That’s the word Todd Waterbury and his team come back to again and again to describe the creative direction and marketing ethos of Target.
It’s not a bad way to describe the man himself, either. Waterbury displays the kind of attention and focus to interview requests that you might expect from a small-town mom and pop business, not an executive from the C-suite of a Fortune 500 company. Every question is thoughtfully answered, time and access are graciously given, and requests fulfilled beyond the expectations of a typical interview.
Generous isn’t the descriptor you might expect from a retail giant when it comes to their brand, but it certainly suits the types of experiences the Minnesota-based company has produced since appointing Waterbury as their head of creative in 2013—first as Senior Vice President then as Chief Creative Officer in late 2014.
In a marketing landscape that seems to focus more on how to break through the walls consumers have built around themselves to keep brands out, Target is using generous experiences to reach notoriously fickle audiences and get the type of authentic engagement other brands only dream of.
“I don’t think anybody wakes up in the morning and wants to be disrupted by marketing,” Waterbury says with a chuckle.
Since taking over in 2013, Waterbury has been the creative force behind several high-profile campaigns that have pushed the marketing envelope. A live music video aired during a commercial break at the Grammy’s. A pop-up Christmas shop in New York City that saw lines wrap around the block. A pictorial spread recreating iconic Vogue images, all using Target products.
And an installation at a trendy art show that elevated simple products in a big way.
These bold brand experiences embody the creative direction of Target, guided by Waterbury, and inform the work they’re doing on both a macro and micro level. Some of the experiences play in front of an audience of millions. Others, maybe just a few thousand. But they all serve the same purpose: to introduce the brand to people in a generous way.
It’s marketing through attraction, not distraction.
“When I think about context… who is the audience that we’re engaging with, and what are their expectations?” says Waterbury. “And how do we bring a kind of generosity to it in ways that hopefully leave people feeling like ‘Wow, Target showed up there and they brought something to it that made it a little more fun or a little more playful’?”
Target Takes on Art Basel
Art Basel does nothing to allay the stereotypes of the contemporary art world.
It’s trendy and grandiose. It can be (and has been) criticized as pretentious. Young bohemians mingle with millionaire collectors from all corners of the world, top-shelf cocktails flow freely, while gallerists close big money deals left and right.
And all of this is set against the backdrop of the always hip city of Miami.
Through this lens, Art Basel and Target seem like strange bedfellows. The annual art festival draws its share of sponsors, but usually the standard lineup of luxury brands hoping to get in front of distinguished buyers with spare cash to spend on the finer things in life: Luxury cars, fine cigars, private jets, and high-end liquor.
But that’s the scene in which Target decided to insert itself in 2015 with their Target Too concept.
This was no timid sponsorship activation. Target had taken over a large portion of the Pulse Art Fair with half a dozen installations, each featuring products found in Target stores. Visitors could download an app that allowed them to interact with—and shop for—the products in unique ways.
It was an unapologetically branded message, placed smack in the middle of a historically marketing-sensitive crowd. Despite the money being spent, the crowd at Art Basel can smell a corporate sell out from a mile away.
“When we first were imagining Target Too, we definitely kept the Art Basel crowd in mind,” says Travis Robertson, Senior Director Creative Social & Copy. “We wanted to create a space that was a playful and artistic “recess” from viewing fine art all day—all with a digital twist.”
Before it landed on the beaches of South Florida, Target Too grew from a simple Instagram post.
Rubber sandals artfully arranged to form a blooming flower, with a cheeky caption: “Think outside the socks.”
For Waterbury, this post served as a moment of inspiration.
“We’re taking an item that we sell at Target that everybody knows, but we’re elevating it in a way where we bring a kind of invention and optimism to it,” he explains. “It’s one thing to see flip-flops on the rack in a store, there’s another thing altogether that you see in this that makes you feel something about the season.”
Hoping to capture the magic of that image, Waterbury and his team set out to recreate Target’s Instagram feed (which they describe as the place where “products come to play”) in the real world. The creative brief for Target Too was as simple as “taking the Instagram feed that we have and making it 3-dimensional.”
The result was a colorful playground that was equal parts pop-art and tech.
Visitors stepping into the exhibit are greeted by a large video screen, playing a looping video of the Target Too logo in various visual remixes (“the MTV treatment,” Waterbury says with a smile). Products are transformed into larger than life interactive displays. A wall made entirely of Troll dolls twist and turn to mirror your silhouette, lip balms form a giant pair of lips that magically sing through the use of an augmented reality app, and bluetooth speakers form an 18-foot, animated boombox.
You can almost feel your skepticism melt away as you step into the space and begin to explore the installations.
“Above all, Target Too had to be a generous, unexpected gift to fair-goers,” says Robertson.
Convincing serious art enthusiasts to let their guard down became less about trying to make work that competed with the rest of the show and more about giving visitors an opportunity to take a mental and emotional break.
“There’s a lot of work (at Pulse) that’s really intellectually challenging. There’s a lot of depth to it, and emotionally the work has a lot of complex themes,” explains Waterbury. “Then suddenly you round the corner and you see this LEGO dog, and then you look in and there’s a giant sculpture of pool noodles crawling to the ceiling, and an 18-foot boom box that’s playing music, it just makes you smile.”
