Friday, September 07, 2007
Once More into the Breach for Marshall Field's Protesters
Saturday, September 9th will mark the one year anniversary of the end of Chicago's legendary Marshall Field's department store and its rebranding as the local Macy's outlet. A group called Fields Fans Chicago will again be gathering, from 1 to 2:30 P.M., under the store's great clocks to protest the change. The group's has a great website that's definitely worth checking out.
The group claims to have distributed over 60,000 leaflets, 63,000 label buttons, and thousands of "Field's Is Chicago/Boycott Macy's" bumper stickers in support of its cause. It cites its continuing boycott of the store as contributing to a 77% drop in profits for the Macy's chain last quarter.
"As we continue our grassroots efforts to bring back Marshall Field's in all its glory," the group's announcement reads, "it is good to keep in mind that in corporate America, anything can happen. After seven years as part of Daimler, Chrysler is again an independent American auto company. 'AT&T' became 'Cingular' only to reverse course back to 'AT&T.' "
Unfortunately, these examples don't exactly present optimistic harbingers. Chrysler is a deeply-troubled company in a deeply-troubled industry, which Daimler was dropping like a hot potato before it could inflict even more damage on its parents finances, and the rebranding of Cingular as AT&T comes from the same kind of global consolidation that resulted in Macy's replacing the Fields name. The only valid example mentioned by the group, the triumph of Classic over New Coke, remains notorious because it represents an extremely rare exception to overall trends.
And that's the key issue. The former Marshall Field's biggest problem is not the name change - although that monumentally stupid move managed to wipe out a century of valuable brand equity overnight - but the fact that while, in in their heyday, the great department stores like Field's and Bullocks and Filenes were all about uniqueness, in today's supply chain economy, it's all about sameness and standardization. It's not about building a business, it's about wringing every last profit from being the last and biggest dinosaur in an industry that is struggling to justify its continued existence.
You only have to look at Macy's latest move to market itself through a series of celebrity endorsers that is said to include Donald Trump, Martha Stewart, and Jessica Simpson. What, exactly, do these people have in common other than being famous for being famous, and what, exactly do they have to do with building a department store brand? The answer, of course, is very little.
The resort to celebrity endorsers is most often a mark of desperation. A quick high, bereft of nutrition, followed by a long, painful withdrawal. In the rare cases where they're used well, with a logical and compelling relationship to the brand they're promoting, celebrity endorsers can be enormously effective. When merely slathered on like cheap perfume, however - as is the case with the Macy's campaign - they're simply marketing smack.
I am in total sympathy with the protesters and wish them only the best, but without a bold and radical rethinking of what a large city's flagship department store should be, and how what made it exciting and seductive can be translated effectively into the realities and possibilities of today's markets, reinstating the Marshall Fields name won't help much. The nightmare scenario is the recent closing of the century-old Carson Pirie Scott flagship, designed by Louis Sullivan. Corrosively unsentimental, Macy's could just decide that their massive State Street property is worth more as marketable real estate than as a department store, which would be a real, but completely plausible, tragedy.
(Click on time for permalink) 2:00 AM