David King's marvelous 1999 book The Commissar Vanishes recounted how enemies of the Soviet state were literally removed from history, as books, photos, and other records were redone with those unfortunates edited, airbrushed, and otherwise obliterated from memory.
Macy's hopes to do the same with Chicago’s Marshall Field's department store.
Marshall Field's was a retailer with a 150+ year history in the Chicago area, qualifying it as an institution as much as a commercial entity could qualify. But, like other regional department stores, it lately found itself ailing in its competition with large discounters, small specialty stores, and the ubiquity of online shopping.
It was a perfect candidate for a buy out/roll up suitor, and starting a few years ago, it was bought by Target's parent, then May Stores, Federated, and finally renamed Macy's late in 2006.
Since then, sales have collapsed, consumers have organized boycotts, and the health department found bugs habituating the food court. A guy threw himself over an atrium railing to his death. Clearly, people miss Field's.
So now Macy's has set out to erase Marshall Field's from history.
The Chicago Tribune reports that Macy's plans to "tap [the] iconic store’s history" to lure shoppers back. Special seasonal displays will celebrate Field's/now Macy's traditions. An exhibit with the Chicago Historical Society will let Macy's feature 100 years of the store's history. There'll be a special club area for elite Macy's customers, and a glossy magazine. Chicago designers will be invited to show their stuff at the store.
In other words, Macy's will be marketed as a Chicago institution.
Only it isn't, irrespective of what the branding hopes to claim otherwise.
Macy's brings absolutely nothing to the Chicago marketplace that Field's didn’t already offer. It's not making shopping any better, faster, cheaper, or happier. Consumers get nothing more from walking under the Macy's logos than they did from Field's, other than a sense of unease and loss.
The store vanishes, and Chicagoans sense that an experience has been lessened because it has been usurped.
The same Tribune story revealed that Macy's also plans to fire lots of Field's corporate employees, and reduce the incentives and support for store people right before the 2007 holiday season starts. This is brilliant financial strategy, as I'm sure the value of the acquisition was calculated on how much Macy's could save by integrating operations, and then nixing the overlap.
However, it's an idiotic branding fantasy.
People didn't shop at Field's because of the brand name as much as because of what the store did, sold, and offered. They didn't experience the Field's brand as much as find branded experiences: it was always about the store, and not a logo or name. The brand was just the label.
So when Macy's breezes into the marketplace and erases that name – only to slap its own name on a bunch of marketing ploys that are neither special, or especially relevant to Chicagoans – it's not rebranding as much as evidence that it's dismantling its business model. Coupled with the purposeful employee duress (unhappy salespeople are not good for shopping experience), and you don't have to be a particularly bright bulb to see where this is all going…
...they're positioning the business to sell it again.
And, sure enough, KKR, a private-equity firm, reportedly made a tender offer on July 19. So perhaps Macy's slogan-deep rebranding of Field's was only intended to last long enough to flip the thing. That's one of the benefits of branding that means nothing, and accomplishes less.
My advice: if the sale goes through, KKR should revive Field's. Invite Chicagoans to return to the institution. Use the opportunity to throw new, different things into the store, all under the cover of inventing a new century of consumer experience...in Chicago, by Chicagoans, and for the city. Be the good guys. Make a giant hoohah over it.
Then they can sell it for more money in a few years. And so the store vanishes again.
Welcome to the consumer gulag, comrade.