Can Brian Cornell rally Target's creative troops?

          Laura Heller

When Target announced that Brian Cornell would be its new chairman and CEO, my first response was less than enthusiastic. Cornell, with his CPG experience and brief stints at Michaels and Sam's Club before that, seemed an uninspired choice.

Cornell has promised to focus on team-building and omnichannel retailing, two areas Target desperately needs to address.

Morale at the Minneapolis headquarters can't be good. Target was struggling even before a massive data breach compromised the credit and personal information of more than 70 million shoppers, decimated the 2013 holiday season, and dug a deep public relations hole that the retailer is still climbing out of.

There were problems with assortment, and in spite of new designer partnerships, merchandise was less exciting and of a perceived lower quality than in the past. Shoppers just weren't buying apparel and home goods with the same gusto.

Something was clearly wrong at the top.

When Target lopped off its own head by firing Chairman and CEO Gregg Steinhafel, the lower ranks must have been both thrilled and terrified. Steinhafel spent 35 years with the retailer, and while some reports pegged him at odds with key executives, he didn't climb the corporate ladder without friends and allies, or at least a few victories.

If Cornell can lift a few spirits and revive the creative teams, that's half the battle won. Cornell is reportedly a "nice guy," according to Jason Hanold, of executive search firm Hanold Associates.

"He wouldn't have been right for the role according to any one previous post. But he has a great collective experience and a reputation for being a good person," Hanold told me. "This is about a confidence restoration; it's about building credibility with shareholders and the board."

But it's also about bringing back the creative product assortment and sense of fun shopping that Target always had—because that's what gave Target the edge over its competition. Shoppers clamored to get a Target store in their communities and waited in line for a first chance at new designer merchandise.

In college and for years after, my friends and I would rent a car or commandeer one of the few at our disposal for "Target runs," where we would lose ourselves for hours. It was like going on a treasure hunt and coming up with new throw pillows, dishes and clothes appropriate for that first office job that fit our 20-something budget.

I may be older and just a bit jaded, but I don't get that thrill at Target anymore. I run in to buy household supplies. I quickly peruse—and just as quickly dismiss—the apparel. The same styles are trotted out season after season. The beach cover-up in stores now is the same style, in the same color, as the one I bought four years ago.

Cornell might not be the creative leader many think Target needs, but maybe he can be the guy who hires and empowers the creative troops under his command. Because more than anything, that's what Target needs. -Laura