Kohl's Revamped Marketing Goes for the Heartstrings

New Campaign Shuns Products, Promotional Messages

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Michelle Gass is putting her stamp on Kohl's.

The former Starbucks executive joined the retailer just 10 months ago as chief customer officer, overseeing marketing, e-commerce and omnichannel experiences. In the absence of a chief marketing officer -- a role Kohl's has had previously -- Ms. Gass is leading the charge. She's overhauling the retailer's marketing, showing a preference for emotional, heartwarming messages over promotional plays. And she's pushing the marketer into the digital and social arena, while investing more money in elaborate TV campaigns.

Kohl's latest campaign, "Find Your Yes," is decidedly different from the retailer's past advertising -- though it is in the same vein as its holiday campaign -- with products taking a backseat to tugging at consumers' heartstrings. Peterson Milla Hooks, the Minneapolis-based shop that has worked with Target, J.C. Penney and Kmart, has been handling creative for Kohl's.

The discount retailer has been struggling lately, stuck between off-price stores like T.J. Maxx and department stores like Macy's. Its private-label strategy, which was a strong differentiator during the recession, became a liability, as consumers sought national brands. And marketing required a revamp, with a stronger emphasis on TV and digital.

The retailer reported a 12% drop in earnings for the fourth quarter, ended Feb. 1. Sales fell 4% during the same period. Kohl's spent $347 million on measured media in 2013, down 4% from the year prior, according to Kantar Media.

"There are very few moments in the lifetime of a brand when you have the opportunity to refresh who you are and how you connect with customers," said Ms. Gass in a statement. "This is our moment, and 'Yes' is our voice. It is authentic and grounded in our heritage."

A 60-second spot featuring Vera Wang broke last night during the Academy of Country Music Awards. Additional 30-second spots are meant to "celebrate 'Yes' moments that most families can relate to." The retailer is also promoting the hashtag #FindYourYes.

One spot is shot from the point of view of a mom coaching her daughter to ride a bike. It carries the copy, "Yes to being there. Yes to riding with style. Find your yes." Another spot is shot from the point of view of a young boy preparing to jump off a diving board into a pool. It features the copy, "Yes to small steps. Yes to giant leaps. Yes to big boy trunks." Presumably the products and clothing shown in the spot can be found at Kohl's, but the emphasis is squarely on the kids' achievements and their parents' excitement.

"We know that every day, people have a choice. We celebrate choosing 'Yes,' and we want to empower our customers to embrace 'Yes' in their daily lives," Ms. Gass said. "We want to inspire our customers to find their 'Yes' at Kohl's."

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