Advertising The Rebirth Of Retail

Advertising The Rebirth Of Retail

Creatives from PMH discuss advertising for Target and Kohl’s amid the “death” of retail, and why experiential marketing needs to accomplish something real

Isabella Alimonti
  • 4 october 2017

To forget a name but remember a face—it’s a common affliction, and Peterson Milla Hooks has embraced something of the sort as the cornerstone of its identity in dubbing itself the “famously unfamous” ad agency. Established in 1989, the Minneapolis-based firm earned some far-reaching stripes thanks to its neighbor Target when founder and Executive Creative Director Dave Peterson led the branding project that brought forth the retailer’s synonymous red and white bullseye logo.

With pervasive campaigns like Gap’s “Make Love” and Target’s “Hello/Goodbuy,” creatives at PMH have proved themselves time and again as masters of the traditional formats. We spoke to Peterson and Director of Strategy Lauren Buckley about how the agency is looking beyond its success with print, billboards and TV spots to develop physical experiences and incorporate technologies like voice activation and VR.

Central to Peterson and Buckley’s experiential philosophy is the idea that the best brand activations are ones that meet an actual need—be it a moment of zen in the midst of a hectic expo center or a free hotline that lets you speed dial your government representatives. The industry veterans weighed in on their history in the retail space, campaigns they admire from other advertisers, and some of the tech integrations they’re working on and toward.

Before we get into the future of advertising, I’d love to talk about a highlight from PMH’s past: What’s the story behind the original campaign that brought us the iconic Target bullseye branding?

Peterson: I was working with department stores in the very, very early days of Target. When Target started, they took the best of the brains from leadership from the department stores and—thankfully—me along. We all understood that in the world, people have wants and they have needs. Needs are one thing, but wants are kind of what makes the world go around.

We were trying to engineer how to introduce a brand new mass marketer in an overly cluttered environment already. Being so new and small, we realized we had something when the female shopper would be doing her weekly run to the mass merchant to get her Tide and diapers, but if we could reward her with designer jeans or melamine plates with the Missoni pattern on it, suddenly she’s happy and she wants to come back. That’s where the love affair started with Target. We’d have these Easter eggs throughout the store. Whether you chose to participate and buy the designer dress or the Michael Graves toaster, they were there. They made you feel sort of chic because you weren’t just immersed in drudgery. We like to feel like we were elevating the everyday and making that shopping experience joyful.

We were doing messaging that was celebrating, “Get a cashmere scarf with your toilet paper,” so it became this delightful sort of tension. But we did realize that now we were providing all of your commodities, all of your fashion needs, food, pharmacy and home–it’s kind of everything. They asked me what to do and I said, let’s brand that uniqueness; let’s be a category of one. Let’s make that bullseye pattern as chic as Gucci and celebrate the Target life, which is an elevated, more stylish way of living your life. And it reaches to all parts of your life so even if you’re raking [leaves] you can do it stylishly, or no matter what you did you could live your life with a little bit more luster and shine. A lot of the messaging was just branded: It was red and white, a lot of bullseye patterns, but it was just showing how barbequing, we made it look so freakin’ chic. Or mowing the lawn became a fashion show.

It was delightful and easy and fun, but it was just celebrating that Target life. The track to the first spot was “It’s a Sign of the Times” and I think what the bullseye meant was that the way you shop, the way you engage with your life, is changing. It was just changing the consumer’s mind. Once the light went on, they’re like, yes, this is saving me time, it’s more fun, it’s more modern, it’s just a better way to live.

Some of your most recognizable work has been for retail staples of the 90s and early 2000s, including Target, Gap and Kohl’s. How have things evolved, from an advertising perspective, amid all of the doom and gloom about the “death” of traditional retail?

Buckley: Our perspective on the doom and gloom of the retail space is that’s much more of a real estate story. I think, depending on which report you look at, anywhere between 50 and 70% of all purchases are still happening in a physical space. So the “dying” was a little bit of hyperbole. But for sure, the retail environment is absolutely transitioning in a huge way, whether you look at some of the startups that are just sort of dipping their toes into brick and mortar, and using their space as more of a lab to figure out what their type of customer is really going to expect or love from them when it comes to a physical experience. Or you think of some of the things that are happening with pop-up shops, night markets, limited-time experiences and offers like that: Retail is just starting to realize that it can’t stay the same when our expectations as consumers have changed so drastically.

