16 Mar 2013

Target at TED & SXSW. Really?

When you think of Target, you probably think of its bullseye logo and the cheap clothes, kitchen appliances, tea towels, garden rakes and underpants that are sold from its gigantic superstores.

So what was Target doing last week at South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, the world’s über-cool barometer of innovation and a breeding ground for the likes of Twitter?

And what was Target doing at TED’s Long Beach, California conference a couple of weeks earlier?

At TED2013, which ran from 25 February - 1 March, Target created a space-age, red and white architectural space and asked visitors to lie down, watch a simulcast, don an EEG helmet and have their brainwaves monitored.

The activation was called ‘A Mind for Design’, a social space and lounge area that changed colour as guests engaged in the space. EEG scans identified what type of mind ‘tribe’ people belonged to: explorer, foodie, techie, philanthropist or creative.

While nibbling brain-food, guests could play with 3-D wooden brainteasers, and left with their own Target gift bag – durable bags made in five colours for each mind ‘tribe’, designed by industrial, textile and strategic designers at Target’s Product Design and Development team. It was sampling that said: “We want our design credentials to be taken seriously.”

Bear in mind I’m talking about Target USA, which licenses its trademark to Target Australia (owned by Wesfarmers) but is otherwise an entirely separate company. Nonetheless, Target Australia borrows a lot from Target USA – it is also a leading retailer, and it is also investing in design to differentiate from competitors.

Was it a stroke of sponsorship genius? Or is Target skewing oddly off course, forgetting it is not in fact a start-up tech company, but a discount retailer?


Target has been turning up in all sorts of unlikely places this year.

Soon after TED, it installed the ‘Tarcade’ at SXSW Interactive (8-13th March): a space filled with old-school arcade games like Space Invaders, Donkey Kong and Pac Man, embellished with new-age technology like Foursquare check-ins, and inhabited by Bullseye, Target’s furry bull terrier. Rapper-turned-entrepreneur Lupe Fiasco even dropped in to perform to a packed Tarcade crowd.

Target’s Chief Marketing Officer Jeff Jones told Mashable: “It’s our first time here. [Target] has such history with the design and creative community. Now we want to build that partnership in the technology community with developers.”

So is the strategy working?

Target’s presence at TED and SXSW had a lot to do with nurturing an internal culture of innovation. It wants its staff to feel like they belong amongst the techy hipster crowd that attends these kinds of events, which is why it streamed a live broadcast of TED2013 talks at its headquarters in Minneapolis.

Target also wants to attract fresh talent – specifically developers and hackers who can make the Target shopping experience seamless from its stores to mobile and online.

For these reasons alone, Target’s presence at SXSW and TED were brave and thoughtfully executed. They generated lots of chatter in the Twittersphere, and content for Target’s social networking channels and online magazine, A Bullseye View.

According to Casey Carl, president of multichannel at Target, “Our presence at SXSW is a reflection that multichannel and technology are top priorities at Target.”

Some might say that Target’s marketing & sponsorship strategy is borderline schizophrenic. Did Target belong in Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue in February, for example? As Business Week remarked: “What’s up with Target? Does it really think this monument to the male libido is the perfect place to pitch women on everyday style?”

And does a discount retailer really belong at TED, or SXSW?

For Target, these brand integrations are part of the company’s transition from traditional marketing, to content, storytelling and experiences. As Jones puts it: “We have to evolve our approach by moving from campaigns to content, leveraging the many tools that exist in this new world, and continuing to innovate at every turn.”

The company still spends lots of money on TV commercials that spruik its ‘Expect More. Pay Less’ tagline. It still has one of the most recognized logos in the world, which features prominently on its in-store TV network, Channel Red. It continues to differentiate from Walmart by launching affordable designer collections with the likes of Prabal Gurung and Missoni. (Celebrity stylist Kate Young launched her next first Target collection online this month.)

But Target is constantly spreading its tentacles in new and surprising places.

And people are taking notice.  

The company ranked #10 in Fast Company’s list of the World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies this year.

Forbes predicts strong revenue growth at Target in 2013, spurred by growth in online sales; partnerships with the likes of Justin Timberlake (who’s selling an exclusive version of his release ‘The 20/20 Experience’ at Target); the launch of CityTarget stores servicing urban hipsters; and expansion into Canada.

It’s unlikely Target’s activations at TED and SXSW generated floods of traffic to its suburban stores. What they did do is prove Target intends to be taken seriously in the technology, entertainment and design space.

  • As a brand with the guts to take risks and fail, I give it five stars.



Jeremy G

16 Sep 2014

A very good article as it is an unexpected move for Target, after getting over the thought that this was a marketing director out of position...one must consider are they ensuring the brand is young, fresh and creating a new momentum.

Any retailer that is engaging customers in a new way should be proud of themselves, as sales show the old ways are not working as well as they use to.
Jon McKie

16 Sep 2014

Thought provoking article. I must admit my first reaction to Target at SXSW and TED was similarly negative - it seemed like their CMO was on some kind of cliched hipster ego trip but on reflection this activity could really prove inspirational for their internal audience, who after all are his most important target. And in all truth, being seen to be at cutting edge of innovation in technology probably prepares his workforce for an uncomfortable reality, that online retailing is the future, and that this is a future with less staff.

But old skool video games, please no. How try hard can you get?

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