When you think of buying office supplies, what comes to mind? Bob Thacker hopes it’s dancing elves, giant rubber band balls, and a penny tray the size of a swimming pool. Thacker, the senior vice president of marketing and advertising at OfficeMax, says that when it comes to building a brand, if you don’t have big bucks, you’d better have big ideas. Thacker’s presentation “Chewing Gum and Bailing Wire: Big Ideas with Little Budgets” was the keynote address during the annual M.B. Zale Visionary Merchant Lecture Series at Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School. Blending humor and inspiration for marketers, Thacker discussed his store’s innovative advertising with an audience of 500 students during the event.
OfficeMax senior vice president of marketing and advertising Bob Thacker (left) accepts the 2009 M.B. Zale Visionary Merchant Award from Donald Zale ’55 on behalf of OfficeMax CEO and president Sam Duncan.
Thacker recognized that the recession is making life harder for marketers. However, “Innovation can be the product of depressed times,” he said, reminding students that Disney, American Airlines, Revlon and 20th Century Fox emerged against the challenges of the Great Depression’s economic disaster. His message was one of hope and challenge. In this economy, “you can become victims, or victors — the choice is yours,” he said.
It’s clear that under Thacker’s leadership, OfficeMax has chosen to be a victor. Thacker has been with the company since 2005. During that time, his goal has been to break into the market dominated by Staples and Office Depot, the top office supply chains in the U.S. He’s worked to build brand identity and differentiate his store from the competition.
“Building a brand is about building a connection with your customers,” said Thacker. To do this, OfficeMax ad campaigns involve humor and heart to excite shoppers. Example: As the nation’s economy turned sour last fall, OfficeMax launched the “Power of the Penny” campaign. Commercials followed a hidden-camera-bearing shopper attempting to purchase fancy meals, diamond rings, and even a car, paying with pennies. The penny shopper met with rejection from many merchants, reinforcing the message that the undervalued currency was welcomed at OfficeMax, where you could buy promotional 1 cent items like pencils, glue, and note paper for the back to school season.
“Advertising is a party crasher,” says Thacker of these humorous commercial spots. “If you’re going to crash the party, you ought to bring a bottle of wineâ€¦[Marketers] have an obligation. If we’re going to interrupt people’s lives, we should make sure the experience is a positive one.”
Part of Thacker’s advertising strategy has included a larger web-presence. In the 2006 Christmas season, the company launched 20 promotional sites, one of which developed into the most successful viral campaigns of all time. The site, www.elfyourself.com, invited shoppers to upload a headshot and then paste their own head on the body of a dancing elf. In the first five weeks, 36 million people “elfed themselves.” The following Christmas, the number jumped to 193 million. In 2008, one in 10 Americans joined in the fun. That year, OfficeMax made $2 million in sales from items such as mugs and greeting cards with the personalized elves.
Prior to delivering his keynote address, Thacker, along with Donald Zale ’55 (center left) and Gerald L. Ray ’54 (center right), met with current M.B. Zale Leadership Scholar program students.
“We’ve created a new Christmas tradition. Hopefully it’s better than fruitcake,” joked Thacker, who noted that the promotion has been invaluable to OfficeMax’s brand positioning as a fun and hip place to shop.
Their newest ad campaign strives to build bonds with female customers, who make up 80 percent of their shopping demographic. The new approach focuses on style, color and fashion, a departure from the traditional value-focus of supply and furniture stores. Similarly, their “A Day Made Better” campaign targets teachers (another large segment of their shoppers). OfficeMax surprised 2,300 teachers nationwide with gift cards to outfit their classrooms. These kinds of campaigns have transformed the OfficeMax brand from a simple purveyor of paperclips to a stylish retailer that cares about its customers.
Thacker concluded on a positive note, telling students that marketers are the “pilot lights” in this economic storm, responsible for igniting others’ creativity and passion in the marketplace and stimulating new growth.
OfficeMax CEO and Chairman Sam Duncan was honored with the 2009 M.B. Zale Visionary Merchant Award from the Center for Retailing Studies (CRS) at Mays. Duncan was unable to attend the lecture series event, which highlights innovation in the marketplace and invites representatives from CRS sponsor companies into the classroom to impact the next generation of marketers.