An Inside Look at the BlueLight Battle Plan

Kmart Execs Prepare to Breath New Life into Old Concept

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AIRBORNE ( -- Lifting off from Troy, Mich., the Kmart corporate jet streaked east toward the light.

Onboard, Kmart Corp.'s new chief marketing officer, Brent Willis, was joined by

Photo: AP..
Kmart CEO Charles Conaway, left, and marketing chief Brent Willis at BlueLight launch news conference.
Larry Davis, vice president of advertising and marketing, and Don Coleman, CEO of Kmart's minority ad agency, True North Communications' Don Coleman Advertising.

The day's mission for Willis and Davis was a rendezvouz in New York with executives at TBWA/Chiat/Day to finalize plans for the chain's BlueLight Special relaunch. The overall goal was to use an old concept in a new way to lift the company out of its financial doldrums.

Mr. Willis is the former president of the Latin America Mexico Division of Coca-Cola Co., but at 40, the West Point graduate and Army captain was lured by a bigger marketing challenge at Kmart.

Kmart's troubles
Kmart's previous turnaround schemes fizzled. The long-ailing discounter has been left in the dust by Wal-Mart Stores and Target Corp.

Headlines the day before told of Kmart's 40% drop in fourth-quarter profits. But on this sunny, bright morning, Mr. Willis is ebullient over beating Wall Street's earnings estimates by a penny per share. There are smiles and laughter as the group settles into the supple tan leather seats of the eight seater.

Even before takeoff, Mr. Willis discussed the battle plan. The management team intends to clean up Kmart stores visually, eliminating the clutter of signs. As part of the plan to revive the BlueLight Special, Kmart will lower prices on household staples from toothpaste to cereal. He's trying to figure out what to call these everyday items to avoid confusion with those spotlighted each hour with flashing blue lights and blaring "Attention Kmart shoppers" announcements. Is the most effective term "promises," "rewards," "extras" or "always"?

"Promises" is too feminine, Mr. Willis decides. "Extras"? Maybe a negative connotation, fellow passengers note. Legal won't approve "Always"; Procter & Gamble Co. has a feminine-hygiene product with that name. "Rewards" -- that's it. Mr. Willis says he's no copywriter, but he tells his fellow passengers he has decided.

At Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, Mr. Willis, in a dark suit, no tie and wrapped in a charcoal gray cashmere coat, hops into the shotgun seat of a waiting Lincoln Town Car and gets busy on his cell phone. Mr. Davis also is occupied on his cell phone with a flurry of calls, most of them pertaining to a missed delivery of thousands of Sunday newspaper inserts in the Denver area.

The phone stops long enough for Mr. Willis to detail plans for the in-store BlueLight Special revival. A manager will get on the microphone as music fills the store. All employees will stop what they are doing, clap twice, thrust their fists into the air twice, and shout "BlueLight. BlueLight." Mr. Willis goes through the drill twice, each time clapping and thrusting his hand to his delight.

One-armed sweaters, pink flamingoes
Stuck in traffic en route to Manhattan, Mr. Willis details how the decision to bring back the BlueLight brand was made. "Chuck [Conaway, Kmart chairman-CEO] thought it has 80% awareness and a positive association with all the target audiences," he explains. The reason it was dropped by 1991, Mr. Willis says, was that "stores lost discipline," using it to sell defective merchandise -- sweaters with one arm -- or pink flamingoes.

Mr. Willis wants the BlueLight to be interactive in-store entertainment. Plans call for occasional outrageous values, such as a 19-inch TV for $49. "Whatever it takes for customers to say 'Wow,'" Mr. Willis says. The promotions will run for 25 minutes every hour on the hour, one item per day, perhaps two different items on weekends.

Mr. Willis envisions consumers walking out of Kmart feeling they've snared unheard of bargains. He wants radio talk-show hosts to take the bait, ad-libbing spots or picking up on news that the local store was overrun with bargain hunters and telling listeners "about what the fools at Kmart" sold at ridiculously low prices the day before.

He's counting on the new efforts being so successful that Kmart won't feel the squeeze coming to its ad budget. "We spent over $1 billion in advertising. We are going to optimize and reallocate to drive differentiation," Mr. Willis says, downplaying Mr. Conaway's comments to Wall Street that week about trimming ad spending. In part, Mr. Willis expects to do that by cutting duplicate newspaper inserts on which Kmart spends some $500 million a year.

