Joe Montana was one of the 1/2rst icons Mervyn’s California signed three years ago when it embarked on a program to hype its neighborhood, middle-market image. The 296-store Dayton Hudson division even attempted to reinvent the 49ers legend. Its mission to infuse itself with a California style certainly was zealous, but redo Joe Cool? You’d sooner put tattoos and nose rings on Father Christmas.
“Joe Montana is known as the all-time great quarterback, but we tried to show him as a father and a businessman. He likes animals. He coaches young girls’ soccer. We brought him to life as real human being,” says Thom de Cant.
De Cant, now 46, had just been hired as manager of events marketing and communications at the Hayward, CA-based Mervyn’s when the makeover effort was enjoined. His concept was to link Montana with contest winners at signature West Coast locales like Disneyland and Sea World in events that aimed to stoke the publicity machine by painting the chain as a hip, trend-right, family-based retailer with golden West Coast overtones. Mervyn’s’ link with Montana would be just one of many entertainment, cause-related, and merchant tie-ins the 11-person events staff would help launch.
“You have to keep in front of your customers. You can’t do something one month and then skip a month. We’re creating campaigns and hitting every major secondary holiday, along with the big ones,” says de Cant, who managed special events at Robinson’s/ May stores and worked as an independent consultant before Mervyn’s picked him to start the new events division in 1995.
In one event, 200 guests were chosen to join Joe at an indoor beach party breakfast and for a weekend of fun at Disneyland. Guests received premiums such as Merv is the Word sweat shirts, and a chance for a Montana-autographed football. Goofy paid a special visit to the event, which 300,000 Mervyn’s customers had entered a sweepstakes to attend. Last year, one million signed up for a chance to Take Joe Back to School. Young sweeps winners brought Montana to class for a day, where he fielded questions online from across the country.
In a Putt With Joe Fathers Day sweepsakes, Mervyn’s put up 50 golfing foursomes at the Palm Spring’s Esmerelda resort, where they received premiums such as Mervyn’s California water, and Putt with Joe suntan lotion.
“We look at premiums as a layer to our sweepstakes that guests will share with hundreds of family members, friends, and acquaintances,” says de Cant.
Will the Mervyn’s message play across the 14 states where the chain competes with the likes of JCPenney, sister division Target Stores, and Kohl’s? Does California retain the cachet it had 25 years ago when the novelist Robert Stone referred to it as an Edenic place he called “the California of the mind?”
If it doesn’t, Mervyn’s might soon 1/2nd itself with a less patient owner. The calamities El Nino inflicted on retailers’ spring season were followed at Mervyn’s by gales from the east, as Dayton Hudson chairman and ceo Bob Ulrich told retail analysts that the stores will have “12 to 18 months” to show better results. Flat revenues, comp store sales, and earnings have plagued the chain, but its marketing chief feels planted on the road to recovery. “We’re three years into a five-year branding process, and we are now starting to see the merchandise and marketing come together in a coherent experience for the customer,” says vp-marketing Frank Castiglione. “Each guest visiting is buying 3 to 5 percent more than they did a year ago.”
Events such as gift with purchase and door-busting premiums are helping kick up those sales. Mervyn’s Key-pers promotion, which rewarded $50 purchases with a series of collectable keychains – some provided by tie-in partners like Levi’s – kept schoolgirls coming back for six weeks. “We advertised a limited quantity to create a sense of urgency,” says de Cant.
Mervyn’s then ran a variation on the promo in its teen departments, offering phonecards that pictured top music acts in a partnership with five record labels and Sam Goody music stores. When activating the cards, teens heard sample cuts from the artist’s new releases, which they could purchase using a $2 discount at Sam Goody’s.
Mervyn’s kids back-to-school business this year was 11 percent over last year with young men’s sales up 11 percent, says de Cant.
Mervyn’s involvement in the restoration of California’s historic missions included an incredibly hot self-liquidator of sorts. Stores sold 100,000 porcelain replicas of the missions, twice what they did last year. And de Cant feels he has succeeded in his personal mission to 1/2nd a native Californian to 1/2ll Joe’s shoes, landing figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi as national spokesperson for three years.