Will she fit in?

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"How's she going to fit in there?" was Bud Liebler's first reaction on hearing that Julie Roehm was departing Detroit for Bentonville. Then Chrysler's former marketing chief realized: "She's controversial, and so is Wal-Mart, so it could be a perfect fit."

That sums it up nicely. On the surface, Ms. Roehm seems to clash with Wal-Mart's dowdy image and conservative culture. A young, stylish and consciously rabble-rousing marketer, she was often praised and just as often knocked for her audacity during a run as Chrysler's director of marketing communications.

But the 35-year-old's appointment as Wal-Mart's new senior VP-marketing communications is the latest signal that the oft-vilified retailing giant is out to change its image. Wal-Mart, in other words, may have to adapt to Ms. Roehm rather than the other way around.

"She's a firebrand-smart, energetic and articulate," said Randy Curtis, a former Wal-Mart VP who's now the principal of Curtis Relational Marketing in Bentonville, Ark. "Right now, the culture is in an incredible state of flux, and ... it's going to be easier for [outsiders] to come in. To some extent, the culture will adapt to them. "

Ms. Roehm said Wal-Mart employs "stellar marketers." Of the conservative label, she said, "If you met the marketing team there, you wouldn't use that word for them."

In fact, her boss, Chief Operating Officer John Fleming, is also an outsider, a 19-year veteran of Target-which challenged Wal-Mart by adding a stylish flair to discount retailing. Mr. Fleming, who succeeded career Wal-Mart-er Bob Connolly, has shaken up Wal-Mart's ad strategy, borrowing from Target's playbook and lowering the volume of its "everyday low prices" messaging.

Top to bottom

A greater challenge for Ms. Roehm will be learning an entirely new business. She's moving from the "top of the hard-goods industry to the bottom of the soft-good industry," said Mike Bernacchi, marketing professor at the University of Detroit Mercy.

Ms. Roehm will oversee ad-strategy development, creative and events, although she'll have a smaller purse than she's used to. The retailer is closing in on $300 billion in sales but spends about $800 million on advertising, half Chrysler's $1.6 billion budget.

Loved by some for its rock-bottom prices, Wal-Mart is reviled by others for the way it treats employees, affects communities and wields its clout with vendors. And Ms. Roehm joins as Wal-Mart is showing some vulnerability. In the crucial month of December, Target reported comparable-store-sales gains of 4.7% on sales of $8.4 billion compared to Wal-Mart's 2.2% growth on sales of $40.8 billion.

Mr. Bernacchi believes Wal-Mart hired Ms. Roehm "for her bristle and gristle."

Whatever that is, she's got plenty of it. A Wisconsin native and married mother of two boys, Ms. Roehm left an indelible mark on Chrysler with a host of talked-about-sometimes outrageous-campaigns and blasted away at decades-old business traditions such as the TV upfront market.

Colorful from the start of her career, she distinguished herself as a brand manager at Ford Motor Co. before her 30th birthday by betting her performance bonus that half the buyers of the Ford Focus would be under 35 (she lost, but it was close; 46.1% of Focus buyers were in that age group.)

Ms. Roehm joined Chrysler in 2001 as head of Dodge marketing and was promoted to director-marketing communications for Dodge, Jeep and Chrysler at the start of 2004.

She has had her share of successes and foibles. On the plus side, she created a brand for Hemi engines, solidified Dodge's positioning and elevated online lifestyle marketing, branded entertainment, video gaming and mobile-phone marketing as legitimate media venues for automakers. She also worked to reform TV's upfront. Her outspokenness made her a fixture on the speaking circuit and earned her an induction into the American Advertising Federation's Hall of Achievement for young executives.

On the controversial side, she earned notoriety when she secured a Dodge sponsorship of the pay-per-view Lingerie Bowl during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime, then dropped it amid consumer and dealer complaints. Then there was the 2003 TV spot for the Dodge Durango that showed two men at urinals having a double-entendre-filled chat about size. In 2002, she approved a Dodge Ram TV spot that showed a cartoon boy urinating on a rival's logo.

Some of her tactics might seem downright shocking at down-home Wal-Mart, which banishes magazines with racy covers and CDs with edgy lyrics from its shelves. Its often frumpy female apparel isn't likely to be found in the closet of Ms. Roehm, who wore a red leather jacket around her very pregnant belly for a meeting with the rock band Aerosmith.

Still, Michael Clinton, exec VP-publishing director at Hearst Magazines, said Ms. Roehm and Wal-Mart have more similarities than differences. "Julie challenges the status quo a lot and brings innovation. It's a great win for Wal-Mart."

Contributing: Mya Frazier, Jack Neff

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