When Marci Grebstein was growing up in Randolph, Massachusetts, her father had very specific rules about lawn care: 15 minutes of weeding, every evening, before dinner. “We had to do it,” says Grebstein, 53, now the chief marketing officer at Lowe’s, which is the biggest seller of lawn care products in the U.S. “He had this idea of a perfect lawn.”
Grebstein’s father’s meticulously pruned ideas about what homes and gardens should look like have, in part, shaped how Grebstein runs marketing at Lowe’s. Her own father, she says, is the very embodiment of the DIY-oriented customer, the kind of who has projects going on around the home all the time and who makes weekly trips to home-improvement stores. (Other customer types include Grebstein herself, who weeds weekly, and newer homeowners less concerned about the perfect lawn and more concerned about how many barbecues they’ll have on it.)
For Lowe’s, one of the biggest home-improvement big-box stores in North America, marketing is on a mission to go beyond price and strike an emotional connection with customers. “How I think of marketing is how to go beyond ‘win the wallet’ approach” to a ‘win the heart’ approach,” says Grebstein.
It has some ways to go. The retailer has seen weak financial performance even as rival Home Depot continues to grow. The housing market is growing too, though, so a large key to Lowe’s success lies in convincing younger homeowners and potential home-buyers that there is more to home-improvement than hammering a few nails.
Last May, Lowe’s and agency BBDO rolled out the “House Love” campaign, which featured a three-minute video, where two kids — and their homes — fall in love with each other. It was the first brand messaging for Lowe’s since the recession in 2008, says Grebstein, and it felt like the time to bring back the more emotional nuances of home ownership back into focus.
It’s personal for Grebstein, who grew up in a family where her father was a “jobber,” a middleman role between department stores and manufacturers of clothing accessories like ties, belts and globes, and her mother ran the call center for a small office-supply company. The home was important (the attention to weeding was only just one part of it), and it’s a driving theme for Grebstein, too.
Grebstein joined Lowe’s after over two decades in marketing. At Food Lion, she spearheaded a marketing turnaround plan. At Staples and CVS, Grebstein was part of regional players growing into national chains. She went to school at Boston College wanting to be a teacher but realized that she was never going to get a job, thanks to a glut of teachers graduating at the time — and ended up at the school of management. Everywhere she went, those who worked with her recall someone who was both refused to pull punches, but had an emotional streak that made her the right fit for any new challenge.
Jay Baitler, Grebstein’s former boss at Staples, recalls bringing her in on a massive project when she barely had any business-to-business sales experience, and working with her again when the company decided to make a hostile bid for $4 billion competitor Corporate Express in 2008.
“She was flexible and — I’m going to use a terrible word — ballsy,” he says. “She had no problems walking into my office, shutting the door and telling me I was wrong. She was such a breath of fresh air in uncharted territory.”
What brought her to Lowe’s was the clear purpose she saw at the company: Help people love where they live.
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That kind of idea, she says, is going to come off as “marketing” unless it’s actually part of the DNA running through the company. To that end, she and her team are pushing through more community-assistance initiatives, with every associate getting eight hours a year of paid time to go build and fix homes in the communities. The marketing team has built and “adopted” a shelter for homeless women and children they maintain called Hope House. “That heart piece has to run deeply,” she says.
“The home is personal. And more than ever, the home is sanctuary,” she says. And nowhere is that clearer than Gingerbread, a Lowe’s holiday effort that went live at Thanksgiving. A two-minute YouTube video announcing the project features a displaced gingerbread cookie who is different from other cookies in the batch.
It’s a markedly positive — and liberal — note to take in a fraught political landscape where brands are dragged into conversations and lambasted on social media.
“He’s looking for a place to feel at home,” says Grebstein. “With the country where it is, I’m going to come out and say that no matter where you’re from, this holiday season, you have to feel like you belong somewhere.”