As part of its strategy to gain market share in the household appliance sector, Sears launched two new products in 2001: the Kenmore Elite HE3t washer and the Kenmore Ultrafresh refrigerator. A strategic public relations program created demand for the new products and also highlighted Sears’ participation in the national “Energy Star” program, an EPA-sponsored program of pollution prevention partnerships that encourage the use of energy-efficient equipment to reduce pollution. Sales of the new products far exceeded initial targets and helped Sears differentiate its brand as well as thwart competitors’ efforts to eat into its market share.
Going in to 2001, Sears had a 38 percent market share leadership position in national appliance sales. The competition was heating up, however, with two of Sears’ biggest competitors—Home Depot and Lowe’s—entering the appliance business and stealing market share. Home Depot began to sell appliances in more than 800 of its stores with plans to open 200 appliance-focused stores in 2002. Lowe’s opened more than 100 stores offering appliances in 2001 and announced plans to open over 100 more in 2002.
Sears’ goal was to defend and then add to its current market share by attracting more customers to its two newest appliance products and to its entire line of Energy Star-endorsed appliances in general. This launch was the largest in Sears’ 117-year history. An additional challenge was to convey the emotional appeal of the appliances in order to gain broadcast coverage.
Sears commissioned three key pieces of research to uncover consumers’ attitudes toward energy usage and conservation (see appendix for research highlights):

        Roper/Starch National Survey of Americans’ Attitudes Toward Energy

  • Energy Efficiency and Value in Appliances: A Qualitative Evaluation
  • Harris Interactive Survey of Energy Attitudes in Five Western Cities
Objectives and Planning
The results of Sears’ research showed that consumers in areas of the country that had gone through the energy crisis of 2000 were particularly aware of the benefits of energy-efficient appliances and more likely to purchase them. Therefore, the public relations campaign to support the product launch began in California and Arizona and then spread across the country. In non-energy crisis areas of the country, the research highlighted the need to educate consumers about how much they could save by switching to more energy-efficient appliances.
Therefore, the program targeted the following key audiences:
  • U.S. households in California (Bay area specifically) and Arizona (Phoenix specifically)
  • Kenmore and Kenmore Elite customers: typically females household heads between the ages of 25-59 with income between $25,000 and $150,000
The main objectives of the program were to:
  • Increase initial sales of the new Kenmore HE3t washer and UltraFresh refrigerator.
  • Increase general sales of Energy Star-endorsed appliances at Sears through a “halo” effect.
  • Help Sears hold and ultimately increase its 38 percent market share in national appliance sales.
Strategy and Execution
Public relations first forged a strong partnership with other key groups in the company also responsible for the product launches to ensure an integrated approach: marketing, employee communications and store operations. The team developed tactics and key messages that linked the research findings with key attributes of Sears’ Energy Star products (one example: research showed that many consumers were unaware of how little electricity new refrigerators like the new product being launched used. Therefore, the key message around the refrigerator launch was “The new Kenmore Ultrafresh refrigerator runs on the same amount of energy required to power a 75-watt bulb.”
The plan’s three main components and key supporting tactics were:
  • Leverage key media channels to create pent-up demand for the new products and inform consumers about the benefits of the Energy Star-endorsed appliances sold by Sears.
  • Strategic media outreach at 2001 International Builders’ Show in Orlando to create buzz in industry and contractors who would be choosing appliances for new projects.
  • Exclusive to Wall Street Journal to begin creating demand among target audience (who matches one of the WSJ’s key readership groups.
  • Coordinated with media placement efforts for the opening of Sears’ new flagship store on State Street in Chicago to benefit from publicity spillover.
  • Pursued other key placement with national consumer publications and media in California and Arizona, resulting in over 100 million impressions.
  • Gain endorsements from key public figures and institutions to add legitimacy to program.
  • Presented to members of Congress about Sears’ commitment selling Energy Star appliances to raise awareness and create buzz about the new products.
  • Hosted press conference in Chicago with EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman in conjunction with State Street opening. At the conference, she named Sears “Energy Star Partner of the Year” for its dedication to making and selling energy-efficient appliances.
  • Conducted media tours in California by industry experts from within Sears and spokespeople from the Department of Energy and the Energy Star initiative.
  • Arranged a Good Housekeeping satellite media tour to 14 key U.S. markets that focused on the two new Kenmore products and Sears’ energy-efficient appliances.
  • Outfitted Bob Vila’s “Energy Wise” home in Palm Springs, Calif., with the two new products and worked to get subsequent press coverage.
  • Train and inform employees so they could serve as ambassadors for the two new products and Energy Star-endorsed appliances in general.
  • “PR in a box” training kit sent to managers of Sears’ 500 largest mall-based stores (see appendix)
  • Extensive coverage in Sears’ employee communications vehicles to begin building excitement for product launch
The results of the PR-driven program to support the launch of the new Kenmore washer and refrigerator and general sales of Energy Star-endorsed appliances at Sears far exceeded expectations:
  • Initial sales of the new Kenmore HE3t washer were four times higher that expected even before national advertising and other promotional activity began.
  • Initial sales of the new Kenmore Ultrafresh refrigerator doubled expectations and sales of Energy Star refrigerators doubled.
  • General sales of Energy Star washers at Sears increased 50 percent.
  • General awareness among the public about the Energy Star program increased from 28 percent to over 80 percent.
  • Sears increased its market share from 38 percent to 40 percent.
  • Sears captured the media’s imagination with the key message: “This refrigerator uses the same amount of energy as a 75-watt light bulb,” achieving extensive broadcast coverage both in California and nationally.
“The PR campaign for our energy-efficient appliances helped us achieve higher results than we expected,” said Tina Settecase, vice president/general manager of Sears appliance business.