When you step outside of yourself, you open up to the possibility of seeing new opportunities for growth.
The following is an excerpt from Chapter 2 of Wired to Care by Dev Patnaik with Pete Mortensen, copyright 2009 Jump Associates.
The argument starts quietly in the kitchen department of a big store outside of Detroit. Daniel is 18 years old and getting ready to go off to college in a month. Passing by a display, he reaches over and picks up an electric tea kettle. His dad is standing next to him, and he frowns. “You’re not going to need that.” Dad says. He looks down at the shopping list that the two made together the previous night.
“Sure I will,” Daniel insists. “What if I’m studying really late at night and I need to make tea?”
“There won’t be a kettle in the dorm that you can use?” his dad asks skeptically.
“There isn’t any communal kettle!” Daniel says, annoyed. “Everyone needs to bring their own.”
“You can buy a tea kettle any time,” Dad replies impatiently.
“I can buy any of this any time!” Daniel fires back.
“No one will let you use a kettle to boil water in?” Dad asks.
“Look, why is this so difficult?” Daniel takes a breath and starts to speak more slowly. “If someone else brings a kettle, it’s not mine to use, right?” But Dad has already started to walk away from the display. After another five minutes of increasingly heated remarks, the father and son walk silently out of the kitchen department, leaving the tea kettle on the shelf. Daniel is frustrated, and his Dad can’t seem to figure out why. Since when do teenagers care so much about tea kettles?
Back to School sales are an American retailer’s best friend during the late summer months. Each year, 70 million students gear up for school. This diverse group includes both 5-year-olds starting kindergarten and 21-year-olds headed back for their senior year of college. As students prepare for a new year, retailers try to sell them billions of dollars worth of school supplies and clothing, not to mention lunchboxes, computers, and sports equipment. For retailers, Back to School is a third-quarter Christmas, driving store traffic and sales year after year.
Despite that traffic, Back to School sales remain a fairly homogenous affair. In the month of August, discount retailers in America seem to blur together into one undifferentiated mass. Whether you walk into K-Mart, Wal-Mart, or Dollar General, you’ll invariably discover the same scene. The shelves are stacked high with notebooks, pencils and backpacks. Enormous signs that look like loose leaf sheets of ruled paper hang from the ceiling with the phrase “Back to School Savings” written across them. The sheer diversity of age groups and tastes leads retailers to play it safe rather than risk excluding anyone. It’s easier to just sell the same things that everyone else does.
At least, that’s how it was until Target decided to change things. The second-largest retailer in the country, Target wanted to stand out from the crowd. The company had historically enjoyed better-than-average success during Back to School thanks to its focus on design, and it wanted to take things to a new level. Target wanted to do more than launch a few cool products or a fun advertising campaign. It wanted to create an entirely new approach to the season. It wanted a reframe. In search of a fresh perspective, executives contacted Jump to see if we had any ideas. And while we didn’t have the answer off the top of our heads, we did have a good idea of where to start looking: at Back to School’s epicenter of change.
Jump’s past work had suggested that Target needed to focus on a key time of transition. Whenever our lives change dramatically, we find ourselves out of step with the world. Getting married, having a baby, moving house, or even getting a dog can make our lives a little crazy. It’s at those moments that we’re most open to trying new things. Target needed to focus on their most interesting customers. For Back to School, that meant learning more about kids who were going off to college for the first time.
Our team spent a few weeks hanging out with families like Daniel’s to understand what they were going through. We spent time in their homes, we went shopping for college with them, and we generally followed them around in the course of their daily lives. In the process, we discovered something that we didn’t expect. Far from being a simple planning exercise, going off to college is an ongoing conversation. Sometimes, it’s a debate. It happens between parents and students over many weeks, in short bursts, at home, with friends, and in stores. This is, after all, one of the few times in people’s lives when they’re buying things for a life that they haven’t lived yet. Parents, for their part, haven’t been to college in decades, if they went at all. To deal with the ambiguity, both students and parents make up stories about what life will be like, what the rules of the game will be, and what students will ultimately need to buy.
This is the little drama that Daniel and his dad played out in the kitchen department. As a member of our team looked on, Daniel created a story about what his life would be like that included late-night study sessions and lots of cups of tea. And it was imperative that he be prepared for that experience. After all, if he had to borrow a kettle from someone else, he might look like a loser who wasn’t prepared to start college. For that matter, he might not make any friends at all. Daniel was talking about the kettle, but he was really trying to express his anxiety about a big life change. His dad had an alternate story that already imagined Daniel in a group of friends he could depend on. These two stories were in conflict. And the store was doing nothing to break the tie. It offered up a tea kettle, with no opinion whatsoever on what Daniel’s life would actually be like.
We realized that Target had the opportunity to be part of the conversation – to paint a picture of college life for Daniel and other kids like him. In the process, Target could break out of the pack of undifferentiated Back to School promotions. After all, Daniel’s predicament is not unique. His desire to feel ready for a new life is shared by millions of students. For Daniel, comfort came in the form of a tea kettle. For someone else, it might be a sleeping bag, a credit card, or a cell phone. What matters to any student, no matter what their age, is that they feel equipped for a big life change. And that’s a very different way of thinking about Back to School. For Target, it was a reframe.
Jump worked closely with Target to help students imagine their future college life. Collaborating with designer Todd Oldham, Target offered a completely new line of products, including a lighted door sign that said either “Partying” or Studying” depending on your mood. Besides being a fun addition to any dorm room, the sign reinforced the idea that, in college, you’d have so many friends that you might need a sign to manage your social scene.
We also tried to ease students’ anxieties about striking out on their own. We created laundry bags with washing instructions printed on the inside label, so students who had never done laundry could discretely learn how without anyone else noticing their incompetence. And we even took all the kitchen tools that any student would need, from pots and pans to knives and forks, and packaged it together as a “Kitchen in a Box.” Interestingly, we didn’t end up including a kettle. Daniel never really needed that tea kettle – he needed the sense of readiness that it represented.
In all, hundreds of products were launched under the Told Oldham Dorm Room brand to reflect Target’s newfound understanding of the market. In the first year of the program, 2002, Target’s third quarter revenue increased by 12 percent over the previous year to $8.4 billion. Wal-Mart, by comparison, remained flat, and K-Mart saw sales drop. Sales of the new products that focused most on equipping students to cope with change were up by as much as 200 percent. By really seeing the world as college freshmen did, Target realized immediate growth far beyond the incremental revenue it had hoped for. The enduring value of this reframe continued long after our initial discovery. Even five years later, in the Back to School season of 2007, Target grew by six percent while most of its competitors saw their revenues shrink. Target’s reframe of Back to School from selling new stuff to delivering assurance and confidence during life changes has helped it to become the only company that consistently enjoys a merry Third-Quarter Christmas.