You’d think that when consumer reaction to one of your products is generally negative, it would be bad for business. Not so, at least in the case of Target’s
“I don’t think Target meant to create a hideous dress,” says Rachel Weingarten, brand strategist and trend analyst. “I think they meant to piggyback off the Duchess of Cambridge’s ladylike dresses, only an affordable version. It was just bad timing,” she says.
In fact, the retro dresses have inspired hundreds, if not thousands, of people to take photos of themselves wearing them and share them on Facebook, sparking the #TargetDressChallenge.
Tyra Karp of Houston decided to get in on the fun, bought a dress, and shot some photos of herself in it. She went to share it with friends in a group of chicken keepers, but complaints started appearing from other women who didn’t want to see non-chicken-related content. So Karp created a new Facebook group devoted to the shenanigans.
What started with a photo and funny caption of the old-timey dresses has morphed into a full-on activity for cooped up adults to engage in, resulting in many Target stores being sold out of the dresses.
A Funny Caption Catches Attention
Author Lorca Damon’s first reaction to seeing a display of the frilly dresses in the Oxford, AL Target was confusion. Seeing clothes more commonly worn by little girls, Damon wondered if she had wandered into the kids’ department. After confirming she was in the women’s section, “My mind immediately went to…Target has decided if we’re gonna suffer a pandemic, we might as well look like we just lost the farm after locusts ate our crops,” she says, which is exactly how she captioned the photo she took of the dresses on display.
She posted it on Facebook to amuse her friends. One friend asked her to make it shareable, which she did, and within a matter of hours, the post had gone viral.
Inspired by, or wanting to be part of the joke, women started buying the dresses and taking photos of themselves wearing them, often in settings more appropriate for farm wear. Some women used props, such as gardening trowels and pitchforks, some donned bonnets a la “Little House on the Prairie” to complete the look. Men also got dressed up for fun, sometimes perched aboard lawn tractors.
Then the chicken crowd got in on the action. Women who raise chickens decided it would be fun to stage photos of themselves in the dresses holding or feeding their chickens and livestock. Thanks to Facebook, the phenomenon exploded from there.
The public was encouraged to share their own photos as part of what has become the #TargetDressChallenge.
Laughing With You Or At You? (Does it matter?)
Although Target turned out to be “the butt of the joke,” explains Sheri Lambert, assistant professor of marketing at the Fox School of Business at Temple University, the news is all good for the retailer.
It’s good because they’re being talked about, she says. “You can’t control the conversation about your brand, you can only hope to be part of the conversation.” Target is certainly at center of this particular discussion.
Not to mention, viral challenges work, she says. “It’s good for Target,” Lambert says, because challenges like these “get people into the store.”
It also attracted plenty of attention. “Because of the virality of the challenge, Target is getting so much earned (a.k.a. free) media. The fact that all types of people (women, men, children) are posting pictures with the dresses, hashtagging the challenge and tagging Target, and even that the general media is covering it, is a fantastic – and probably unexpected – win for Target, says Lehigh University marketing professor and fashion industry expert Ludovica Cesareo.
Target declined to comment.
“On a cultural level, it’s actually a wonderful way to connect,” Weingarten says. “We get to all do this together, apart. We get to laugh at ourselves and each other in a way that isn’t mean or catty or showing the hallmarks of internet flame wars, but one that embraces the silliness instead.”
The Target Dress Challenge is an example of “bandwagoning,” explains Lambert, which is based on “consumer fear of missing out.” People want to feel part of the community and get in on the fun by participating, so they buy the dress and take photos of themselves in funny scenarios.
Starting Your Own Challenge
Although Target certainly benefited from the challenge, through sales of the dresses, some retailers have taken steps to start their own viral challenge.
Retailer Wool& launched the 100-Day Challenge – in May 2020, when women were invited to wear the same Wool& dress for 100 days straight. The challenge, of course, is styling the dress in new and different ways, such as by wearing a sweater and belt over it, to make it look more like a skirt, or with a jacket, or under a longer skirt. Those who document their 100-day journey receive a $100 gift card.
Weingarten suggests that retailers could plan similar challenges centered on a piece in their inventory. Perhaps they select a sweater or blouse and show one way to wear it, as an example. The challenge would be for “you to come up with better styling. That could work,” she says.
Thrift shop aficianados have cheered Goodwill’s $5 challenges, where shoppers are challenged to spend up to $5 on thrift store merchandise to decorate their homes, or to upcycle the goods into something new.
Lambert suspects that the Target Dress Challenge grew so big so fast “because we’re stuck at home and this is a way to connect with others. It’s entertainment,” she says.