Marketing Made Easy
Before it could reap the rewards of a new ad campaign--and its iconic Easy Button--Staples needed to simplify itself.
By Michael Myser

(Business 2.0) – EIGHT TO ONE. THAT WAS THE abysmal ratio of customer complaints to kudos at Staples stores in 2001. The company's slogan--"Yeah, we've got that"--had become laughable. Customers griped that items were often out of stock and said the sales staff was unhelpful to boot. After weeks of focus groups and interviews, Staples's executive VP for marketing, Shira Goodman, had a revelation. "Customers wanted an easier shopping experience," she says. "It became clear that's where the opportunities were."

Staples's subsequent rebranding effort is one of the most successful mass-marketing campaigns in recent memory, and one of the most holistic. Rather than simply bombarding customers with a new slogan--"Staples: That was easy"--Goodman and her team led a companywide overhaul that actually simplified the shopping experience. Better yet, the marketers created an iconic object, the Easy Button, which customers are now buying at Staples stores in droves, helping to spread the marketing message, not to mention bringing in some extra cash. "For too long, advertisers believed that if they pronounced a message loud enough and long enough, customers would believe it," says Chris Denove, a vice president and executive director at J.D. Power and the coauthor of Satisfaction: How Every Great Company Listens to the Voice of the Customer. "But Staples changed its stores and built a tagline to match those changes."

The five-year branding odyssey that began in 2001 has helped make $16.1 billion Staples the runaway leader in office retail. In 2005 its profit was up 18 percent to $834 million. Second-place Office Depot, meanwhile, booked 2005 net earnings of just $274 million, an 18 percent slide, and OfficeMax posted a loss of $73.8 million. Staples, Goodman says, now receives twice as many compliments as complaints. Here's what the retailer learned along the way.

Live the Slogan

Based in Framingham, Mass., Staples all but invented the office-supply superstore when it launched in 1986. Targeting small and medium-size businesses, it aimed to sell everything for the office under one roof. But by the mid-1990s, the space was crowded with retailers like Office Depot, not to mention Target, Wal-Mart, and a slew of other online and offline shops. Partly as a result of that competition, Staples's same-store sales fell for the first time in 2001.

Customer research conducted by Goodman and her team revealed that while shoppers expected Staples and its competitors to have everything in stock, they placed little importance on price. Instead, customers overwhelmingly requested a simple, straightforward shopping experience. "They wanted knowledgeable and helpful associates and hassle-free shopping," Goodman says. The "That was easy" tagline was the simple--yet inspired--outgrowth of that realization.

The slogan, however, was kept under wraps until the company could give its stores a major makeover. Staples removed from its inventory some 800 superfluous items, such as Britney Spears backpacks, that had little use in the corporate world. Office chairs, which had been displayed in the rafters, were moved to the floor so customers could try them out. Staples also added larger signs and retrained sales associates to walk shoppers to the correct aisle. Since customers revealed that the availability of ink was one of their biggest concerns, the company introduced an in-stock guarantee on printer cartridges. Even communications were simplified--a four-paragraph letter sent to prospective customers was cut to two sentences.

It took about a year to get the stores up to snuff, Goodman says, but in March 2003, "once we felt that the experience was significantly easier, we changed the tagline." By the summer, Staples saw a 5 percent rise in same-store sales--which Goodman attributes more to the easy-does-it push within stores than to the catchphrase. "What has happened at the store has done more to drive the Staples brand than all the marketing in the world," she says.

Create a Gimmick

That's not to say that spruced-up branding hasn't played a major role. Another insight from Goodman's focus groups was that only one customer brought up Staples's television commercials. To reinvigorate its advertising, the company in mid-2004 ended its relationship with agency MartinWilliams and hired McCann-Erickson Worldwide, which also created MasterCard's nine-year-old "Priceless" campaign. The "Easy" slogan, however, stuck around, and shortly after winning the account, a group of McCann copywriters and art directors held a marathon brainstorming session to find ways to illustrate the concept of "easy." Leslie Sims, a senior VP and group creative director, mentioned how nice it would be if she could just push a button to come up with a great ad, so they could go to lunch. The Easy Button was born. "It took an amorphous concept and made it tangible," Goodman says.

The Easy Button soon birthed a string of humorous and popular television commercials, which premiered in January 2005 and also aired during the Super Bowl a month later. In one spot, called "The Wall," an emperor uses the button to erect a giant barrier as marauders approach; another shows an office worker causing printer cartridges to rain down from above. Online, Staples created a downloadable Easy Button toolbar, which took shoppers directly from their desktops to Staples.com, while billboards reminded commuters that an Easy Button would be helpful in snarled traffic.

As a result of the advertising onslaught, customers began asking about buying real Easy Buttons, so Staples again took the cue. In September 2005 the company began selling $5 3-inch red plastic buttons that when pushed say "That was easy." Staples promised to donate $1 million in button profits to charity each year, and this quarter, it will sell its millionth button. Not since Taco Bell sold 13 million talking chihuahuas in 1998 have customers so coveted a product based on an ad campaign. By selling the Easy Button as a sort of modern-day stress ball, Staples is turning its customers into advertisers. Homegrown movies starring the button have appeared on video-sharing site YouTube, while a blogger at Sexy Red-Headed Nuns hacked the button to create a garage door opener; the post was picked up by Digg.com and other sites. "The Easy Button is bigger than its category," says Steve Ohler, a McCann executive creative director.

Stick With the Strategy

The payoff is striking. In addition to the viral success of the buttons, Staples says customer recall of its advertising has doubled to about 70 percent, compared with the industry average of 43. Investors have also been rewarded: Staples's share price has risen 37 percent during the past year to $26.60 as of early May. Both Staples and McCann attribute the financial success at least in part to the "Easy" campaign's longevity. "You need a client who's willing to invest the time to see the benefits," Ohler says.

Goodman says Staples decided early on that the message was in for the long haul: "We set clear expectations that this would be a three- or five-year journey." That's a rarity for a major brand with lots of ad dollars to throw around. "Marketing executives often suffer from advertising deficit disorder," says David Newman, founder of Unconsulting, a marketing firm in Bryn Mawr, Pa. "If they don't create new advertising every 18 months, they're not happy." It doesn't help that the average tenure of a corporate marketing chief hovers at just 22 months, according to Michelle Roehm, a marketing professor at Wake Forest University. Goodman, notably, has worked for Staples since 1992.

There's no guarantee, however, that the five-year-old "Easy" push can maintain its momentum. A marketing campaign is a pricey endeavor--Staples spent more than $160 million on advertising in 2004 and 2005 combined, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus--and if earnings lag, ad budgets are among the first things cut. It's also not hard to imagine a backlash against the talking plastic doodads now infesting corporate America.

For the time being, though, the button seems to have insinuated itself into popular culture without annoying consumers. This fall Staples will unveil a new back-to-school TV campaign featuring the Easy Button. But even if the company decides to tweak its message, Goodman believes that Staples's success will continue to ride on minimizing the hassle of the in-store experience. "We're in the early stages of what can be a very strong retail brand and message," she says. She makes it sound so easy.

Michael Myser is a freelance writer based in New Jersey.

MARKETING VP GOODMAN WAITED UNTIL STORES WERE UP TO SNUFF BEFORE ROLLING OUT THE CAMPAIGN.

Office Rivalry

Over the past four years, Staples has steadily outgrown Office Depot.

Revenue (in billions)

Net income (in millions)

Note: Data is for fiscal years.

Source: Bloomberg

Slow and Steady

Here's how Staples's five-year marketing plan paid off.

2001

Same-store sales drop for the first time. Surveys reveal that shoppers think items are hard to find and sales staff is unhelpful.

Winter 2001

Based on the research, the marketing department comes up with a new slogan, "Staples: That was easy."

Winter 2001

Staples spends the next 12 months giving its stores a major overhaul, which includes simplifying layout and inventory.

March 2003

Staples officially unveils its new "Easy" tagline.

STAPLES

that was easy

Summer 2003

Same-store sales jump 5 percent, thanks in large part to the store makeovers.

July 2004

To reinvigorate its TV advertising, Staples hires a new agency, McCann-Erickson Worldwide.

Fall 2004

Leslie Sims, a VP on McCann's creative team, comes up with the Easy Button concept.

January 2005

Staples airs the first TV spots featuring the Easy Button, followed by online and outdoor campaigns.

September 2005

The retailer begins selling red plastic Easy Buttons in its stores.

Summer 2006

Staples is expected to sell its millionth Easy Button.

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Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer.

Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved.

Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved.

Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2014 and/or its affiliates.