How the Sears Meltdown Illustrates Your Business Need for Inbound Driven Marketing Automation

Jen Saunders
Reading Time: 12 minutes

The iconic retailer Sears owes $4.2 billion–a debt amount that almost equals the total national wealth of Dominica and Tonga. Top business forecasters are projecting that the former department store giant will tumble by 2019. Whether it was online shoppers who found better digital experiences elsewhere, or consumers simply lost touch with the brand, there are some valuable lessons companies of all sizes can learn from the colossal train wreck Sears brought on itself.

This article will cover the following points:

  • Define Inbound marketing within the context of marketing automation
  • Use Sears as a model to illustrate missed opportunities any business can learn from
  • Examine the decline of Sears through the lens of popular culture while throwing up relevant and relatable takeaways on inbound driven marketing automation
  • Delve into creating buyer personas as a way to stay relevant through marketing automation efforts

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Why Inbound & Marketing Automation?

The inbound methodology is designed to attract prospects and transform them into delighted buyers. When the best digital marketing agencies apply inbound through marketing automation, brands are able to send the right content to the right people specific to their phase in the buyer journey. The entire process allows businesses to accomplish multiple feats that garner sustainability and growth…all things Sears failed to do. These include:

  • Understanding ALL buyer audiences (their pains and wants)
  • Staying relevant to contemporary buyers
  • Evolving with consumer audiences as change occurs
  • Sending the right message to your buyers

We have already defined marketing automation as an agile application that takes the inbound methodology aimed to nurture prospects through an automated stream of content specific communication points. The end result is that you have a better understanding of your market, your buyers, and you’ve converted prospects into customers. Oh, and the ROI is completely measurable in the sense that businesses can see how much revenue each lead brought, the channels they went through to become a buyer, and just how many marketing dollars went into gaining each individual customer.

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Failed Evolution (From G-Rated 70s Porn to Butter-Churning Mennonites)

Survival of the fittest plays here; if a company fails to evolve, they will die out. Not only has Sears failed to evolve; they have actually digressed into a state of devolution.

If you were a little boy (or a budding self-aware lesbian) from the 70s to mid 90s, you may recall waiting for the Sears Catalog to come in the mail. This is where one could view page after page of busty lingerie models in an era where sex in advertising evolved from the conservative 50s, through the emergence of marketing sexual liberation in the 60s, and out into the open air of “non-apologetic sexy ad campaigns” in the 70s. This was a time when Sears was king of the world, for they understood their consumer audiences and managed to stay relevant and purposeful to both the archetypal Mid-West housewife, and the G-rated porno connoisseurs.

Really, just as many casserole-baking wives thumbed through 70s-era Sears catalogs looking for new dining service sets as did 12 year-old boys in search of jugs. It was a G-rated version of Hustler Magazine mastering the “sex sells” concept while still maintaining its family-friendly appeal. Even if your intention was to buy a blender from the catalog, the presence of the brand’s lingerie models subtly sexualized the catalog in its entirety. After all, Playboy Magazine had great articles geared towards the lifestyle of middle-class men (How to Wire Your New WiFi and interviews with Norman Mailer) but at the end of the day the nude images of women classified the publication as porn, and it was regarded as such by its readers. Sears, more or less, achieved the same dual status, but on a more subtle and tamer line. Their marketing genius set them atop the competition as a stylish, family-friendly, sexy brand thus offering levels of attractiveness to all cross sectors of their consumer audiences.

Sears appealed to average American families and young singles by showcasing cutting-edge fashion to the point they even had a consultant in charge of pairing model’s hair styles with various garments. They also paid attention to what socio-economic class, race, gender, and employment type their buyers belonged to while delving deep into research uncovering these various consumer pains and needs. Sears studied their buyer’s personas, scrutinized the competition, and they were a household name. So what caused the meltdown?

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Popular Culture has Spoken: Sears is for Mennonites

Gone are the days when Sears embodied stylish apparel and trendy haircuts within a product marketing framework designed to stay relevant. It stopped evolving. It started the dying process. It had an appeal only a Mennonite could love. Sears apparel is bland, their appliances compete against large home improvement stores that offer much better deals, and their image became antiquated and hokey leaving them in total disarray. Not only did people stop caring about Sears but they started making fun of the brand the way people once threw rotten vegetables at their dethroned sovereign as he approached the guillotine.

Popular culture is an ideal way to gauge just how consumers feel about a brand. Let’s use three brief examples to chart Sears from its soaring popularity in the 70s, through its dying stage up to the mid 90s, followed by a glimpse at two commercials indicating the reality that Sears has finally arrived at hospice, and soon will be no more.

Acknowledging Sears as a Sexy Brand in the 70s – In an earlier episode of the TV show ‘Family Guy’, Peter Griffin has a flashback to his childhood in what appeared to be the late 70s where he sat on his bedroom floor drooling over a Sears catalog. Although the TV show is recent, the reference is locked to the past thus emphasizing popular culture’s recognition that the brand’s failed existence as an appealing force in our contemporary era is set in place as seen through the contrast of time.

