Prior to George Floyd’s murder on May 25, 2020, Target’s Lake Street, Minneapolis store was a longstanding neighborhood resource. Severely damaged in the civil unrest that ensued, the store was shuttered within days of the incident.
The Lake Street store carried a special significance for Minneapolis-headquartered Target. Built in the 1970s, the location served a diverse community that was reeling from this latest incident of racial brutality by police, while continuing to struggle in a pandemic that disproportionately impacted people of color. Some 200 Target employees from the location were displaced due to the closure, and had to be reallocated to other stores.
Target’s CEO and other leadership were determined to reopen Lake Street. What happened next was not a clean up, but a reset of the entire operation, informed by direct dialogue with the community that depends on it.
The communications strategy was reshaped too, as the team knew it needed multichannel storytelling, with video at the center, and a new spokesperson, to proportionally convey the company’s values and commitment.
“It wasn’t just the same old template,” said Page Up member Joe Poulos, Target’s senior director of communications. “It was, how do we encapsulate the heart and soul that Target is putting into this effort, and bring it to life in a compelling way.”
During an unprecedented time for the company, its communications team found ways to tell the story that reflected the company’s values and purpose.
Resetting and Rebuilding
In the first days following Floyd’s murder, the focus was not yet on store reopenings, but on the community in crisis.
“We are a community in pain,” wrote Brian Cornell on May 29, four days after Floyd’s murder. “As a Target team, we’ve huddled, we’ve consoled, we’ve witnessed horrific scenes similar to what’s playing out now and wept that not enough is changing. And as a team we’ve vowed to face pain with purpose.”
The visuals being broadcast by CNN and others were bleak, with the gutted, flooded store providing a symbolic backdrop to the widespread outrage over Floyd’s killing and generations of systemic inequity.
As its focus turned to the local community, Target determined that Lake Street would be rebuilt and reopened. “The neighborhood needs us,” Poulos said. “People need to be able to buy food and get their prescriptions. But also because we felt it would be part of how we would play a role in community healing.”
Target dedicated itself to engaging the community, to listening and responding to its needs. A cross-functional team (CFT) was convened to drive it, including properties, corporate responsibility, stores, merchandising, HR and communications. Company leaders met with local community organizations and individuals for input. Guests and locals were also surveyed for their opinions about what the Lake Street Target was doing well, and what it could do better.
As a result of the feedback, the reopen plan included significant changes to the store, including more multicultural merchandise across product categories, more and better food options, the relocation of the pharmacy to the front of the store, and a new entryway closer to public transportation.
Communications was part of the CFT that engaged with the community and determined the path forward for the store. Being involved at that level was key to the communications strategy.
The Communications team tapped Cephas Williams, Target’s Group Vice President, to be the main spokesperson for the reopening. As a Black man and a company leader responsible for all the Target locations in Minneapolis, Williams was candid about his feelings and Target’s opportunity to provide more for the community in this process.
“When George Floyd was murdered nearby, I felt the same anger, despair and exhaustion that I know many of our Black team members and guests across the country also felt,” Williams wrote in an open letter on September 17, 2020. “As demonstrations for racial justice followed, I’ll admit I struggled to ground myself in Target’s purpose, especially as a Black man who knows the challenges people of color face in this country every day.”
Williams reflected on Target’s goals, as well as the reality of the challenge ahead — to engage with the community, to listen and learn, and make real commitments, and authentically report on progress going forward. He said CEO Brian Cornell had called him and asked, “What do you need from me?” Williams wrote, “I told him: We need to reopen our Lake Street store as soon as we possibly can.”
Williams’ letter, as well as all public information and statements about the store renewal, were translated into Spanish to ensure the messages would reach the entire community. The links to the Spanish translations can be found below.
Who speaks for your company’s values during turbulent times? Look beyond the typical spokesperson to find the authentic voice that conveys your purpose.
Telling the Story
An unprecedented story demanded courageous storytelling, and the Communications team landed on the idea of producing a documentary film about the reopening.
The idea was first vetted across the Communications group, including the Target Next creative team, as well as corporate, properties, and channel communications.
“Our team is always our first consideration in any communications plan, and it branches out from there,” Poulos said. “It all has to be integrated. In Target communications, integration is one of our most important principles. It’s in our mission, and how we think about how we lead our team.”
The team then had to convince executive leadership and internal partners, including properties, store leadership and corporate responsibility. Remember, at this time, there were many unknowns — an entire store to rebuild, a displaced team of employees waiting for information, and a community roiling and in pain over the George Floyd murder. The site of the video shoot was literally under construction. There was no way to storyboard everything the video would capture.
Poulos said it was difficult not knowing exactly how the video would come together until very close to the end of the process.
“As communicators, our instinct is to be very thoughtful and planful about the message,” Poulos said. “This is a case where we said, we’re going to follow people around with a camera and ask them to tell us their story. The amalgamation of that will introduce the store back to everyone. You don’t know what you’re going to get on the other side, and you have to have faith in your team.”
A team is truly tested when it’s trying something new, with no guaranteed outcomes. How well would your team handle the uncertainty?
Outcome and Next Steps
Target’s Lake Street store was reopened on November 11, 2020, less than 6 months after it had closed. Given COVID-19 restrictions, the ceremony was necessarily small, and it was captured on the video documentary.
The documentary included Cephas Williams and Lake Street team members in the rebuilt store, talking about the devastation to the community and their personal response to the store closing and subsequent refresh. It also depicted the location’s new features.
Poulos said internal partners were proud of the video and what it represented about the spirit of the store renewal, and it resonated with the communities it was intended to engage.
The messaging was focused on the internal Target team and, most importantly, the local community that had been directly impacted by the closure.
That communications ambition was fueled by an overarching goal of the Target Corporation, to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion, and better serve under-represented communities. In 2019, the Target Foundation shifted its mission from supporting hometown arts and culture to focus instead on equity and economic opportunity. The company also established the Racial Equity Action Change (REACH) Committee, composed of Target leaders, according to Target, “to accelerate our diversity, equity and inclusion strategy for our Black team members and guests as our data revealed we had significant work to do for this community.”
The George Floyd murder crystalized the mission to play a role in fighting discrimination and inequity. In rebuilding the store with a community-first mindset, Target was creating a template that it could replicate in other areas of the country. In April 2021, Target committed to a plan to invest more than $2 billion in Black-owned businesses by the end of 2025.
Target and other large corporations will be held accountable for these pledges. A July 2021 story in The New York Times was critical of Target for closing in 2018 a Baltimore location that served a predominantly Black community. The story called out Target and other retailers that make commitments to support diverse communities and fall short on delivery.
“From a learning perspective, you have to have the courage to say these stories help us, as an organization, realize we have a long road ahead of us and to affirm our commitments to do that,” Poulos said. “Those stories can be a rallying cry within an enterprise. When you are as big as Target, there’s going to be criticism and you have to put it to use to help move the company forward.”
Negative stories in the media can be discouraging when companies are dealing with the most difficult challenges facing the culture as a whole. Many companies are under enormous scrutiny, and it’s important to maintain focus on the goals, and use these stories as tools to improve.