|Kohl's new 'Transformation Nation' campaign is an effort to control the medium and the message.
So she had the company create its own series.
Kohl's launched the syndicated TV show "Transformation Nation" as a way to control the medium and the message, avoiding the pitfalls that have befallen other brands when delving into reality TV land.
The hour-long show tells the heart-tugging stories of everyday people transforming their communities, such as Katie, a young leukemia patient who started a charity program at the hospital where she was treated, and a group of women caring for abandoned animals.
As recognition of the good works and serving as the dramatic climax of the show, the Kohl's "Transformation Nation" van shows up, drives the featured guests to Kohl's and awards them with free shopping sprees and makeovers in preparation for attendance at a big event, such as the Kentucky Derby, a country music show and an Atlanta Braves baseball game. Notably, the shopping sprees take place inside the stores, with a host highlighting the latest spring fashions at Kohl's.
"We haven't done anything like this before," Ms. Gardner said. "It's profiling real people. It's not reality TV. It's not a game or a competition. It's bringing real people and their stories to life within the context of a TV show."
The show ran throughout March and April as a syndicated show and was picked up in 88 markets by local network affiliates for Fox, UPN, CBS and ABC.
Kohl's first foray into TV production was part of a multimedia push that includes magazine print ads, TV spots and a dedicated Web site (www.transformationnation.com).
The philanthropic theme is unabashedly touted in the chain's recent spring TV ad campaign, called "Transform," which includes the tagline: "Today your wardrobe, tomorrow your world."
Although no other retailer can advertise during the show's commercials breaks, Kohl's is not the only commercial sponsor. For example, in one segment, home-improvement chain Lowe's donates supplies to the founders of Wolf Run, an animal refuge, featured on the show.
In addition, Conde Nast Publications' Self magazine served as a partner in the development of the show.
The show's Web site also mixes seemingly incompatible elements such as trend reports on the season's color palettes from Self with information on Kohl's philanthropic efforts and links to charities featured in the show. Short clips of the show are also available online.
Additionally, customers can post their own stories of transformation, with many strikingly more self-absorbed and far less community-minded than the guests featured on "Transformation Nation."
For example, Sandra A.'s story is this: "I changed my hair! It had always been brown with blond streaks, and then I dyed the whole thing blond. It made me feel like a different person, like I could do different things. I felt confident enough to go out and look for a new job. I found one!"
Kohl's is a big TV and print spender, which comprised nearly 75% of the chain's $401 million in measured media spending in 2005, according to TNS Media Intelligence. The retailer's media spending jumped 14% from 2004 to 2005, mostly through increased spending in network TV, its largest expenditure at $139 million last year.
Kohl's has gained market share in a competitive retailer environment over the last decade, drawing customers that traditionally shopped at department stores such as Macy's for apparel and home goods.
The retailer continues to expand rapidly, with plans for 500 new stores by fiscal 2011, with the aim of 1,200 stores nationwide. It currently operates 741 stores.
As part of its growth strategy, the retailer is eying nontraditional advertising as a way to attract more customers.
"We have to do more than just advertise to people," Ms. Gardner said. "["Transformation Nation"] is one of the ways for us that seemed appropriate from a strategy standpoint," not only because of the medium but because it also provides a sense of "realness."
Other retailers have also turned to TV as a way to tout their image, with mixed results. Wal-Mart produced "The Scholar" on ABC last year, Sears is a regular on ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" and JC Penney's was integrated into the NBC reality series "Meet Mister Mom."
Ms. Gardner declined to discuss whether more episodes of "Transformation Nation" were in production, but said the retailer is "always looking for new ways to engage."
Kohl's also declined to discuss how the show’s concept, which took several months to hammer out and execute, was created. But Ms. Gardner did confirm that the retailer's longtime advertising agency, Universal McCann, was not involved.
"Like all good ideas, there are many sources," she said. "In terms of how we went through the process that wouldn't be something I would discuss for strategic reasons."
Ms. Gardner clearly sees the future of Kohl's advertising efforts involving more than print and TV, although she added that she continues to see positive return on investment in both of the traditional media.
"I don't think it's about anything being less effective, it's about just making sure we are where the consumer is -- and she is just in more places than she was 10 years ago," Ms. Gardner said. "There are so many other ways she is getting information and connecting with the world and we just want to be there."