Stewart K. Widdess probably didn't think he was making history. For the time being, all he had to make was a name and a logo. It was 1961, and Widdess was the publicity man for Dayton's in Minneapolis. A downtown landmark since 1902, Dayton's was a fancy department store that sold things like fine jewelry and cashmere sweaters. But its owners had decided to go into the discount business with a new store for the suburbs—and charged Widdess with naming it.
The publicist's staff waded through some 200 possible names before settling on Target. "As a marksman's goal is to hit the center bull's-eye," they explained, "the new store would do much the same in terms of retail goods, services, commitment to the community, price, value and overall experience."
So far as the logo went, well, what other choice was there? For Target, there would be a target.
Today, that red dot encircled by a red ring is one of the best-known logos in the world. According to a 2003 corporate study, 96 percent of shoppers can recognize it—so many that Target decided a decade ago that it was safe to drop the name "Target" from the logo and just let the target stand for Target.
And that's no small part of the badge's staying power. "A logo needs to be simple and consistent and easy to process visually," said Wharton marketing professor Americus Reed. "And it really helps that when you see the symbol, you literally see a target—that's one less ounce of cognitive effort to generate the association."
"The enduring strength of Target's logo lies in its utter clarity," seconded Target's chief creative officer Todd Waterbury. "It is a design that is viewed equally from every side: from the front, the back, from the left and the right. The bull's-eye is a symbol that is immediately, simultaneously seen and understood, one in the same, as precisely what it is."
Target's target actually started off with three rings, which it kept until a 1968 revamp by Unimark International pared it down. It was a cleaner look that allowed for more versatility. Over the years, the bull's-eye has popped up on store circulars and clothing, on trains and (most adorably) around the left eye of Spot, Target's bull terrier mascot.
"By far the most powerful reason for the Target brand's ubiquity is the incredible creativity of its use," said Margo Chase, executive creative director of Chase Design Group. "No other brand has used its logo in such endlessly creative, surprising and disruptive ways."
Plus, unlike Kmart's K and Walmart's asterisk, Target's target is more clever, less literal—"a symbol of a higher level of cachet," Reed said. That playful aloofness goes hand-in-hand with another famous piece of Target's branding: the ersatz French pronunciation of "Tar-zhay." Target actually cultivated that bit of camp as early as 1962, when president Douglas Dayton heard customers using it. He responded by naming its in-house shoe collection Miss Targé. The pronunciation wound up in TV spots.
This story first appeared in the October 17, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.
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