Friday, January 28, 2011

Wal-Mart: Is anything different?

I'm going to begin this post with a confession.  I do not like Wal-Mart.

There are some arguably good points from a consumer point of view: chances are there is a Wal-Mart in your town or city, and if not, more than likely there is one in a city nearby.  They have low prices (frequently lower than competitors) and a wide variety of brands and products available on their shelves.  I know relatives who go to Wal-Mart specifically for one item knowing they will find it at the lowest price.  This, despite the fact they’d probably rather spend those 15 minutes in a walk-in freezer than in the store’s aisles.  And don’t worry about not finding what you are looking for because the aisles are identically situated in every store it seems.  No matter what Wal-Mart you go to, the total experience is consistent: same store format, same signs, same layout.  

Equally, there are some things I don't like about Wal-Mart.  Everyone knows about how Wal-Mart squeezes their suppliers, pitting them against each other in a war to provide Wal-Mart with the lowest price.  When you have the kind of purchasing power Wal-Mart has, you can do this.  Good business or poor ethics?  It is a tough call, but either way it does not incline me to want to shop there (no matter how low a price they might advertise).  Also, I don't like the consistency of the stores.   The samey-blandness of it all is numbing.  Wal-Mart is not alone in standardizing their stores (look at any big box or electronics giant to see the same type of work) but they somehow feel more numbing than the others.  

However, the biggest problem I have with Wal-Mart is the way it makes me feel.  The way a consumer interacts with your brand, and the experience they have during that interaction, define the way your brand will be perceived and evaluated.  And Wal-Mart makes me feel 'dumbed down'.  The greeters, the over-sized sale stickers and even the way the store is set up... the experience is enough to make me want to leave, preferably as soon as possible.  Sometimes, it feels as though you're being treated like a child and this demeaning tone makes me think twice about even going inside.

Over the last little while, Wal-Mart has been displaying efforts to change their brand: they have a new logo, having gotten rid of that grating, condescending and often bouncing smiley-face.  Their adverts depict young professionals living fun and exciting lives.  They are trying to paint themselves as a friendlier, nicer and 'greener' Wal-mart.  With the news of 40 superstores headed for north of the border, I wanted to know if the re-brand was a success.

In my opinion, it was not.

The stores are the same.  Sure, the signs have changed and the font might be different but the store still feels exactly the same.  The products they sell are the same products they used to sell.  Everything that turned me off the Wal-Mart brand is still there for everyone to see, and my experience walking into the store still left me wishing it would end, and fast: the greeters, the signs, the layout, the blandness and the distinct feeling of 'dumbing down'. Even their business practices do not appear to have changed: NACS reports that Wal-Mart still abides by the same supplier philosophy as before: "Anybody who can deliver opening price point [goods] for us will become a vendor -- anybody who can't, can leave".  I was only in the store for about 15 minutes, but it only took me a fraction of that to realize that this was still the old Wal-Mart we know and questionably love.

I feel that what Wal-Mart has done is a cardinal sin in branding: changing a brand is more than changing your letterhead.  It is not about changing the font of your name or the colour schemes of your signs in the brave hope that the rest of the branding issues will change themselves.  This has lead me two a couple of conclusions: 1) The Re-Brand has failed because they didn’t address the changes that need to take place for a re-brand or 2) They thought that a cuter, cuddlier and friendlier name font and advertizing would be enough to complete the transformation into the brand they wanted to become.

Bottom line then is clear; they both end up in the same result.

You don't change the wallpaper because you're bored of it, or because you want to change things up.  Branding is about crafting an experience for the consumer: what do they think of you, how do they experience your services, what do you mean to them.  It is your company's or product's personality and goes deeper than the colour of the curtains.  Re-branding is part of an overall transformation of your brand strategy, and includes so much more than a logo.  So far as I can tell, Wal-Mart's re-branding has not been intertwined with any new positioning or marketing strategy and their new campaigns have left me with one final experience: disappointment.

***Author’s Note***

Special thanks to Kayla Kneisel for her reviewing help on this posting.  I am going to be trying to get some of her thoughts and ideas here in the form of some guest postings.  She’s a brilliant marketer and I look forward to reading some of her viewpoints!