Target, Toys and the Art of Newsmaking

By Matter

“No news is good news.”

You’d be hard-pressed to hear this uttered in any PR agency setting. It’s a perennial responsibility of agencies to portray clients as dynamic forces in their industries. If our client produces nothing but guitar picks, we’ll go hoarse cheering that this year they sold the MOST guitar picks, or that they’re the first company to produce picks from 100% post-consumer recycled content, or that their picks were used by 40% of performers at Bonnaroo. Pinpointing these interesting angles amongst a maelstrom of murky branding is one of the most rewarding parts of the job, and a non-negotiable skill when writing a good pitch.

2015 is hardly over yet, but it has already given us some great examples of brands who have either spun no-news straw into gold, or made mountains of pointless molehills, depending on your perspective.

This week, Target jumped into the fray with an announcement that toy aisle signage in their 1,799 (and counting) stores in the U.S. will drop gender-specific terminology. Essentially, the LEGO aisle will now read “Build Sets” instead of “Build Sets for Boys.” Aisle layout will remain unchanged, and no official statements as of this post suggest a disruption of the familiar but jarring line that bisects Nerf and Star Wars from nine aisles of retina-singeing hot pink Barbie displays. Business as usual, with a very slight change to aisle text.

No big deal, right?

It mightn’t have been. Instead, Target seized the opportunity to turn a potentially mundane policy shift into a cultural milestone, riding waves of both outrage and support into the various news and social media feeds of their audiences.

The significance of aisle text for toys seems minimal. Glaring visual cues, colorful logos, and luring endcaps mean that if you’re at a big box store looking for a Bratz doll, you need only glance, reach out your hand, and pull one from the shelf. They’re easily-browsable by design.

Dissection of store planograms aside, my point is that Target could have taken this bold step easily and quietly had they skipped the fanfare, removing gender references from signage without the majority of customers even noticing a difference. These types of aisle markers are updated regularly for a variety of innocuous reasons, typically with no notable impact on the shopping experience.

In the land of big brands, however, “no notable impact” can spell a missed opportunity. Instead of the subtle approach, this week’s splashy announcement garnered exposure on national news outlets and across a variety of social platforms, awarding them a precious 24-hour reign over national conversations about corporate social voice, gender issues, childhood development, and a host of other hot-button topics. To say nothing of the politics of the decision, the communications strategy supporting the announcement is a shrewd, well-executed run at earned media exposure that communicates authentic and relevant thought leadership.

TIMETarget Finally Listened to My Viral Tweet About Boys’ and Girls’ Toys

LA TimesTarget plays catch-up in removing gender-based toy labels

Huffington PostTarget Angers Customers With Its Stores’ New Non-Gendered Policy

The killing blow, whether intentional or by coincidence, is the timing. This family-oriented announcement preempts most competitors’ traditional back-to-school marketing. Old Navy might be pushing ads for discounted jeans to stock your scholastic wardrobe, but for the better part of a week, Target is dominating parents’ social media feeds, nightly news broadcasts, office breakroom discussions, or even a company blog (ahem) with relevant cultural dialog. Locking down that unfair share of voice is a big deal as families are planning back-to-school budgets, which rose 8% on average over last year.

But what’s the risk to Target’s bottom line? Potentially, very little.

Target’s ubiquity and all-in-one-shopping value proposition means that many folks vocally put off by the policy change will once again pass under one of 1,799 scarlet marquees once this story fades. Carts will swell with laundry detergent, dog food, Game of Thrones Blu Rays, and the seduction of instant retail gratification will win back all but the most irretrievably offended. In the short term, supporters of the decision will also see themselves philosophically aligned with the brand, and feel a twinge of pride the next time they swipe their credit card.

My preceding speculation notwithstanding, there’s still a lot that marketing and communications professionals can glean from this announcement about the subtleties of positioning and newsmaking. And who better to learn from than a successful, high-visibility brand like Target?

A few takeaways:

  • Interpret national trends and conversations through the lens of your brand, and hunt down relevant, timely entry points to make your mark.
  • Take risks, but calculate them. Boring companies don’t make news, but wild shots can take you beyond controlled controversy and into the danger zone.
  • Consumer brands are often made or broken over the emotional response they inspire in their base. Finding creative ways for audiences to identify with your brand’s voice is a frontier of consumer engagement that shouldn’t be ignored.

A quick note: We work with a lot of big retailers and consumer brands, some of which have relationships with Target, so we’re always looking at their communications strategies with interest. The above reflects the perspective of this writer, and is in no way informed by proprietary knowledge of this or any other related brand.