Part of a series of As Told To conversations in honor of Mpls.St.Paul’s 50th anniversary, here is Michael Francis, in his own words.
By the mid-1990s, Target was a $25 million business; it was absolutely the largest division of Dayton Hudson Corp. Internally, that was the career path. Bob Ulrich was CEO. John Pellegrene was chief marketing officer. Those two had incredible vision.
There was a big separation between Target and Walmart by the late ’90s. Target had always been brighter, cleaner, friendlier, but now it was truly national. We were never going to win on price. We believed there was a consumer who had taste and knowledge and a strong desire to save money.
“Expect More, Pay Less” was as much an internal cultural alignment as it was a public brand promise. It was exciting and daunting: “Expect more” demands reinvention on a nearly daily basis. The 2000s became the decade where we had to figure out how to fuel the momentum that had been unlocked in the ’90s.
The Michael Graves partnership happened in 1999, right before I came on board. Target worked with him to design scaffolding for the Washington Monument restoration project, which Target helped to fund. John brought Michael in to design products where there was no national brand equivalent—a teapot, a toilet plunger.
I was there for Isaac Mizrahi , the first big name on the fashion side at a time when no credible fashion designer would consider Target. Isaac’s product was so beautiful—it continued to prove out the thesis that customers would appreciate well-designed items at a good price. That, and other efforts underway, unleashed the Target army to find ways to prove out this belief, category by category. It took two or three years. We went from Vogue not taking Target ads to an endless parade of designers. By the time we launched Missoni, Target had really ascended. I must have had six boldface names on my voice mail leaving me credit card information to get the Missoni bike. The brand had gotten to that level of ubiquity.
But every magazine editor, every customer wants the next idea. Because we didn’t have adequate budget to feed our desire, we had to develop relationships that were quite unique in the retail space. Artists, designers, studios, labels—we collaborated in ways that allowed us to attach to culture and create our own media. Taking over The New Yorker was a big moment—every cartoon in the entire issue had to have a Bullseye. We did a vertical runway show down the side of Rockefeller Center. We floated a Target store on a ferry to New York City. We were able to build a culture that inspired. Employees knew they had to show up with a degree of relentless innovation. That spilled outside of the brand and into the community. We helped to fund so many organizations: Target Field, Target Center, the Target Wing at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
Back when I was named chief marketing officer of Dayton’s, Hudson’s, and Marshall Field’s, I received a letter from Bruce Dayton that said, “Congratulations on your executive role—you are now an ambassador for this community.” The brand has always believed in an obligation beyond the retail transaction. That included our partner businesses. As Target grew, an amazing number of businesses came in: Procter and Gamble, Johnson and Johnson, Coca-Cola—they all opened offices to support Target, and oftentimes, they got involved in the community as well.
By the early 2000s, it became a game with the local media—they’d spot someone flying into town, and there would be a news story: Are they working with Target? We were out nearly every night—The Local, Vincent, up and down Nicollet Mall. It became increasingly difficult to have confidential conversations, and we needed more discretion to host the designers coming to town to do business with the brand. So we bought a couple of downtown condominiums. We created a Target clubhouse of sorts. Thomas O’Brien [who designed products for Target] designed the entire space. Politicians, celebrities could drive right up without any public attention.
I was tasked with helping design Target’s headquarters on Nicollet Mall. We wanted it to be a celebration of our history, facilitate teamwork, and through art, open people’s minds. We worked with 3M to create the light show on the top of the building. That was our gift to the Twin Cities—to enliven the nighttime sky.
From Dayton’s to today, Target has always had a hand in the health and vitality of downtown. I certainly believe everything this brand has stood for over the decades will put it in a good position to deal with the challenges of the next.