COHEN RECASTS SEARS WITH 'GOOD LIFE AT A GREAT PRICE': VETERAN EXEC USES VENERABLE BRAND TO BRING MARKETER INTO NEW RETAIL AGE

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At his first formal meeting with the news media in a meeting room at Chicago's Symphony Center, Sears, Roebuck & Co. Exec VP-Marketing Mark A. Cohen spontaneously panned a commercial featuring a summer dress that didn't sell. His public relations monitor threw up her hands.

"That's Mark," she said.

But an unflinching look at its business might be warranted at Sears, which Mr. Cohen is trying to reinvent. His task: to harness the power of the Sears brand -- and its $1 billion-plus ad budget -- to reflect the stores' low prices, convenience and scope of products. He even hopes to give Sears a more youthful, cool image.

'BACK TO THE FUTURE'

So the $41 billion company is going "back to the future," as Mr. Cohen put it, using the trusted Sears brand to take the company into a new age of retailing with the tagline "The good life at a great price. Guaranteed."

Its forward push also will involve a major presence on the Internet, Mr. Cohen said. But he indicated that Sears, unlike some dot.coms, will need to make money on the Net quickly.

That's a perspective born of wide retailing experience.

STARTING AS A 'STOCK BOY'

After graduating with an engineering degree and an MBA from Columbia University, Mr. Cohen grabbed a job to tide him over. He became an intern -- "actually a glorified stock boy," he said -- at Abraham & Strauss.

In a sector led by "merchant princes" and where stature is based on fashion intuition, Mr. Cohen found his training in systems analysis of surprising value.

"When I got to A&S, anyone who could add, subtract and read a spreadsheet" went far, he said.

Subsequently, he worked with Dayton Hudson Corp., Lord & Taylor and The Gap, eventually rising to the top of two Federated Department Stores units: Goldsmith's and Lazarus.

From 1994 to 1996, Mr. Cohen was chairman-CEO of Bradlees, a troubled regional discounter in the Northeast that he attempted to move into a fashion-based model competitive with Target Stores.

He joined Sears in January 1998, heading up soft-lines merchandising, and when former exec VP-marketing John Costello left at the end of that year, Mr. Cohen was named to replace him.

A NEW PARADIGM

Soon after, he created something of a new paradigm for clients with multiple ad agencies.

Mr. Cohen forced his two shops -- Ogilvy & Mather, Chicago, primarily handling Sears' auto business, and Y&R Advertising, Chicago and New York, the agency for soft lines -- to work together to develop Sears' new marketing platform.

When he first saw Y&R's TV campaign touting its Benneton-branded merchandise, Mr. Cohen said he didn't get it.

The Y&R executives applauded that, noting that if Mr. Cohen, at 50, understood the effort, it wouldn't play well to teens.

"When we get it right, people will grant us that [coolness]," Mr. Cohen said.

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