Retailing serves up its share of difficult lessons. Among them: Sometimes celebrity endorsements work magic, sometimes not.
Given all the variables involved, it’s tough to make direct comparisons, but the ads on these pages afford a rare opportunity. Both are for Sears, both for in-house clothing lines, both feature famous females, and both were Hail Mary marketing passes made in the trailing days of a recession. “It’s the same story of a broad, mass retailer offering a piece of glamour with high-name recognition,” said Chris Raih, managing director of creative agency Zambezi. “And it appears to be a revenue grab in both cases.” The key difference: Cheryl Tiegs’ clothing line saved Sears in 1981, a feat that the Kardashian sisters have been unable to achieve today.
Thirty-two years ago, executives at the century-old retailer were struggling to find a way to stop sliding sales in its women’s apparel division. Taking a chance on a then-new idea, Sears offered a private-label deal to Tiegs. While the Minnesota-born model had stirred up the 1978 swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated, her unlikely knack for blending sex appeal with girl-next-door wholesomeness was attractive to the 700-store chain. According to the company history, “Sears saw great value in the positive image of Tiegs as both an active and attractive woman.” And value there was. Cheryl Tiegs generated $100 million in clothing sales.
It’s hard to blame Sears for wanting to try the celeb-endorsement thing again, even though some of the chain’s subsequent private-label deals (the one with Arnold Palmer) were more memorable than others (say, the one with Evonne Goolagong)—never mind that the Kardashians obviously run a few speeds hotter than the homespun Tiegs. Raih points out that Sears could at least be assured of publicity, no small thing for a brand struggling to define itself against cooler, more nimble retailers that weren’t around in 1981. “Whatever your personal feelings about the Kardashians, they play broadly,” Raih said. “They have a celebrity that’s self-propelling and an army of social media fans. So if you’re Sears, you can count on—at minimum—awareness.”
Unfortunately, that’s about all Sears has gotten from the Kardashian Kollection. Rolled out in 400 stores in August 2011, the line failed to attract shoppers (even on Black Friday) and hasn’t kept Sears from posting losses each quarter since. Critics scoffed that the deal made little thematic sense. (Can you imagine bumping into Kim or Khloe among the racks at Sears? Us neither.) Comparing Tiegs’ seaside idyll to the K sisters’ pistachio pastiche, it’s also hard not to note a certain erosion of … well, class. “The older ad strikes you as smarter, a little more cosmopolitan,” Raih said. “Tiegs looks like she’s out gathering kindling. Meanwhile, the Kardashians are talking on phones that aren’t even plugged in.”
Saving a retail dinosaur, it seems, now takes more than a pretty face.