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In the past two years, Target has debuted dozens of private-label brands across all of its product categories – from cosmetics to clothing. As the retailer rebuilds its strategy around properties customers can’t get anywhere else, its top creative Todd Waterbury and chief diversity officer Caroline Wanga explain how taking an inclusive approach to brand-building is paying off.

Last month, Target unveiled More Than Magic – a bold, sequin-adorned ‘tween girl lifestyle brand’. The launch marked the latest foray into private labels for the US-based retailer and will see over 500 items for girls aged eight to 12 available in-store and online. 

Since 2017, Target has launched over 20 private-label brands under the stewardship of chief merchant Mark Tritton who joined two years ago with a mandate from chief executive Brian Cornell to overhaul Target’s private brand business. Other launches include electronics brand Heyday, baby brand Cloud Island and Cat & Jack; an inclusive apparel line that creates adaptive products for kids’ with disabilities – all designed to differentiate Target from rivals like Amazon and Walmart.

Coupled with a heavy focus on e-commerce, it’s an approach that’s paying off for the business, which posted annual revenues of $75.3bn for 2019; up 3.6% on the previous year.

Heavily involved in building and marketing these brands to its 30 million customers across the US, Canada and India are Target’s chief creative officer Todd Waterbury and chief diversity and inclusive officer Caroline Wanga. Speaking to The Drum, the latter claims “courageous listening” has been key in identifying labels the Target brand can put its own stamp on. A unique, ongoing approach to market research sees Target send its staff to customers (or who they prefer to call “guests”) homes, asking them questions about the brands they use and their lifestyle anonymously.

“We use that as one of our ongoing listening mechanisms to keep track of whether we’re still serving the needs that we’re supposed to be serving, and look at other needs we want to serve,” Wanga explains.

Spending time in shoppers homes offers a “powerful point of empathy,” adds Waterbury. “It’s about  being in a place that represents their identity and their real life. The texture you’re able to get from it and learn from is more significant when you’re in a space that represents their own life.”

These conversations then move from people’s homes into Target’s design and creative departments, helping inform the shape its private-label brands take. For instance, “hundreds of parents” helped design the Cloud Island products over the course of two years and for More Than Magic, the retailer brought together girls from around the country to hear what they did and didn’t want from a brand catered to them, leading to “cozy textures and velvety finishes” on shirts, leggings and leotards, as well as paraben-free bath and beauty products.

The jewel in Target’s private-label crown, though, is Cat & Jack which features designs specifically crafted for children with disabilities or who have to wear cumbersome medical devices. The idea was conceived when a Target employee and mother voiced her disabled child’s need to feel included. As well as drawing praise from parents and disability campaigners the line is also proving to be a financial success, with Wanga noting it’s pulling in yearly revenues of $2bn since its launch.

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Cat & Jack’s marketing has been focused on imagination, style and the durability of the products with Waterbury saying he believes the range’s success lies in there having been an “intersection between guest's needs and being able to meet those needs with a level of design and affordability.”

“Every parent wants clothes for their kids that are durable,” he adds. “Every kid wants the ability to choose how to dress themselves – whether that’s being a princess robot or a furry animal. Kids have this amazing imagination that is boundless and we want the brand to be there for them no matter where they are.”

Waterbury also draws on Cat & Jack as an example of Target’s mission to be seen as a brand for all that builds out “soul” at scale.

An adaptive magenta jacket from the range, designed for wheelchair users and those with limited mobility, has been featured in The Cooper Hewitt Design Museum’s exhibition of the best design work worldwide for people of differing abilities.

“For us to be part of this conversation and to see the idea of design for all being brought into this context of talking about everyone, made us really understand the power of this – it extends beyond our brand,” says Waterbury.

Wanga, whose remit includes overseeing Target’s internal diversity efforts across its HQs, stores and distribution centres as well as ensuring inclusivity in its marketing, has been heavily involved with Cat & Jack. However, the big-box retailer is upping its focus on inclusive private labels (it recently launched intimates brand Auden from women “of all shapes and sizes” and 100% “size-inclusive” menswear brand Original Use) but Wanga says it’s not just launching brands for diversity’s sake.

“I wouldn’t say there is any brand that we have or will have launched that is a part of that particular topic. [Diversity] is the lifeblood of our organisation staying sustainable, so the brands we’re creating serve a very large cross-sector and spectrum of people," she goes on.

“A brand might focus on a particular demographic but it isn’t for diversity and inclusion's sake, it’s that if that demographic has a need, then we think we are the company that can develop for it."

Waterbury adds: "A brand is the connection that exists between a company’s beliefs and its behavior.

"What defines you at your core informs how you show up and how you make decisions. When that happens over time and it shows up in meaningful ways in your audience’s life, it’s an expression of what makes a brand incredibly powerful and also what makes a brand incredibly fragile."