Kohl's Shutters Its Charity-Focused Branded Reality Show

After Investing Heavily in 'Transformation Nation,' Retailer Shifts Direction

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The deal: After impatiently sitting on the sidelines waiting for the right reality TV show, Kohl's launched its own syndicated TV program, "Transformation Nation," in March 2006 as a way to control the medium and the message. The hour-long show highlighted everyday people, such as a cancer patient who launched a charity, who worked to transform their communities. The effort was backed by a multimedia push, including magazine ads, TV spots and a companion website where a message board allowed visitors to post their own stories of "transformation."

The result: The show will not make it to a second season, and the companion website, after failing to attract significant traffic, has been overhauled. The online TV episodes have been purged from the site, and the stories posted by consumers were deleted, meaning no forums for visitor feedback remain.

Despite the initial fanfare and appeal to the consumer conscience, 'Transformation Nation' won't be back for a second season and the website is now devoted to fashion.

Can you drive people to shop by appealing to their charitable side? Kohl's Department Stores thought so, and the retailer created a reality show that centered on social service and volunteerism. The title: "Transformation Nation."

The hour-long syndicated show highlighted everyday people trying to transform their communities and then rewarded them with shopping sprees in Kohl's stores. The companion website (www.transformationnation.com) allowed visitors to post their own stories of "transformation" on message boards.

But despite the initial fanfare and appeal to the consumer conscience, the show won't be back for a second season and the website is now devoted to fashion -- the site's tagline ("First Your Wardrobe, Tomorrow Your World") seems out of place today.

The marketer invested heavily (although it declined to disclose figures) in creating the reality series, backing it with print ads and echoing the show's tagline and website in its TV ad campaigns, which unabashedly touted the philanthropic theme. But TV spots for the retailer's spring campaign dropped the "Transform" do-gooder motif.

The show and site were overseen by Julie Gardner, then senior VP-marketing, Kohl's Department Stores. Ms. Gardner was recently promoted to the newly created position of exec VP-chief marketing officer. Conde Nast Publications' Self magazine also served as a partner in the development of the show.

Ms. Gardner declined to discuss specific results, noting competitive reasons, but she did confirm there will not be a second season of "Transformation Nation."

"I can tell you we are pleased with the results of the three 'Transformation Nation' TV shows we syndicated, but we are not going to employ that same tactic in 2007," Ms. Gardner wrote in an e-mail. "There are too many rich new arenas for us to repeat the same strategies year over year."

Self did not return calls seeking comment.

Certainly, hitting the right charitable tone with consumers isn't always easy, and there are pitfalls to putting your philanthropy center stage in a marketing campaign.

Companies "can't just hope that the feel-good sentiments on TV transfer to the consumer's mind," said Alison DaSilva, VP-cause branding at Cone, a Boston agency specializing in corporate social responsibility whose clients include Home Depot, Starbucks and Pfizer. "You can't just sponsor something and assume the world is going to think you have a genuine commitment to a cause. They need to make sure they are walking the talk and there is real substance there and that will help them build the trust."

Kohl's competitors have taken a different route to add luster to their brands, teaming with existing reality programs: Sears has a brand-placement deal with ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." Macy's, in a bid to bolster its high-fashion image, teamed with "Project Runway." But other retail-reality TV pairings have fallen flat, including Wal-Mart's ill-fated sponsorship of ABC's "The Scholar" and JC Penney's sponsorship of "Meet Mr. Mom."

Although Kohl's bid to draw consumers online with a charitable appeal was unique, the retailer is not the only bricks-and-mortar retailer that's tried to engage shoppers beyond the point-and-click monotony of online shopping baskets.

Wal-Mart created The Hub, a website to engage teenagers online with a profile forum reminiscent of MySpace.com, but soon closed the site. Best Buy, which launched six niche sites (aimed at demos like moms and computer geeks) in late 2005; that venture also proved to be a flop.

According to comScore Media Metrix, a research firm that tracks online traffic, the Kohl's "Transformation Nation" site drew just 167,000 unique visitors in April 2006, and traffic had declined to 111,000 unique visitors by December 2006, the most current data available from the company.
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