Martine Reardon, Macy’s

Photograph by Laura Barisonzi

Martine Reardon still remembers the point that’s every marketer’s worst nightmare: The brand’s in trouble, and all eyes turn to the marketing department to do something. It was the end of 2008, and Macy’s, the legendary retailer that’s virtually synonymous with “department store,” was indeed in trouble. The recession had turned shopping into browsing. Those Americans who were spending money trooped off to big-box discounters instead of the fancier aisles of Macy’s.

Part of the problem was what was in those aisles. Holding fast to its tradition of centralized purchasing, Macy’s sprinkled inventory across its 810-store system, a practice that resulted in countless missed opportunities. For example, Frango mints, cherished by Chicago shoppers as a local delicacy, meant little to shoppers in Boston. Meanwhile, Macy’s accountants were reaching for the aspirin. Net income for 2009 had taken a $280 million nosedive.

Macy’s corporate didn’t expect one executive alone to solve all of the brand’s ills. But department store shopping has always had a lot to do with marketing, which meant the solution would have to have a lot to do with Martine Reardon. Ultimately, she says, the solution was “not about what I like or what one of my colleagues likes. It’s about what the customer wants, where she is and how she wants to communicate.”

“It”—the solution brought to bear by CEO Terry Lundgren and a host of top brass—was called My Macy’s, an arrangement to radically decentralize the brand’s retail schematic and remake it into a diversified system driven by local tastes. My Macy’s carved up the store’s system into 69 districts, each empowered to make key purchasing decisions. While national marketing would still be done from Reardon’s New York office, input from the local level was crucial. “The local piece is important,” Reardon says. “So much so that I have five different offices regionally so we can stay locally relevant.”

What’s locally relevant look like? When the New Orleans Saints went to the Super Bowl in January, Reardon made sure her Louisiana stores stocked plenty of Saints-related merch, then she extended store hours so fans could shop conveniently.

Each Monday, Reardon meets with the regional merchandising teams to review the previous week’s sales data to determine how best to launch, adjust, extend or discontinue a local marketing strategy. Reardon earned the reputation of serious data-cruncher, trying to figure out why, say, a specific item’s price will work if it’s promoted on TV versus direct mail. A swift but deeply researched execution has become a hallmark of Reardon’s marketing style.

“I appreciate the balance she maintains between strategy and tactics,” says Jeff Gennette, Macy’s chief merchandising officer. “She balances demand versus branding—and brand marketing versus demand marketing.”

Talk to any of Reardon’s co-workers, and chances are balance will come up repeatedly as one of her biggest challenges — and achievements. While the My Macy’s initiative was busy localizing the brand operationally, Reardon was simultaneously expected to build a single marketing vision for Macy’s on the national level. When Reardon stepped up to the role of evp for national marketing strategy in March 2007, a central division promoting the store’s brand nationally didn’t exist.

“She built an organization from the ground up,” says CMO Peter Sachse. “We were changing a lot, but it was Martine’s ability to take field reports, react to them and put it back into the field that made the holiday season incredibly effective.”

The 2009 holiday season is a testament to Reardon’s marketing instincts. With creative help from JWT, New York, Reardon reprised the “Believe” campaign, inspired by the legendary “Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” editorial that ran in the New York Sun in 1897. “Believe” pledged Macy’s to donate a dollar to the Make a Wish Foundation for every letter to Santa Claus it received. The effort reached its $1 million goal in 2008, the first year Macy’s staged it. In 2009, Reardon built on the original idea by airing an animated special on CBS, kicking off a National Santa Tour and supporting the whole effort with nationwide TV spots.

“Believe” found a warm reception in a media weighed down with stories about the recession—some 1.5 billion impressions in total. But perhaps the most notable aspect of “Believe” was how it demonstrated Reardon’s ability to discern Macy’s longstanding equity with American shoppers. “We studied the heritage of this brand,” she says. “The things Macy’s really gets credit for around holidays are obviously the parade, the movie Miracle on 34th Street and the whole idea of Santa and believing.”

Santa’s nowhere in sight during these sweltering months, but Reardon’s marketing efforts haven’t taken a holiday. In August, Madonna and her 13-year-old daughter Lourdes launched their new Material Girl line exclusively through Macy’s. The following week saw the debut of a new clothing line inspired by the Fox series Glee. These initiatives represent major strides in Reardon’s determination to keep Macy’s relevant for the youngest generation of shoppers— and so is its concomitant embrace of digital and mobile marketing. Besides social media initiatives like the “Prom 2010” Facebook promotion and the “Sweetest Tweet” contest for the most endearing 140-character Valentine earlier this year, the company just partnered with Shopkick, a loyalty reward app that customers can use on their smartphones.

Today, Macy’s 2008 crisis is well behind it. The company’s 2Q sales were up more than 7 percent, while online sales spiked by 28 percent. Not that Reardon is focused on the past. “I look forward,” she says, “to the next 150 years of this brand.”

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