In the lobby of Target Stores' sprawling headquarters in downtown Minneapolis, you'll find a wood sculpture by Ayomi Yoshida. The Japanese artist carved thousands of tiny red circles by hand out of four wood pillars, then plastered each bull's-eye to the walls of the three floors of stairwell the pillars fill. It took three months, and it's a visually arresting element in what otherwise would have been a dull corpoate stairwell. Standing within it might just be the equivalent of transporting oneself into one of those controversial illustrations of Target's recent New Yorker ad takeover.
And it's exactly what you would expect from the culture of a company that's transformed the longstanding utilitarian nature of mass-market discount retailing and marketing to claim the groundbreaking position "Design for All." In an industry known for its endless stream of derivative advertising, Target, it can be argued, is actually doing something that hasn't been done before. Year after year, Target has pushed the outer limits of its brand promise, "Expect more, pay less," and no push yet was as gutsy as this year's "Design for All" campaign.
It broke in January with a 60-second spot touting the mantra "Say something new," a Concretes song with a lilting melody and a perfect lyrical match with the campaign's message. The genesis for the "Design for All" idea came out of the realization that of the more than 150 everyday household items on display at a 2004 exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, almost 80 were sold at Target stores.
"It just became a relevant time to own it and claim it," says Dave Peterson, creative director at Minneapolis agency Peterson Milla Hooks, which, despite the absence of a formalized AOR relationship, has essentially served as Target's creative agency for 15 years and running. "That was really something to say and something to stand behind."
Target has since inaugurated a program of free admissions at MoMA every Friday for the next four years, dubbed Target Free Friday Nights, even though a store has yet to open in Manhattan. As the retail industry entered a period of flux over the last decade, with designer brands fleeing department stores, celebrities launching a slew of fashion and apparel lines and private-label brands proliferating on department store shelves, Target instead stuck to one clear strategy, which Michael Francis, exec VP-marketing, sums ups as, "Surprise and delight the guest whenever they walk into the store."
Target has rejected the notion of celebrity branding, instead opting for designers to drive foot traffic through the doors. "That's a strategic decision we made, and we've stuck to it," Francis says. There is no tried-and-true product designer formula either. "We have as many different designer partnerships as we do designers," he adds. "Part of what makes us interesting to consumers is that ebb and flow, and the newness coming out of the building."
The designer focus began just five years ago, with Michael Graves and his tea kettles. Today, Target boasts Issac Mizrahi, Liz Lange, Sean Conway, Sonia Kashuk, Amy Coe and Rachel Ashwell. And this fall marked the launch of its biggest designer category, with 500 SKUs behind famed New York interior designer Thomas O'Brien. In the next year alone, Target will launch Fiorucci, via a design house in Milan; Go International, a revolving lineup of international designers; and a Luella Bartley line.
Francis hints at an endless supply of signature products in the wings. "We never really stop searching. We have people in the air around the globe on a daily basis for Target. In the last month, we've had two groups doing reconnaissance trips."
The inside marketing team numbers in the hundreds; although Target would not confirm the exact number, some former insiders and industry watchers have put it at close to 1,000. And when it comes to new hires, the kind of creative minds Francis seeks are "fearless, bold, globally-minded and intellectually curious-they're drawn from a wide-range of backgrounds, we have no one format we want."
The core executive marketing team, though, with the exception of director of interactive marketing Will Setliff, who joined a year and a half ago, boasts of a department store background and long tenures at Target. Consider Minda Gralnek, VP-creative director and a 15-year bull's-eye veteran. She recalls when the core team was just a small group "that really believed in the brand." She credits the close-knit nature of this core group for the growth of the brand: "It's been a respectful collaborative environment," which extends beyond the inside team to the way Target works with agencies. "We work with all sorts of people, from an individual creative person to a small design firm," Gralnek explains. "Sometimes we bring in people to work on just a portion of a project. However we can get the ideas, we go for it and we don't do it the same way ever. We'll put different agencies together, if we need to." The pressure isn't for cost savings or catering to ego-driven reviews; "Our strategy is to come up with something no one has ever done-20 times a year."
The fluid, open-door process must cede to pragmatism first and not the conventional traditions of AOR relationships, she adds. "For the Target brand to be successful, it has to work on all levels, from signage to in-store to dot-com to print and TV. Trying to organize that is really hard-all these people have to work together. That's the only way we get it to come out to one cohesive brand." She credits the Minneapolis creative community for providing an endless stream of ideas and an openness to what isn't the traditional way retailers work with agencies. "Minneapolis is a great community, and, not being in New York, we sort of have this 'We need to try harder' attitude, like maybe the rest of the world really knows how to do it and we've got to figure it out," she says.
Karen Gershman, VP-marketing, has the longest tenure on the Target marketing team. Her counterpart, Eric Erickson, joined target 14 years ago, but spent his early years, dating back to 1981, with Gralnek at Dayton Hudson Department Stores. Gershman began as a proofreader in 1972, and wrote copy back when there were just 42 stores and advertising consisted of a circular and newspaper ads. Her responsibilities have clearly evolved, and most recently she worked on the negotiations for the Thomas O'Brien launch. "I've had my hands in just about everything," she says. Like Gralnek, she credits the open "idea marketplace" for the success of the Target brand. "We don't care where the idea came from as long as it's a great idea and everyone feels it's a great idea-we just need to figure out a way to execute that idea." Collaboration is also her word of choice. "It's never, 'Here's the brief, do your job.' "
Dave Peterson embraces the open attitude of the Target marketing team, even if that means living without the security of an AOR, and working, without hesitation, with other agencies on projects. "The relationship is a true partnership," says Peterson, whose agency of 35 works almost entirely on Target business. "We're always sharing with them, they're always sharing with us. It's hard to say where it starts and ends. There are no boundaries. In retail you have to be fast and instinctual, and having a relationship like that is very powerful."