Sears as a 1995 Laughing Stock – In 1995 ‘The Brady Bunch Movie’ hit theaters placing the decades old goody-two-shoes family in a mid 90s existence. Though the rest of the world evolved, the Brady family remained stagnant in their speech, manners, and appearance. In one scene Mike Brady announces, “put on your Sunday best, kids. We’re going to Sears!” Here, they draw awkward stares from Sears shoppers (who don’t seem to be enjoying their shopping experience regardless of the obnoxious family) by singing ‘Sunshine Day’ in true stale Variety Hour fashion that long since died. The scene indicates that the only people who see value in the Sears brand are virtually non-existent; they are the WASP ultra conservative pockets of society with one foot through the door to becoming Mennonites.

Sears as a Wasteland in 2017 – In a 2017 episode of ‘Family Guy’, the Griffins go to the mall and pause in front of the Sears entrance. Peter again recalls the past by expressing how he shopped there as a child. Lois remarks that, “nobody has been in Sears for decades”. Upon entering the store the Griffins find themselves in a wasteland–a nod to the ‘Mad Max’ film where savage road warriors roam a deserted Sears store of barren nothingness void of law and order. They tell Peter he can get “clothes for the cold times” from the clothing department in exchange for meat and herbs. True to their reputation for a “brutal honesty” approach to satire and comedy, ‘Family Guy’ illustrates Sears as an antiquated, failed and laughable “thing” that no reasonable person would find value in. It also suggests there is no structure, leadership, or organization in the brand through the use of post-apocalyptic chaos. 

So what has Sears done to try to salvage and rebuild their image and sustainability? Shockingly, their CMO (whoever that is) hasn’t even tried making the brand relatable to any buyer group, on any level (except to Mennonites). Here are two examples:

A few years ago Sears ran a campaign called #WhatsYourTradition in which customers filmed their own Sears commercial showing how the brand allows families to continue their long-loved traditions. The following video was the most popular, and the only one still existing on YouTube:

There you have it: Mennonites; people who speak and act like they walked from some prairie cabin amidst god-fearing pioneer folk. These are the people who love Sears. They are modest, enjoy bland fashion, and take pride in being “the salt of the earth”. Here’s the problem: they are a niche group and NOT a target market audience for any large retailer.

The old-timey values clad in humdrum attire continue in this 2017 Sears Lawn & Garden commercial titled ‘Melted Cone’. Here, a father and son dressed in uninspiring white and beige with Supercut hairstyles promote a Craftsman 54’’ riding mower:

Creating a buyer persona is paramount to reaching your target audience with a relatable message that creates sales. According to this commercial, the Sears target market for their Lawn & Garden department was created off a buyer persona reminiscing a white male country dweller with old-timey views–men who get excitement from vanilla ice cream, and who listen to bumpkin yokel tunes like the one featured in the commercial, ‘I Want You’ by Ritchie Hart. Again, this is a niche audience and perhaps an even non-existent one akin to the buyer persona illustrated by ‘The Brady Bunch Movie’.

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Creating the Buyer Persona (What Sears Should Have Done)

Every stage of the inbound process in smart marketing automation revolves around your buyer personas. Rule number one: don’t make assumptions. Rely of research, surveys, interviews, social media, and your contacts database to understand who your customers and prospects are.

If you aren’t using this approach, you will miss out on a tremendous amount of revenue (psst, like Sears).

To further illustrate the importance of creating realistic buyer personas, lets reverse engineer the desired model into the mirror opposite of what any brand would want…which…is the current buyer persona Sears is using today:

Elmer is a 34 year-old white man who loves simple, good old things like gravy on his toast and shouting hallelujah through his camper window. He lives in the country where he can peacefully mow his lawn, race his mower against his son’s ice cream consumption, and listen to dreary country music while his Mennonite wife Rachel makes bread thus carrying on the family tradition. Elmer and Rachel’s idea of speed and excitement comes from baking bread quickly with the latest appliance, and stealthily mowing the lawn with a Craftsman riding mower. No skydiving is necessary to elevate heart rates for these pilgrims! They have Sears!

If we look at Sears direct competitors like Macys, Target, Lowes, and others you see the opposite; a mix of urban and suburban people centered around a marketing strategy that makes the brand relevant and contemporary while speaking to cross sections of various consumer audiences. Macys and Target commercials have, for years, captured the lives of busy soccer moms doing back-to-school shopping, dads buying power tools to get the job done, and women dancing in stylish attire all while upbeat music thumps on. This is how these brands formed personal connections with their consumers; they virtually placed their target audience members in their stores through story-telling. Perhaps one reason why Sears is going out of business is because there simply aren’t many Mennonite families from Wisconsin’s rural tundra willing to make that epic jaunt to Sears to buy a bread maker.

