CHICAGO — How far will Target go to hype itself?

"I admit it," said Michael Francis, the 40-year-old senior vice president of marketing at Minneapolis-based Target Corp. "Some things we do purely for publicity."

Last Wednesday, Francis fessed up to an audience of about 800 people at the 2003 Retail Advertising Conference held here, sponsored by the National Retail Federation.

He said Target wants to create the most buzz in New York, Washington D.C., Chicago and Los Angeles, during his presentation on the discount retailer’s marketing and advertising strategies.

Francis ticked off a laundry list of attention-getting events, both corporate-controlled and serendipitous. Among the corporate ploys: touting designer Stephen Sprouse’s for-Target collection at Fashion Week 2002 and getting more press than the auto maker that sponsored the event; docking SS Target in New York Harbor before Christmas; floating a Target hot-air balloon over Napa Valley, and projecting ads onto the tunnels of the New York subway system.

On the serendipitous side, singer Gwen Stefani appeared in Sprouse’s Target designs on the cover of Seventeen magazine, and Sarah Jessica Parker waxed enthusiastically about Target on "Late Night With Conan O’Brien."

"Lots of marketing happens outside of the marketing department," Francis said.

Buzz is part of Target’s strategy to keep its core consumer and attract a younger base, Francis said. The discount retailer’s frequent shoppers sport demographics similar to those of department stores: They’re about 44 years old, on average, and have a household income of $54,000. Eighty percent have gone to college, 41 percent have kids, and 80 percent are female, which is why Francis used female pronouns throughout his 45-minute talk.

Target’s future, though, lies in the hands of trendsetters in terms of "style, haircuts, tattoos, body piercing — you name it," Francis said. Hence, Target’s ads have catchy music and feature youthful actresses and actors and quirky bands like Devo and the B-52s.

A big part of buzz is getting name-brand designers to design for the store, Francis said. Aside from longtime Target designer Mossimo, the chain has added maternitywear by Liz Lange and a line of casualwear by industry darling Isaac Mizrahi. A Liz Lange spot featured pregnant models and the designer, who said, "Nine months is a long time to give up your sense of style."Later, Francis acknowledged to WWD that not all customers recognize names like Lange, Cynthia Rowley, who sells housewares under the "Swell" name at Target, and Michael Graves, whose products cut across several categories. But for those who do, "the fact that they’re available at Target is a huge surprise and delight," Francis said. "For a guest who might not know those names, we’re giving them great design at a great price."

Target’s red bulls-eye logo is another buzz factor. "We want to own the color red," Francis said of Target’s plan to expand the bulls-eye. Indeed, a series of new spots shown at the presentation were shot in high-contrast red and black, and in a mix of live action and animation reminiscent of the Richard Linklater film "Waking Life." He said the spots neither follow nor anticipate trends. "We’re trying to create a trend," he said.

While Target suffered a rocky holiday season, with sales inching up only 1 percent in December, its brand-awareness tactics appear to be effective. Francis said a brand-awareness poll conducted last year showed that 96 percent of Americans recognize the red-and-white Target bulls-eye, and that the logo has greater recognition than the Nike swoosh or the Ralph Lauren Polo pony.

Francis said that after seeing the study, Target chairman and chief executive Robert J. Ulrich told him to track down the remaining 4 percent to see what the company was doing wrong."And he wasn’t kidding," Francis said.

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