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Target Is Way Off Target

(First published in Forbes online – 2/28/08)

I’m usually a big fan of mega-retailer Target.  I prefer their stores over their often smelly discount competitors, and for the last decade their advertising has been consistently catchy and innovative.  But their recent faux pas on the net has me wondering if Target is falling behind the times.

Recently a blog called ShapingYouth.org wrote an email to the retailer critical of Target’s newest campaign – which apparently depicts the iconic Target emblem emblazoned across a woman’s crotch. A caveat here.  I have not seen this ad, and while it does seem odd to me, I theoretically don’t have a problem with corporations covering people’s crotches with their emblems if they really feel it is effective marketing.  (Just stay away from my crotch – I prefer to keep that area logo free.)  But I suspect a site called ShapingYouth, which is all about the media’s influence on kids, is less liberal about those things than I am.

The controversy aside, Target’s response was way off Target. When ShapingYouth complained, Target responded “unfortunately we are unable to respond to your inquiry because Target does not participate with non-traditional media outlets”.  C’mon Target – it’s not like ShapingYouth was trying to reach you on a CB radio. This internet thing is a pretty big deal and probably here to stay for awhile. When Target refused to acknowledge ShapingYouth – they used the net to really spread their complaint – until it was finally written up in The New York Times.  Target, is the NY Times traditional enough for you?

Target’s bonehead move is indicative of the lack of understanding many marketers demonstrate towards the internet – and more importantly, their ignorance of the new age of marketing.  We have quickly moved into an era where traditional advertising and messaging is eclipsed by the power of the consumer.  Perhaps having your logo on a pretty girl’s crotch will momentarily imbed your brand in my mind (or offend me) – but reading good or bad things about you ultimately has more impact on whether or not I will become your customer.  In this new age of advertising, consumers don’t blindly buy when they see an ad – instead they are inspired by the advertisement to go to the net and research.  They read peer and expert reviews – they consult blogs – they communicate with like-minded individuals before making the choice to buy.  Marketers that uniformly dismiss “non-traditional media outlets” are potentially ignoring their customers and wasting advertising dollars. 

Old style brand-focused one dimensional advertising campaigns will ultimately lose the sales battle.  This consumer-centric environment requires a completely different approach towards marketing that involves a combination of traditional and direct response advertising, the web, and increasingly new media outlets like cell phones and PDAs.  Advertising is a catalyst to peak the consumer’s interest.  Content then converts them into a buyer. Tell me all about your product.  Prove to me it works.  And ultimately I will believe you if happy customers support what you told me. Smart marketers must now spread their message in multiple platforms – with in-depth content.

And they need to be prepared for a much more intimate – and honest – dialogue with consumers and critics.  Dismissing complaints because they came from a “non-traditional media outlet” is equivalent to refusing to take a customer service call because the customer is calling from a cell phone.  Hopefully Target’s response was simply the misguided reaction of a harried PR person, and not indicative of their corporate attitude.  Otherwise another venerable retailer will soon slip. Anyone remember W.W. Woolworths?

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