Part of that is e-commerce, but I think part of that is just the values that the biggest generation that is shaping our current culture has. In that context, I think it’s why every single retailer is scrambling to figure out what technology works for them. A big part of the conversation is how we protect our consumers’ data, knowing that—whether it’s Equifax or even Target, in our backyard, having some major breaches—those are the types of conversations that are happening on how do we keep the retail space safe and how do we make people feel comfortable still shopping retail, whether it’s online or not. From a marketing perspective, people are expecting us to engage them and have them be more part of the story than ever before. That’s a big way that advertising has shifted.

Peterson: It’s like retail has to be reborn. It has to shed its fat a bit, building more experiences to make it relevant. I think there’s that try-and-learn thing that especially the millennial wants: If they’re getting engaged in a brand, they’d better learn something. They want to be enlightened, rather than just a transaction. Nordstrom is doing that new tech store where basically you can’t buy anything; you can try on and fit clothes, but it [offers] free drinks, coffee. You get exposed to a lot of different ideas about fashion but it becomes more of a level set with, “How do you want to project yourself out in the world?” It’s really a great service-oriented thing that they’re offering for free. It’s a whole different way to shop; it’s not, “Try on these three dresses under ugly lighting,” it’s, “Let’s figure out what fits your body the best and then talk about options, and then we’ll get stuff effortlessly to you.”

We’re good friends with people at Kohl’s and now they’ve struck a deal with Amazon, which I thought was kind of genius: They’re testing an Amazon store-within-a-store within Kohl’s. For a classic brick-and-mortar retailer, that’s a really smart move. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em a little bit.

Buckley: Even in the context of Amazon, if you think about the advertising they’re doing—so much of the advertising, I would say, in traditional fashion has historically been glossy, pretty low concept, beautiful, but there wasn’t a huge takeaway. When you think about what Amazon did when they started breaking into the fashion space specifically, a lot of their initial marketing was more about the conveniences of the service, not the goods themselves. That’s a lot of what we’re finding in advertising as well, even coming from our clients, the things that they’re asking us to be thinking about. For customers, it isn’t necessarily about the product or the brand but about the experience.

We work on it Bed, which is a sub-brand of Sleep Number, and they’re really trying to compete with the bed in a box world, the Caspers and Leesas. What we’re working on with them right now is to help their customers understand what’s the actual experience after you’ve chosen to buy it versus here’s why you need to buy it. So a lot of the communication is more of a service-oriented and experience-oriented thing, [instead of] educating someone about what the product is.

Have you seen (or created) any instances of experiential marketing—pop-up shops, etc.—that really stood out for you?

Peterson: We both have done it and there are some things that we really admire out in the world right now. I think it’s more than a pop-up shop—it’s more than just putting your product in a slightly more exciting or surprising place. We love Casper, which is a competitor of ours. They did that [One Night collaboration with the Standard] at South by Southwest. SXSW has become this hugely popular forum in Austin… of course, you can’t even get a ticket anymore; it’s almost at the breaking point. So Casper bought out a hotel, put Casper beds in all the rooms and offered [cheap, last-minute] rooms.

Buckley: They were also solving an actual problem for people who were in Austin having trouble finding places to stay. So it was utilitarian for the people who got to experience it, which automatically makes it more shareable—they’re going to want to talk about it and it doesn’t feel like just a marketing ploy.

Peterson: And it’s this epicenter of cool people. All the tastemakers were there; people that were important socially to that brand were there. Yeah, it’s a cost but for what they got out of it, it was money in the bank.

We love how The Standard put hotlines in their lobbies to call your congress [representatives]—I think the world’s unrest right now with so much political upheaval, and people so want to have a voice and be heard. We love that: simple, simple idea but with a really big halo effect.

