Sears revamps its image

This spring, Sears Canada will dramatically alter its market positioning with a new strategy intended to sharpen its blurred public image and place increased focus on its wide stable of private label brands.Bill Turner, Sears vice-president of marketing and advertising, says...

This spring, Sears Canada will dramatically alter its market positioning with a new strategy intended to sharpen its blurred public image and place increased focus on its wide stable of private label brands.

Bill Turner, Sears vice-president of marketing and advertising, says Sears has suffered from image problems for much of the past decade.

Turner says this is largely because the chain has been in a state of evolution from a discount-store orientation to that of an up-scale, full-fledged department store.


At the same time, the Toronto-based operation, comprising 109 retail locations, 14 clearance centres and 1,600 catalogue outlets, has been modernizing its store designs and trying to increase its presence in urban regions of the country.

Compounding matters further, Turner says Sears has been guilty of marketing its various products and services – and of using different media vehicles – in a piecemeal fashion, rather than in an integrated, ‘holistic’ fashion.


Turner notes the term ‘holistic’ is one he picked up from Elliot Ettenberg, who is chairman of Prism Advertising, the Toronto agency Sears hired Feb. 4 as its new-agency-of-record for broadcast and magazine advertising.

Ettenberg is well known in ad circles for his view that the marketing industry is going through a period of profound change.

In numerous speeches and published articles, he has contended that, in order to succeed in the 1990s, advertisers will have to develop integrated marketing plans and pay close attention to customers’ needs and buying habits.

According to Turner, Sears’ top priority in shaping a new marketing strategy will be to ‘define the Sears customer, and the potential Sears’ customer, and to develop a strategy to give them what they want.’

While declining to discuss specifics of what Sears’ new face in the market will look like, Turner suggests it will be that of a trustworthy retailer attentive to the needs of its customers.

‘You are listening’

‘In the 1990s, you had better come to customers with a story they believe, and the only story they want to hear is that `you are listening to my needs,’ ‘ he says.

‘You will not recognize our new electronic campaign.’

At the same time that it is trying to redefine its overall position in the retail marketplace, Sears is embarking on a concerted effort to build the profile of its private label brands.

These include Kenmore household appliances, Craftsman tools and Jessica women’s wear.

Sears also has exclusive distribution rights for numerous product lines such as Arnold Palmer men’s wear and Winnie the Pooh kids’ wear.

Turner admits he takes his inspiration from Loblaw International Merchants President Dave Nichols, who, through savvy marketing, has succeeded in elevating President’s Choice house brands to the status of top-quality, national brands.

Turner says he sees no reason why Sears would not be able to accomplish the same feat, noting that only a minority of its house brands are sold on discount, and he has increasingly been moving the inventory to a ‘top-quality,’ ‘first-price’ positioning.

John Torella of John C. Williams Consultants says he is not surprised by Sears’ efforts to redefine its market position because consumers have become confused over the years.


Torella, who is a principal and senior marketing communications consultant with John C. Williams, says Sears’ challenge is to communicate its ‘competitive advantage’ in a way that involves ‘its brands and its store image.’

With regard to Sears’ plans to implement a Loblaw-style marketing plan for its house brands, Torella says:

‘I understand the strategy, but I’ve got to be convinced they can do it with the same kind of conviction and ingenuity as Dave Nichols.’

Sears, Canada’s largest department store chain with 1992 sales of $3.96 billion, awarded its ad account to Prism earlier this month, shortly after the agency conducted a three-month study of Sears’ marketing operation.

Thinking the same

Turner says Prism’s findings indicated the agency was ‘thinking exactly the same as we were thinking in terms of such things as demographics, psychographics and basic strategy.’

Previously, Sears had split the broadcast and magazine account between McKim Baker Lovick/BBDO, which handled media, and Franklin Dallas, which handled creative.

Franklin Dallas began working for Sears two years ago when it was awarded a project to relaunch the Sears Club frequent-buyer program.

Sears was pleased with the results and, subsequently, began using Franklin Dallas as its sole creative resource.

Sears’ total ad spending for 1991 was slightly less than $74 million.

According to Turner, tv, radio and magazine spending accounts for 25% of the firm’s overall budget, with newspaper and flyer accounting for the balance.

In hiring Prism, Sears will, for the first time in memory, ask an outside ad agency to become involved across the full range of its marketing activities from the planning stage to the final product.

‘It will be a melding together of our in-house operation and the ad agency,’ says Turner, noting that in the past, Sears typically developed its marketing strategy in-house and then called on its creative and media agencies to execute it.

By shifting its creative account from Franklin Dallas to Prism, Sears has gone from an agency known for its award-winning creative, to an agency known for its strategic thinking.

Torella says the shift is understandable because Sears needs to become more strategic, but he cautions ‘the battle will not be won on strategy alone.’

‘It’s going to take breakthrough creative as well,’ he says.