Sears Wants to Dust Off Brand

CMO Says 'Reimagine' Campaign Will Change Focus to Image, Not Sales

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NEW YORK ( -- "We have a lot of lapsed customers," said Chief Marketing Officer Richard Gerstein. "Sears is a great brand in people's minds. ... We've become just a little less top of mind."
Richard Gerstein
Richard Gerstein

Maybe that's due to the company's 13% drop in ad spending in the past two years, its focus on pushing particular departments or promotional items rather than building a consistent image, or its 200-plus stores that it admits look rather shopworn. Whatever the reason, the 115-year-old retailer badly needs to dust off the Sears Roebuck & Co. brand -- and Mr. Gerstein aims to do it.

Since joining the company last August, Mr. Gerstein has been advocating a more branded approach as opposed to the sale messaging Sears has heavily relied on in the past few years. "It's really a mind-set shift," he said. "Sears for the last several years has been a lot about promotional messaging and individual messages around individual businesses."

From wheelbarrows to jeweled sandals
By contrast, its new effort, a spring campaign themed "Reimagine You," promotes everything under the Sears umbrella, from steel wheelbarrows to jeweled sandals. "It's quite a range, and it's a challenge to bring it under one core idea," Mr. Gerstein said. "I think that's part of our opportunity, frankly, because we offer a range. But it's also our challenge as marketers to bring all of that together."

It's a challenge to sell internally as well. "What I've tried to do and what my team is trying to [do] is bring everyone together and help them understand that one program driving the whole house and highlighting different parts of the house with a message that creates a more emotional connection than just value and prices will get us a better result in the end."

And results are exactly what the struggling division of Sears Holding Corp. needs. With sales at the retailer languishing, the marketing budget has been dwindling and is sure to receive increased scrutiny given the state of the economy. Y&R and MPG are Sears' agencies of record.

Sales at stores open at least a year dropped 4% in Sears' domestic divisionin 2007, on top of a 6.1% decline in 2006. Meanwhile, the retailer's measured-media outlay has fallen 13% since 2005 to $416.4 million in 2007, according to TNS Media Intelligence.

'Very focused on ROI'
"It's going to be a tough economic year. Obviously we take that into account," Mr. Gerstein said. "We're very focused on ROI. ... We'll make sure every dollar we have works hard."

To that end, Mr. Gerstein is working to keep Sears' marketing programs integrated and streamlined. Biweekly integration meetings are now de rigueur at the retailer, he said.

So far, Mr. Gerstein said, "Reimagine You," which made its debut at the beginning of March and will run through May, is tracking well. He reports "very strong" recall of the program, as well as good feedback from the retailer's peers. Most telling, he said, are reports from store personnel that customers are coming in and asking for items that have been featured in the campaign.

But the question remains whether Sears stores can deliver on the glossy experience insinuated by ads in House Beautiful, Marie Claire and O, the Oprah Magazine. In a February letter to shareholders, Sears Holdings Chairman Edward Lampert reiterated that he did not plan to invest in upgrading stores, where returns did not justify the spending. On that point, Mr. Gerstein said he agrees with Mr. Lampert.

The store issue
"We've got 150 to 200 great-looking stores, 200 to 300 good-looking stores and 200 to 300 stores [that are] a little more worn," Mr. Gerstein said. "If we can get that top 150 rocking and rolling, then we'll invest the money to fix up all of the other ones."

But some industry watchers wonder whether that's wise. "Some of the stores are really not appetizing," said Emanuel Weintraub, a retail consultant. "The problem is store by store. ... But why go into a store that doesn't have a pleasant shopping experience when you can go into a Kohl's or Penney's or Target? I don't see how they can compete."
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