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How to Create Buyer Personas for Marketing Automation

Your marketing automation will take place on a scheduled trajectory targeting people at every stage in the buyer journey process. It is important to understand their pains so you can deliver the right solutions to fit specific needs. Here are some practical tips for collecting necessary data for building buyer personas:

  • Build forms on your website that capture important persona details. For example, if your personas vary based on company size, make sure your forms ask for information on company size.
  • Chat with your sales team; discover who they talk to the most, what generalizations can be made, and what facts are present. Look for hallmarks indicating the customers you can best serve.
  • Try to uncover trends on how leads or customers find your business by analyzing your contacts database.
  • Engage prospects and customers with interviews. This can be done face-to-face or over the phone. Reach out to both your good and bad customers so you can pinpoint patterns that lead to a better understanding of why they both love and hate you.

If they are true experts, your digital agency will use a marketing automation platform to attract prospects and turn them into delighted buyers through an inbound approach. Without carefully crafted buyer personas, all these efforts could be performed in vain as the content would reach the wrong audience, at the wrong phase of the buyer journey.

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Access Your Respective Market, Stay Competitive

Change is inevitable; when you keep a smart ear to the ground with the intention to stay on top of industry trends, you can better prepare for the impending transformation and the quick decisions you will need to make to stay competitive. For example, a competitor of Sears, Amazon, gives buyers the option to get speedy shipping on almost any item. Given the fact that Amazon is a giant and dominates the market, it only makes sense their competitors tap into this buyer-hurt by offering the same benefit.

Here’s the thing: even if you offer fast next-day shipping, who is going to know about it unless they find you through good organic SEO? This is where marketing automation steps in and really plays a pivotal role in delivering your company’s benefits to the right consumers, at the right moment through the buyer journey, as businesses can not survive on SEO alone. Sears clearly missed an opportunity by not utilizing marketing automation technology fueled by a robust campaign targeting their larger consumer groups. Additionally, this would have made it easy for them to pay more attention to customer expectations, and to their competition.

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Use Marketing Automation to Take Smart Risks

Smart risk-taking offers a plethora of benefits. Relying on stability alone won’t make you the king of your market space. However, taking smart risks like engaging new strategies to increase business growth can be rewarding, and marketing automation with an inbound stance can help deliver your new approach to the best-suited audience while measuring its effectiveness.

So what is the opposite of smart risk-taking? Recently, social media exploded with #BoycottSears hashtags after the retailer allowed anti-Semitic “free Palestine” apparel from a secondary seller to pollute its online store. Some believe this was an attempt to get heard through the dying company’s last breath under the old-fashioned motto of “there is no bad press”. By promoting a line of apparel that denied Israel’s right to exist as a free state, Sears not only pissed off millions but once again failed to reach any sizable buyer audience.

Then Sears put their foot in their mouth even deeper by offering an apology while accusing the media of targeting them out simply because the same apparel can be bought off Amazon.

This is hilarious, as it seems to be the only time Sears evershowed any indication it was paying attention to the competition since the early 70s, and all in the childish context of “no fair, he started it”.

Here’s the thing: Amazon may be a competitor, but their business models are night and day. Amazon is a digital marketplace where you can also buy fart-scented candles, purple dildos,  and even the autobiography of Charlotte Rae. Oh, and Amazon also sells lots of pro-Israel apparel too. They are a cloud of everything with no direct responsibility or association (for the most part) when it comes to what sellers offer from their platform.

Not only did Sears allow anti-Semitic shirts to stain their digital store and cause further damage to their already laughable reputation, they brought further embarrassment on themselves by not even understanding their competition at a basic level.

What Businesses can Learn from Sears Bigotry

Again, it all comes down to building the right buyer personas, creating content for various stages of the buyer journey using an inbound approach, and relying on marketing automation to distribute the goods while collecting data and insights.

Here’s an example: If you your business specifically sells Harvard apparel, and some of your products make derogatory remarks about Yale, the chance you will offend your buyers is slim to none. However, if your business sells college apparel across the board, belittling any academic institute will likely garner toxic blow-back.

What do your customers hate? What do they love? What brings prospects to your brand? Marketing automation can deliver content-specific campaigns to multiple buyer groups that will collect this data thus helping you increase your market appeal while you learn valuable insights.

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Inbound Driven Marketing Automation = Business Salvation

Reaching the right people, at the right time, with a message aimed to convert them into buyers AND tracking a concrete, tangible ROI with every prospect: it sounds like a unicorn is on the loose, but this is not really magic. It is reality, and even giant retailers that once dominated the market are missing this boat. Don’t be a “mini Sears”; allow the inbound approach through marketing automation to help you reach your various consumer audiences, through every stage of the buyer journey, at the right time, through automated ease. Then measure; research and pay attention to the data. Avoid the fate Sears is facing.  Are you staying relevant? Which prospects have needs for your products and services? Are you ostracizing your business from other buyers? Are you really a leg up over your direct competition? Follow the inbound methodology; build your buyer personas and market like a savvy detective through the egress of automated marketing solutions.

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