's new strategy to promote quick shopping trips on everyday essentials like paper towels and soap, Gomez this spring introduced a campaign centered around the "Target Run." He also won consumer praise for a recent swim-themed campaign that was not airbrushed or retouched.

There have been some signs that the new positioning is working. Target's first-quarter earnings exceeded Wall Street expectations, for example. Revenue was $16.02 billion, just a 1% drop from last year, and net income, at $681 million, was 8% higher than the year-earlier period. But CEO Brian Cornell cautioned that there is still a long way to go, and much of the brand's success is dependent on marketing.

"We're not doing high fives -- we have a lot of work to do," he said on a conference call. In addition to promoting quick runs, Gomez is also charged with the marketing behind Target's new private-brands push, in which it will release a dozen brands over the next two years. Nursery d├ęcor brand Cloud Island debuts later this month.

Brave and bold
While Target doesn't have an agency of record, it recently ended a relationship with 72andSunny due to a business conflict (eBay named the agency its lead) and tapped Deutsch for holiday work, following last year's kid-conceived back-to-school and live-music-video Grammy campaigns by the shop. Gomez and his team of 1,200 are already gearing up for the crucial fourth quarter.

"Rick has been an incredible advocate for creativity, doing the brave and bold things," said Kim Getty, president at Deutsch LA, who has worked with Gomez since he joined Target. "Where a lot of marketers would have turned away and said something was too risky, he says, 'Yes, please, let's do more of that.'"

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