The 2006 Distinguished Young Alumni Award

Pushing the boundaries of Marketing


Four months after Julie Roehm was named senior vice president of marketing communications at Wal-Mart Stores, the company’s annual shareholders meeting made the New York Times. Headlined “A Touch of Broadway Near Bentonville,” the article described how professional actors portraying Wal-Mart employees sang and danced through a 90-minute show.

The production “underscored the growing influence of the new marketing team at Wal-Mart, which put it together,” the paper said.“I always knew this was a bit of a risk,” Roehm told the Times after the meeting. A willingness to take chances at Chrysler and Ford, where she began her marketing career, is what has earned Roehm, ’95, the 2006 Distinguished Young Alumni Award. “There’s always some level of understanding when to take a calculated risk, whether that’s in choosing your school, a job, an assignment, or making a bold statement,” she said. “The things we don’t do are the things we end up regretting.”

In the decade since she earned her MBA,Roehm has made the most of every opportunity, often grabbing the media’s attention with groundbreaking marketing campaigns. An Advertising Age story called her “colorful from the start of her career.” Randy Curtis, a former Wal-Mart vice president, told the magazine,“ She’s a firebrand—smart, energetic, and articulate.”

Of her career so far, Roehm concedes, “It’s been the ride of a lifetime.”

An undergraduate engineering student at Purdue University, she was accepted to the co-op program, which involved working alternate semesters. Roehm’s first assignment was at Bristol Meyers Squibb. A member of the package engineering team, she spent a lot of time with the marketing and sales departments and discovered her niche on the business side.“I was fascinated by the marketing studies and the insights about why the labels weren’t appealing,”she said.

Upon graduation, Roehm headed straight to the GSB. Younger than her peers and looking for real-world experience, she enrolled in the New Products Lab, where the team worked on a solution for American Airlines. That summer, she interned at the airline. As graduation approached, she interviewed with 70 companies, garnering job offers from five of them. Roehm accepted a position with Ford Motor Company and joined its marketing leadership program. “It was important that the company have longevity, but as a marketer I wanted a firm with a lot of flexibility,” she said. “When it came to marketing, I felt there was a lot left to do in the field.”

In 1999, she was named brand manager and charged with introducing the Ford Focus, a car meant to replace the popular Escort. “We did crazy, out-of-the-box things that were intended to connect with a younger audience—live TV commercials, personalization packages like a ‘road trip package,’ and little gems that fit in the O in the word ‘Focus’on the back of the car,” she said.“We sent Baby-G Shock watches with the word ‘Focus’ on them to your home when you ordered the car.”

The strategy was enormously successful. “We received a great deal of recognition,” Roehm said. “It was fun and it was uncharted territory.Better than that, the results were tangible. We set specific goals in terms of sales and demographics, and
we achieved every one of them,”she said.

Roehm parlayed the success into a bigger job at Chrysler, where she gave the green light to such successful Dodge campaigns as “Grab life by the horns” and “That thang got a Hemi?” She successfully forged a partnership between Dodge and the rock band Aerosmith to inject youthful rebellion into the brand.Unafraid to push boundaries,Roehm even arranged for Dodge to sponsor the “lingerie bowl” during the 2004 Super Bowl; the event featured models playing football in their underwear, although Dodge withdrew sponsorship amid consumer and dealer complaints. And under her direction, Dodge debuted a marketing campaign for the Durango truck that included a television commercial showing two men at a urinal having a double-entendre-filled conversation about size.

“I was always on the more innovative side of marketing, trying to push the boundaries and explore new opportunities,” she said.But keeping an eye on the bottom line may have made the difference for Roehm.“Fortunately, my interest in analytics and the
quantifiable part of the business is a real strength,” she said. “I don’t think there’s ever been a time in our history when marketers are held so accountable to the bottom line.”

After her success with Dodge, Roehm was promoted to overseeing marketing for all three brands at Chrysler, which included managing campaigns, special events,Web development,merchandising, even the customer database. “It was a huge job that was
extremely challenging,but also exciting,”she said. Still,when a recruiter called and asked if she would consider moving to Arkansas to take a newly created job with the world’s largest retailer, Roehm was intrigued.After achieving so much in the automotive industry over 11 years, she was ready to learn an entirely new business, and Wal-Mart provided the chance, she said. “I’m learning about the store as a medium, a channel of information, not just as a place to buy stuff.”

The family is building a house in Arkansas, an indication of Roehm’s plans to stick with Wal-Mart even though the retail environment is much different than that of big auto. Former Chrysler marketing chief Bud Liebler told Advertising Age the match between Roehm and Wal-Mart could be a perfect fit, and early signs indicate he may be right. Roehm told the New York Times that president and CEO H. Lee Scott Jr. had asked for “something different” for the employee portion of the meeting; afterward, Wal-Mart executives gave her positive feedback. “And at Wal-Mart,” she said, “they would definitely come and tell you if they hated it.”

Patricia Houlihan

Chicago Booth News

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