Brain Chatter: The End Of Sears Was Not The Brand Implosion You Think It Was

October 12, 2017 Shane Schick

A big box retailer like Sears shuts down and suddenly everyone is a marketing expert.

How could they fail to compete with Amazon? What stopped them from saving such a well-known brand name? Why couldn’t they adapt to digital technologies? 

We’re going to hear a lot of this sort of thing in the weeks ahead. And it’s garbage.

To suggest that the Sears executive team sat idly by and watched the organization wither is simply not true. When I was at Marketing magazine we covered the launch of its revamped logo. Everybody seemed to hate it -- either because it was too different or because it was too much the same.

There were fresh TV spots and other materials based around the word “everything” -- a reminder that there is value in having a comprehensive selection of products in one place rather than hunting around all over the mall (or the Internet). Some of the creative work reminds me of similar commercials I recently saw from Target in the U.S. The jingle was even kind of catchy.

More recently there were pop-up shops and a new in-house fast-fashion label, S, aimed at young women. They were even using a hashtag called #wevechanged, for crying out loud.

Finally, there was the digital work. About this time last year I went to the Data Marketing Conference here in Toronto, where I was surprised to see a speaker from Sears on the agenda. This was Renee Racine-Kinnear, who was hired as head of digital and product design. She was lured over from Indigo, and when the recruiter called talking about a Sears opportunity, “I thought they were (already) gone,” she admitted.

Racine-Kinnear, who struck me as extremely smart, managed to completely revamp Sears’ web site in a four-month period, and set up a new online storefront within six months. She was talking about the possibly of introducing Sears into virtual reality, among other things. Though she has since left, there’s no question she brought the kind of digital design expertise that many people simply assume the retailer ignored.

Sears was working to become omni-channel. Maybe it was too late, but is that the only lesson we can draw upon here

The best way to conduct a brand post-mortem on Sears is to ask whether it demonstrated a real sense of purpose, and how that manifested itself on a personal level. I’ll start:

For me, Sears’s physical presence was as comfortably ubiquitous as Amazon’s is online. Whereas you have to come to major markets like Toronto to see Nordstrom or HBC, Sears tended to be the retail anchor in many small towns, including the one I came from.

Sears was the retailer that seemed to be more affordable -- more approachable -- than the others. There was nothing bespoke or artisanal about Sears. It was less a luxury mecca than the place you went to buy a mattress, an appliance or other necessity.

It was not so much about “everything” but more of an “everyday” kind of store. My mother loved being able to return items so easily. She liked being able to have real conversations with the staff, who were often our neighbours. I suspect this was true for others in rural parts of Canada. 

As the world grows more digital, these kind of humanizing elements are becoming rarer in a retail brand. It’s a shame that the tradeoff of becoming more connected online was how fewer people managed to see the softer side of Sears


Shane Schick is the former Editor-in-Chief of Marketing magazine. He tells stories about technology, marketing, innovation, fashion and more at ShaneSchick.com


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