Of things that we have done, this year at the CES (Consumer Electronics Show), we launched a campaign for Sleep Number that basically involved this bed talking to you in kind of a Scarlett Johansson-type voice. Not only did Sleep Number, the bed, sweep the show for getting tons of accolades—first and second in product innovation and technology—but people were kind of blown away by the experience we created. A person could go in and lay on the bed, and they would experience all the things the bed can do. The voice would walk you individually through it and share with you what your heart rate is and how it’s slowing down, and as you roll to the right all the pressure points are being alleviated, how your feet are being warmed, how your head is being lifted or lowered depending on the chances of you snoring. It was just awesome, and people are exhausted going around all day so they’re loving being able to lay there in a sort of zen moment with a beautiful voice sharing everything the bed did. So it was a huge hit and a very technologically distinguishing way to tell that message.

Buckley: People are always going to love experiences that are just fun, so for example when you could walk among the handmaids in The Handmaid’s Tale or actually go to Los Pollos Hermanos and have chicken from Breaking Bad, those are the types of things that people enjoy and love and can definitely share. But, again, what we consistently see is a shift to, “You also need to be helping me,” or “I also need to be educated; I need to be walking away with more than just an awesome Instagram photo.” Because the expectation is more around that CES idea or [Casper at SXSW]: the idea of being experiential needs also to solve a real problem. It’s the same thing with the [Congress hotline]—that’s not necessarily The Standard saying, “We’re a brand that believes in politics,” it’s just that, we know that you guys want to be able to do this and it’s very difficult; we’re going to make it easier for you, and not because you asked us to but because we think it’s the right thing to do. So I think that’s really where experiential marketing is going to keep going: How do we actually help people accomplish a goal, versus just have a fun storytelling experience?

Has PMH delved into the technologies of the moment—VR, AR, voice-enabled tech—for any campaigns? Or how else are you looking to engage a consumer who is not necessarily seeing TV spots on cable?

Peterson: We’ve got a lot of clients that do home furnishings, bedding, paint manufacturers, [and] we’re hitting them hard with thinking on virtual reality. It’s so exciting and it lets us do a lot of things that we couldn’t otherwise do. We’re hoping to really make some headway on that. It’s just an education process, explaining to them and making it doable, but even right at the point of consumer contact it can be fantastic. Like if it’s an in-store situation, be it in paint or home furnishings, there’s so much you can do that goes beyond watching a TV spot or reading a brochure—it’s so much more engaging.

We’re in love with [VR]. It’s on us now to, for us and other advertisers and agencies, you’ve got to make it real for [the client]. That’s what we’re in the process of doing: showing them how it works and what the benefits are. For example, if you’re going to buy paint, and we’ve done great advertising and you get [to the store] and the sales help is lousy or nonexistent, that’s a point where you can really gain the consumer’s trust if you do it the right way with that kind of technology.

Buckley: We are currently working with a client that’s going to be embedding voice-enabled technology into their actual product, so it’s interesting to be on the marketing and advertising side of that. Part of what we’re being asked to bring them are ideas on how not only do we educate the customer about what the technology is, but how do we actually build it into marketing efforts.

I know there are some companies that have already started doing this. There are some marketers who have started doing Alexa-enabled TV spots where your Alexa will hear something within the context of what you’re watching on television and then have a specific reaction. It’s gotten mixed reviews so far—it’s a little bit of a Big Brother thing. But it’s interesting to be on the advertising side and think about how can we actually use the technology not just as a selling point for the customer, but how can we use it in our marketing efforts.


To forget a name but remember a face—it’s a common affliction, and Peterson Milla Hooks has embraced something of the sort as the cornerstone of its identity in dubbing itself the “famously unfamous” ad agency. Established in 1989, the Minneapolis-based firm earned some far-reaching stripes thanks to its neighbor Target when founder and Executive Creative Director Dave Peterson led the branding project that brought forth the retailer’s synonymous red and white bullseye logo.

+Brand Development
+Brand Introduction
+experiential marketing
+Experiential Marketing
+financial services
+Virtual Commerce

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