The traditional retailer known for its print catalog is taking a decidedly untraditional approach to back-to-school marketing, blanketing the online world by partnering with just about every youth-focused social, virtual and entertainment network out there -- all in hot pursuit of 8- to 14-year-olds that don't exactly see Sears as fashion forward.
"Our belief is that, particularly for this tween market, there's a little bit of undiscovered opportunity within Sears," said Richard Gerstein, Sears' chief marketing officer. "Part of what ... Sears needs to do is build credibility with this tween market. There are a lot of people out there that have that credibility, so we've partnered with them to help us do that."
To co-opt that cred, Sears is teaming with partners such as Facebook, MySpace, Seventeen, CosmoGirl, Nickelodeon and Disney, which are creating custom content or sponsorships for the retailer, and with Addicting Games, FunBrain and Neopets, which have developed exclusive Sears games. There will also be virtual Sears boutiques, fashion shows and competitions featuring apparel for avatars within virtual environments including Zwinky, Meez, WeeMee, The N and Poptropica.
Each tie-up will serve to drive customers to Sears' "Arrive Lounge," a key part of the retailer's overall "Don't just go back. Arrive" theme for the season. The website features Vanessa Hudgens, star of "High School Musical," as well as behind-the-scenes footage from back-to-school commercials with the actress. Sweepstakes, downloads and fashion highlights linking to Sears' e-commerce site are also featured.
Mr. Gerstein declined to discuss details of the retailer's overall budget or say what media budgets are losing funding as a result of the increased focus on digital programs. "It's definitely a much bigger element of our back-to-school program than last year," he said. "And digital continues to grow as an element of our marketing program across our company. We invest heavily in search, digital and other programs."
While digital can be a less expensive alternative to flashy TV campaigns, it's still a gamble for the struggling retailer. In its most recent quarter, ended May 3, Sears Holdings, parent company of Sears and Kmart, reported a $56 million loss, as sales declined 5% compared with the same period a year ago. According to Ad Age's 100 Leading National Advertisers report, Sears Holdings' market share slid 0.2 points in 2007, while overall ad spending was down 1.4% to $1.6 billion.
Despite its financial troubles, Sears is being both creative and aggressive when it comes to attracting tween customers during the all-important back-to-school season, its partners said. "It's emblematic and important because Sears is a relatively traditional marketer in some ways, and this is a really impressive, innovative program that is using all of the coolest things that Web 2.0 has to offer," said Samantha Skey, exec VP-strategic marketing at Alloy Media & Marketing.
By creating clothing for tweens' avatars, Ms. Skey said, Sears is further entrenching itself with those customers. The retailer is also creating the opportunity for its branded items to live well beyond the life of the campaign. For now, Mr. Gerstein said, the campaign is somewhat open-ended.
"Obviously, back to school is when we put a focus on this market," he said. "But we'll let our customers guide us. Where they have interest, we'd be happy to ... invest.""
Sears' creative agency of record is Y&R, Chicago, while Whitman Hart, Chicago, handles digital. MPG, along with its Boston-based Media Contacts unit, handled media for the campaign.
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