One by one, however, the nation's leading retail chains have upgraded the title held by their top marketer from the simple VP-advertising to the lofty chief marketing officer.
Most recently, both Circuit City Stores and Kmart Corp. named their first chief marketing officers. J.C. Penney Co. hired, then parted with, its first marketing officer-in the space of about a year. The newly reorganized Walmart.com hired its first chief marketing officer. And e-tail leader Amazon.com has gone outside the Internet for its new chief marketing officer.
Some analysts think the tumultuous retail environment is behind the trend.
"The way retailers thought they made money was by buying merchandise right and lowering the cost of distribution," said Carl Steidtmann, retail analyst at PricewaterhouseCoopers. "Now there is parity in those [sourcing and distribution] organizations and you're seeing these companies turn to marketing" to bring a competitive advantage, Mr. Steidtmann said. "At the same time, technology allows for an intimate understanding of the consumer-that's a lot of what these jobs are about."
Retail chief marketing officers are hardly off-the-shelf merchants. Here's a look at two of the most recent members of the newest exclusive marketing club:
Brent Willis, chief marketing officer, Kmart Corp.
"No excuses, sir."
That's one of only four phrases Brent Willis was allowed to utter for an entire year when he entered West Point as a plebe.
Today, as the first chief marketing officer of Kmart, Mr. Willis took command at the height of one of the most lackluster Christmas selling seasons in recent memory. Still, he believes marketers at the nation's leading retail chains, including himself, have to own up to that phrase and take responsibility for disappointing sales and troubled brands.
"Maybe there's economic trouble ahead, but this is an opportunity for us to secure share," he said.
At Kmart, he plans a quick maneuver to turn the ailing discounter into a consumer-centric company. "I'm going to liberate this place," said Mr. Willis, 40, who joined Kmart after a career at Coca-Cola Co., where he was president of the Latin American Venecol Division and division president of Coca-Cola Latin America, Mexico Division. "We are changing the company outlook to go from what we are today to a consumer-led marketing company," said Mr. Willis.
After his first meeting with new Kmart agency TBWA/Chiat/Day, New York, chosen after a review by new Kmart CEO Charles Conaway, Mr. Willis said he was ready for the shop to take risks to bring the blue-light brand back. "We have... an extraordinarily powerful icon which has been under-leveraged and under-resonated with consumers," he said.
Mr. Conaway had indicated an interest in leveraging the blue-light logo-already used on Kmart's Bluelight.com-but Mr. Willis was noncommittal on whether that would happen. New work is expected early next year.
Mr. Willis noted, however, his department and agency at this time don't have the intelligence they need to rescue Kmart. "That information is not yet resident in this building," he said, adding he personally will march into stores to find it.
Alan Brown, chief marketing officer, Amazon.com
Alan Brown started his career by trying harder as a salesman in the auto rental business at Avis.
Now Mr. Brown, 38, most recently VP-global corporate products for MasterCard International, will need every bit of that effort as he moves to reposition the Amazon.com brand. His challenge is to use the limited $35 million marketing budget of the Internet poster child to protect against powerful U.S. bricks-and-clicks competitors and move quickly into overseas markets to capture the first-mover advantage-not to mention build corporate profit.
"Amazon.com has a tremendous brand and [the company now needs to] translate that brand awareness" globally, he said, noting the rapid expansion and establishment of the Amazon.com name internationally. In the U.K., Amazon.com moved to the No. 1 spot in e-commerce within eight months. The marketer also currently operates in Germany, France and Japan, and ships merchandise to 150 nations, he said.
One of Mr. Brown's first tasks is to find a new global advertising agency after parting with FCB Worldwide, San Francisco, the agency which developed the "Sweatermen" group of 60's-style singers. He's also looking at frequency marketing programs.
But Mr. Brown believes Amazon.com's consumer-centric focus is the prime marketing strategy for carrying the brand. Profits will come as a result of Amazon's customer-care skills and its ability to cross-market merchandise, he said.