When your aim is to make a generous brand experience, your focus is solely on delighting visitors. This outcome is something they actively measure, too. Target’s three big metrics for these types of branding exercises? Traffic, engagement, and love.
“Watching the faces of serious art buyers turn into smiles as they entered our space was a sight I’ll never forget,” says VP of Creative Seth Zimmerman. “Never underestimate the power and impact of a smile.”
Carrying Drinks on a Ferry
Waterbury huddles over his computer, excitedly searching his hard drive for videos from their upcoming holiday campaign to show me.
“You’ve got to see this.”
“I want you to see the behind-the-scenes, I think you’ll really like it.”
“Wait until you see the CGI work, they did an incredible job.”
We’re sitting in Target’s airy NYC office, a delightful space in Chelsea. We finished taking our pictures, but he seems to be in no rush to send us on our way. Waterbury’s passion and enthusiasm for the work his team is producing is palpable. It pours out of him as he shares candid looks at the diverse range of projects Target has tackled in the past 3 years. Music videos, art installations, high-fashion photoshoots, and (coming soon) a star-studded television musical event.
The 2nd-floor office is quiet, clean, and beautifully designed. It features a gallery space, which the team utilized for a soft-launch of Target Too before packing it up and shipping it down to Miami Beach. Waterbury originally made the move to Minneapolis when he first took the role, but recognizing his love of New York City and the creative energy it brings, Target’s leadership gave him the option to make the Chelsea office his home base.
The space is warm and homey, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a superfluous item in any single room. The atmosphere seems to match Waterbury’s love for addition-by-subtraction. One of his first orders of business in 2013 was convincing the legal team to strip away the “Registered Trademark” symbol from the Target logo.
He’s quick to give credit to team members, consistently talking up the talent and depth of Target’s marketing unit. While their budget for this kind of work would make many marketers blush, Target seems to have avoided the aversion to creative risk that can plague large corporations. Speaking with Waterbury, you get the feeling that their biggest competition is themselves. There is a self-imposed pressure to top whatever project they last unleashed on the world.
But culture never happens on accident; it’s either carefully guided, or it goes ignored and begins to fester. When attempting to build a culture of creativity and innovation, the temptation is to give team members the widest field possible—an “anything goes” type of atmosphere.
Waterbury pulls his team in the other direction, giving them a box to play in. Creative work doesn’t come from endless possibilities. As he puts it, “innovation is a product of constraint.”
An atmosphere of stability plays a big role in their success as well. Much like his design philosophy, Waterbury strives to create a stable and safe work environment, feeling that a kooky, wild atmospheres only serves to squash creative output. He likens this type of environment to riding a boat in rough waters. As you traverse the deck, drinks in hand, your body takes no chances. Your steps are small, measured, and cautious, lest you trip and spill your drink.
Without safety and stability, people don’t take risks. And bold risks, like a live music video shown at the Grammy’s, are what Target’s marketing team has thrived on.
Creative risks have paid off for the business as well. Target has fared remarkably well, given the current retail climate and unexpected hurdles like the hacking incident of 2015. Much of that success can be directly tied back to the creative team, a driving force behind the company’s marketing and partnership machine.
Their heavy involvement with the Grammys has contributed to a surprising role as a powerhouse in the world of record sales. In 2015, the company sold 1 million copies (about half the total sales) of Adele’s new album. As in actual, physical CDs. While the rest of the business world argued over which streaming service will be leading the music industry 10 years from now, Target pulled off something that feels like it hasn’t been done in a decade.
“We create meaningful and valuable interactions that lead to sustained transactions,” says Waterbury. “ROI, sales per square foot, efficiency, those are important measures, but more and more today… choice is infinite. And if choice is infinite, then the one thing that’s scarce is attention.”
This idea is central to the Target brand, which Waterbury describes as “equal parts warm and cool.” Their brand experience touches every part of the customer’s interaction with the company, from seeing an ad to shopping in the store. The stores are designed to feel like a happy place, both aspirational and inclusive. They want customers to feel like they have access to beautiful products, at affordable prices, but without feeling “discounted.”
That’s a delicate balance to strike, and it starts with generous experiences that introduce the brand to people in intentional ways.
“It’s a part of what makes us a modern brand,” says Waterbury. “The balance between warm and cool is critical, and I think (these experiences) exemplify that balance.”
Love the Craft
With every new store that Target opens, the chain commissions a local artist to create a special piece for that store. They look for someone whose “style and spirit” jives with the Target brand. Someone whose work is full of optimism and invention.
It’s a simple way to put a local flavor on a chain that operates over 1,800 stores across the nation. A detailed touch that, if you know where to look, brings another layer of warmth to the Target experience.
Warm, cool, and generous.
My final question for Todd as we pack up is about scouting talent. How does he build a team that consistently produces groundbreaking work?
He talks about hiring people who can show him how they think, and how he’s more concerned with the quality of the work in their portfolio than the quantity.
But his last point sticks with me.
“People who love the craft.”
Creative work, at its best, is a generous gift to the world. Something we put hours into crafting, something deeply personal, forever marked by our experiences and sweat, only to let it go and let others take ownership of it. To love your craft is to pour your heart into your work, only to turn it loose for others to enjoy. And hopefully, it makes them smile.
What could be more generous than that?