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Dare to be different.

This marketing philosophy of Phyllis Wasserman, VP-advertising for Staples, helped boost annual sales for the No. *2 office supply chain to more than $3 billion.

While other office supply retailers were touting price, Ms. Wasserman and Staples undertook an ad strategy that showed how Staples understood its consumers' needs.

"Customers want to know you'll take care of them," says Ms. Wasserman, 46. "We think it's about showing empathy for your customer."

Staples and agency Cliff Freeman & Partners, New York, created humorous ads that demonstrated the retailer's consumer understanding.

One spot featured an office manager as she's looking around the office. She focuses on a co-worker with a pen behind his ear and all she sees is a pen at 99›. Staples' tagline: "Yeah, we got that."

In a year when most retailers seemed to struggle, sales rose 53% for the year ending Feb. 3. Comparable-store sales for the 350-store chain increased 20% in that period.

"We attribute our jump-start in comparable store sales to our advertising," says Ms. Wasserman.

"I feel like we made magic," she says. Chairman-CEO Thomas Stemberg "gave me that opportunity and Cliff Freeman accomplished it."

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