Not your grandmother's Kmart
The mantra, he says, is making Kmart the "value, quality, authority Moms can trust."

He promises: "It won't be your grandmother's Kmart."

The Lincoln approaches 488 Madison Ave. TBWA/Chiat/Day's offices are on the sixth floor; the elevator bank is located, fittingly, in a blue corridor.

Mr. Willis, overcoat flapping, marches past the reception desk, shouting "Kmart!" just once, en route to the main conference room. After ditching their briefcases

An ad from the BlueLight campaign.
on light-green conference room chairs, he and Mr. Davis make a quick inspection of the pastries and coffee set on a table in the room, which offers a view of St. Patrick's Cathedral across the street.

TBWA/Chiat/Day team members stream in. Carl Johnson, president-CEO of Omnicom Group's TBWA/Chiat/Day, New York, slips in behind Mr. Willis. "Hi, partner," Mr. Willis effuses, moving to give Mr. Johnson a bear hug. Mr. Johnson keeps him at arm's length, mumbling something in a British accent about a cold.

Part of today's task is to finish off the details of the BlueLight launch, kicking off with an event in New York City on April 2, a little more than two weeks away.

Specifically, Mr. Willis will take a look at the agency's rough cuts and online creative, OK print ads and hear details of a PR push.

Planning Director Sara Bamber, a Brit dressed in black with fashionable black-rim glasses, lists what the BlueLight Special is -- "bargains," "exciting," "value," "exceeds expectations."

Bluelight as treasure hunt
The special is a treasure hunt, and it won't be limited only to big-ticket items but also 2-liter bottles of Coke or Pepsi for 30 cents. "Americans, by nature, are explorers," Mr. Willis says. "They're hunters and gathers. They always want that treasure. Now, this is the payoff."

The talk turns to creative. The agency's California offices created such temporary cultural icons as the Taco Bell Chihuahua and's Sock Puppet, which both drew widespread attention but failed to sell a lot of tacos or dog food. Mr. Willis wants ads that will perform.

"Just so you know, Carl," Mr. Willis says to Mr. Johnson, "in military terms, I want to make sure we stay on point.

"There is always a balance of how much creativity do you want vs. how much story do you want vs. how much message," he adds. "My style, I'm sure you know, is about the message."

The agency rolls a 15-second spot showing a jar with fireflies in a boy's room. The blue light shines on the jar and, to the tune of Peggy Lee's "I'm Beginning to See the Light," they escape.

Too much storytelling
"It's awesome," says the executive group director, David Jenkins, the lead account man and another Brit in black. Mr. Willis likes the spot but thinks the 30-second version has too much storytelling.

The group discusses which of the eight pending TV spots should air first. There's no resolution; this will have to be decided later.

By far, the high point of the agency presentation was the online element of the BlueLight campaign for the Web site and online ads created by TBWA/Chiat/Day's interactive department. One shows a lighthouse with a blue beacon, accompanied by an audible foghorn. Another shows two wolves howling. There's one with flying saucers landing on Earth. Each ends with an audible "Attention Kmart shoppers."

Mr. Willis asks whether the interactive portion would somehow be integrated with messages that had been posted in stores that say "Goosebumps ahead" and "Any moment now." Agency team members are lukewarm in discussing ways of incorporating Mr. Willis' suggestion until it's pointedly clear the agency wants to stick to the simpler blue light messages.

The discussion shifts to an April 2 news conference and the ringing of the final bell at the New York Stock Exchange.

Photo: AP..
Left to right: Earl Bartell, BlueLight Special inventor, actress Jaclyn Smith, model Kathy Ireland, Kmart CEO Conaway and marketing chief Willis.
Six people are allowed on the podium. Mr. Willis says Mr. Conaway will be there, as will Martha Stewart, who has a line of everyday products at Kmart. "Kill Kathy and Jaclyn," Mr. Willis says, referring to spokeswomen Kathy Ireland and Jaclyn Smith. "Excuse me. Take them off the list. Let's do something very good to entertain Kathy and Jaclyn so they don't feel slighted. ... Private interviews, maybe they go off to Letterman."

