Stop piling on Target and learn from it (Column)

January 10, 2014  |  Chris Lund  |  Comments

Chris Lund is CEO of Perennial Design

Let’s stop piling on Target. Yes, the Canadian launch has not matched expectations, but it’s a smart, savvy, successful retailer. It’ll get it right. In the meantime, perhaps we can learn a few things from its story.

Target’s brand position and promise is captured in the tagline “Expect More. Pay Less.” Delivering against this promise has held the retailer in good stead. It operates 1,683 stores in 48 American states, racks up $73 billion in sales annually and employs 360,000 team members.

But Target Canada’s pre-launch hype created an implied brand promise that Target Canada found difficult to keep, and by fueling this hype it also encouraged competitors to aggressively buttress their customer bases. One wonders if Target would enter Canada differently knowing what it knows now. Would it fuel the hype? Would it pique the interest of its competitors? Would it conduct a soft launch given the pre-launch plan?

Here are five lessons we can all learn from Target’s Canadian launch.

Realize there is no such thing as a soft launch for a big, established brand

In this social media age, where word of mouth travels faster than we can talk, there is no such thing as a soft launch. Whether it’s three stores or 30, a launch is a launch. Any operational miscalculations will go viral instantaneously.

In hindsight, Target should have treated the soft launch as the real thing.

Really listen to consumers

Target’s own “listening tours” suggested Canadians wanted a similar experience to what they had found in the U.S. Did Target pay enough attention to this? Did it fully appreciate the strength of the latent brand promise in Canada? Did it fully understand the depth of the emotional connection Canadians already had with the Target brand?

In hindsight, Target should have listened better.

Understand expectations

Target added fuel to the expectation fire. All the pre-launch activity enhanced Canadians’ desire to expect more and pay less. They were expecting Marilyn, but got Norma Jeane.

In hindsight, Target should have monitored consumers’ expectations either through continuous tracking or social listening.

Don’t flag your story to competitors too early

Target’s Canadian launch was no secret. The pre-launch hype mobilized its competitors to aggressively defend their franchises.

In hindsight, Target should have held its cards closer to its vest.

Keep the promise

A brand is a differentiated promise of value that consumers have an emotional connection with. Target created and implied the promise of “Expect More. Pay Less.” In the eyes of Canadians, it has not fulfilled this promise.

It will be hard to win on price in a mature hard discount market, especially given a limited product assortment in Canada. But Target can win on the experience by offering a product lineup more akin to what consumers are accustomed to finding in the U.S. Featuring brands like Michael Graves and Philippe Starck adds authority to its offer.

Target will be successful in the long haul. While it competes in an increasingly price-competitive category, it cannot profitably compete on price alone. Target will win over Canadian consumers if it focuses on the experience part of its promise by featuring authority brands and selling them in clean, bright stores. It can further differentiate itself by communicating its enviable Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives. Target will win if it gives Canadians a reason to expect more.

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