The Player - Francis' mission: Shore up Target's sales by 'owning red'

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Target Corp. has brand czar Michael Francis seeing red.

Mr. Francis, senior VP-marketing, who was inducted into the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association's Hall of Fame earlier this month, already has a bull's-eye logo recognized by 96% of American consumers, according to a recent Target survey. Now, he's under CEO Robert Ulrich's orders to have the retailer of cheap chic own the color red. "Trust us," Mr. Francis said, "red does go with everything."

"Owning red" won't be an easy task, and it isn't immediately clear how a color will cause consumers to buy more. But Target, often referred to by its customers with a French accent as "Tar-zhay" to connote its cheap-chic sensibility, needs to do some updating of its message."It's a diversionary tactic," said Irma Zandl, president, the Zandl Group. "People are starting to ask some really serious questions about Target, about whether sales really merit all the ink they've been getting," she said, referring to the chain's often positive portrayals in the press. After a disappointing holiday season, in January, Target's sales at stores open for a year or longer, an important retail indicator, were down 0.1%. Overall, the value of the retailer's stock has plunged nearly 40% from its all-tim high last year.

Mr. Francis, father of four children aged 1 through 7, majored in international business at the University of Michigan. When he graduated 18 years ago, he serendipitously took a position in a training program at Marshall Field's so he could join college buddies settling in Chicago. His first assignments were in merchandising, buying women's contemporary clothing, among other products, rising to senior VP-marketing and visual presentation in 1994. By January 2001, he moved to the parent company, Target Corp., and was named senior VP-marketing, taking over for John E. Pellegrene, the now-retired exec VP-marketing who masterminded the chain's image with its "Expect more, pay less" tagline.

staying independent

Like Mr. Pellegrene, Mr. Francis has continued to rely on independent shops Peterson Milla Hooks, Minneapolis, and Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, New York, for creative, along with the Heyworth Group for media buying. Target continues to look at numerous shops and does not have an agency of record, Mr. Francis said.

With ever-higher expectations among Target's customers, and even an inkling that Wal-Mart Stores is starting to stock more upscale and trendy product, Mr. Francis is charged with keeping the cash registers ringing at Target's 1,148 stores. His strategy, he said, is "stay focused, stay fresh and consistently embrace the brand. ... Evolve or die."

Perhaps it's no more challenging than early in his career when Mr. Francis was an official at Marshall Fields' fabled State Street store in Chicago and a 1987 flood threatened valuable furs locked in a basement safe. Mr. Francis tied a rope around his waist, dove into the water, poly-bagged the merchandise and saved the day.

Fast Facts

Name: Michael Francis

Age: 40

Title: Senior VP-marketing, Target Corp.

Challenge: To own red, and keep cash registers ringing

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