Mr. Willis wants to add some "sizzle" to the media event, and he suggests the PR team already on board at Omnicom's Porter Novelli consider two videos. "We got a BlueLight rap the employees wrote," says Mr. Willis as he performs. "'Blue Light rap, it's really cool. How do you get to it, call Martha Stewart'... things like that."

Inventor of the BlueLight
Plans are made for Mr. Willis to pull from the audience the now-retired store manager who created the original BlueLight Special in 1965, Earl Bartell.

Mr. Willis returns the discussion to a task he wants completed by the end of the day: the name for the everyday products Kmart plans to offer at new low prices.

What will it be: BlueLight promises, rewards, extras, guarantees, everyday? Martha Stewart has a problem with everyday in any form, he says.

Not "promises, which is wussy, overused," Mr. Willis says.

"Overused," Mr. Jenkins echoes.

Silence from agency team
Mr. Willis gives his pitch for "Rewards." There's silence from the agency team, but Mr. Willis pushes on.

After some discussion, though, Mr. Willis begins to reconsider. "Is there something that's righter?" he asks.

Mr. Jenkins, the account chief, suggests "bluelights," one word, lower case b.

"Bluelights and the BlueLight Special," says Mr. Jenkins. "Excellent."

"Excellent," says Ms. Bamber, the account planner. "Bluelights works."

After more general group conversation, Mr. Willis says: "OK, cool."

The discussion jumps to the Kmart Difference, a topic close to the heart of Mr. Conaway, who wants to separate the retailer from value-priced Wal-Mart and cheap-chic Target. The decision has been made to be the "authority" for home and kids and to focus on moms.

But Mr. Willis knows the store has to attract a younger customer, those who will continue to shop at Kmart as they grow older. "We're missing a men's and young men's active casual brand, like a Bugle Boy that we passed on, like a Jones New York, like Claiborne for Men. There's a gap in our portfolio. We've got to go through our targets. We've got geriatrics covered well." Everyone laughs.

Geriatric active women
"We could take Jaclyn to mean she's geriatric active women or more mature women," he says. "We could argue that Kathy might mean young women. But then obviously there's a huge gap for teen girls. Route 66 [Kmart's jeans brand] isn't teen girls. It's like saying Limited Too would appeal to teen boys. We need a Limited Too-type brand for teen girls and maybe take Route 66 and target that more toward teen boys and young men. Route 66 can be broader. It doesn't just need to be for immature men," he says. More laughter.

Mr. Johnson, who has been coming in and out of the meeting, pulls Mr. Willis out of the session. Mr. Davis informs the team he needs to leave quickly to remain on schedule. The two marketing executives have a meeting with Ms. Stewart. And if they are late, even by a minute, she has been known to refuse to see them.

On the plane on the way home, Mr. Willis pulls out a laptop to work on his presentation to the board of directors the next week, kibitzing with Messrs. Coleman and Davis about his choice of words. He has a habit of covering his eyes when he's thinking, taking a breath and tilting his head back a bit.

"Shoulda done some stores today. Damn it," he says.

Back in Troy at 9 p.m., Mr. Willis pulls into a spot in a nearly vacant Super Kmart on his way home. The store, close to headquarters, is spick-and-span, the floor polished slippery in some spots, the shelves tidy and well-stocked.

Still, Mr. Willis is unhappy. He hates the clearance signs. "Clearance says 'We're going out of business' to me." He doesn't like a red line drawn on the floor delineating a clothing section. People don't want to cross a line like that. There should be carpeting, more inviting. And he hates the cacophony of shelf talkers in every possible size, shape and typeface.

Encounter with a shopper
He comes across Eddie, a 2-year-old sitting in a shopping cart, whose mother is searching for medium-size diapers.

"Can I help you find something?" asks Mr. Willis.

Eddie's mother looks puzzled. Mr. Willis identifies himself as a Kmart employee. She says she's looking for medium-sized diapers. Mr. Willis searches the shelves, asking the woman how the management is doing, what can be improved.

"Lower the prices," she says. "Target beats Kmart."

"Thank you for shopping at Kmart," responds Mr. Willis, abandoning the diaper search as he strides away.

Copyright April 2001, Crain Communications Inc.

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