Wal-Mart's hip marketing may be in vogue, but its image makeover will be a tough sell

Wakeupwalmart.com has an eye-catching feature, a running counter of the alleged cost of Wal-Mart's policies to federal taxpayers.

Wakeupwalmart.com has an eye-catching feature, a running counter of the alleged cost of Wal-Mart's policies to federal taxpayers.

That burden adds up to some $87 a day according to the activist website, which explains, "By paying sub-standard wages and benefits in order to increase profitability, large corporations are shifting costs onto taxpayers by forcing employees to rely on publicly funded healthcare programs and for other public assistance services."

It has been a tough summer for the retail giant on the labor front. According to Time, the company is ramping up its Washington presence to answer the aggressive efforts of Wake up Wal-Mart. The group was organized by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and is lead by Paul Blank, a former Howard Dean campaign strategist.

On August 10, the group held press conferences in 34 cities across the country, calling for a Back to School boycott of Wal-Mart. Teachers' union members have publicly urged parents not to shop at the stores, claiming that the company's policies are anti-education.

The company issued a stiff response. "Wal-Mart enjoys a strong relationship with local teachers, schools, and families in communities across America, and helps get them ready to go back to school," read the press release. "The millions of parents and teachers who rely on Wal-Mart's low prices are able to see through this smear campaign."

Meanwhile, in the midst of this battle for the hearts and minds of the American family came the news that Wal-Mart is running an ad campaign in Vogue and hosting a fashion show during Fashion Week in New York. It has also engaged in an exclusive music deal with country music superstar Garth Brooks. In isolation, these moves could spark a new freshness for the brand. However, when coupled with the efforts to counter the labor issues, a rather confusing message emerges.

Wal-Mart's marketing strategy has been undergoing a sea change in the past six months, ever since John Fleming, a former Target Stores marketer, took over as CMO. Clearly the retailer is keen to capture some of that Target cachet, the hip image that has made it a destination not only for suburban mothers, but for urban style influencers.

Target's ease in playing both sides of this equation was evidenced by its ad play in the August 22 issue of The New Yorker, in which every ad was paid for by the company. Even the cover seemed to be a not-so-subtle homage to its eye-catching branding. The entire issue was consistent with the company's image.

But Wal-Mart will have a much harder time finding that balance. Its critics will continue to appeal to the rank and file, even as they represent the heart of the company's consumer base. