Kmart, which used to be the premier US discounter, has been laid low by competitors such as Wal-Mart, which promotes its low prices as if they were the answer to a prayer, and Target, which sells itself with a trendy, cheap-chic identity. Kmart has fallen so far and so fast that it was forced into bankruptcy reorganisation and closed 599 stores, which is more than some chains operate.
The remaining Kmarts, under new ownership, turned to the Fresh Grey unit of Grey, plus a couple of agencies that specialise in multicultural marketing, for a creative overhaul. The move followed an acrimonious parting with TBWA\Chiat\Day, which had produced what had been considered to be something of a small miracle: a fun, engaging Kmart campaign that made the stores look appealing, while artfully masking the reality of hodgepodge layouts, dowdy aisles and understocked shelves.
Grey's decision to rebrand Kmart as "the K" is underscored in the initial batch of TV commercials, which started running during the baseball World Series. In them, several people make hand gestures to form the letter "K" in sign language. Among the signers are: the Latina singer Thalia Soli; Vaughn Lowery, who became a demi-celebrity after appearing in the TBWA\Chiat\Day Kmart spots dancing in his Joe Boxer undershorts, and Martha Stewart.
Yes, even as she confronts her own well-publicised woes, centred on charges of improper share dealing, Stewart returns in Grey's Kmart campaign as the living symbol of the Martha Stewart Everyday line of homegoods, a core Kmart merchandise line.
So Stewart's front and centre in the spots, which also feature the song Right Here, Right Now as the new Kmart anthem. But, shrewdly, Grey is presenting her as one face among many, part of a mosaic of multicultural mugs: black, white, Asian-American, young, old, hip, old-school, married, single ... you get the picture. It's part of Kmart's plan to revive itself by stimulating sales among the urbanites - especially African-Americans and Hispanics - who have long comprised a large chunk of its customer base, compared with the suburban stalwarts who flock to Wal-Mart.
Some critics have complained that the campaign is derivative and familiar: "shopworn", declared the headline above a review in the trade publication Adweek. They have a point: the commercials use tried-and-true devices such as the anthemic music and vignette scenes in quick cuts.
Yet Kmart won't recover by promoting itself as trendy, because that's the Target brand identity. And it certainly won't get anywhere aping Wal-Mart's way of mixing spots fixating on its "Always low prices" promises with ads featuring folksy in-store interviews with workers and employees.
There are many on Madison Avenue who rued the day they underestimated Grey by deriding its work, so reflective of the mainstream, as too been-there, done-that. Remember, there's also a "K" in that all-American expression of approval, "A-OK."