Wal-Mart ads get a new-familiar-look

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The rollback man is gone, as are the do-gooder anecdotes and smiling associates in frumpy blue smocks. There is no tooting of the corporate-image horn and not a single word on price. But what is found in Wal-Mart's first major campaign orchestrated by new Chief Marketing Officer John Fleming is a striking resemblance to ads for retail rival Target.

Take the geometrical print ad, via GSD&M, Austin, popping up in August titles such as Real Simple, that looks as if it's pulled from the home-furnishings aisle at Target. A series of back-to-school TV spots tout brands and merchandise first, make actual jokes (a rarity in Wal-Mart ads) and don't include any in-store shots (long a Wal-Mart staple).

Of course, Mr. Fleming already has Target practice. He and Target Exec VP-Marketing Michael Francis each logged more than a decade in marketing at the Minneapolis company. They still talk frequently and clearly share a similar ad aesthetic.

"We are clearly a competitive benchmark creatively," said Mr. Francis, though he added, "I don't feel [Wal-Mart's new ads] look like Target's current work. Part of Target's philosophy has always been to take leaps forward... and we are already moving in an entirely new direction."

Oddsagainst7even.com, a Web site to capture the attention of the college set and drive them online to outfit their college dorm or apartment is the latest leap. With a quirky, independent film feel, the site includes film downloads about a group of college students and downloadable podcasts and ringtones. Target is promoting the site with :15 spots on MTV, ComedyCentral and VH-1.

NO DESIGNERS

Klaudia Flanigin, VP-account director at GSD&M, said Mart's campaign is actually the antithesis of Target work. Unlike Target (Isaac Mizrahi) and Kmart (Martha Stewart), she said, Wal-Mart is not promoting designers, but actual Wal-Mart customers photographed in stylized living rooms with colorful furniture.

"It's not so much about the designer," she said. "The idea of the collection is to play on the idea of a collection." In print ads, Wal-Mart therefore names its "collection" after consumers. In the Mia Collection, for example, "Mia" is dressed in trendy clothes while relaxing in a hip, brightly decorated room.

"Target [ads] are very stylized," said Ms. Flanigin. "They are very catwalk vs. sidewalk, which is what we say a lot around here to make the distinction."

Yet some see little distinction from Target's ads. Randy Curtis, a Wal-Mart Stores marketing executive who left in February 2004 to start his own consulting firm, dubbed the campaign "concept envy."

"Everyone in the building at Wal-Mart loves Target advertising," he said. "As well they should-it's great. But it's only great for Target." Moreover, he said the strategy could backfire. "It's not as on-brand as Target's concept work and Wal-Mart suddenly looks a little bit more like everyone else and just a little bit less like Wal-Mart."

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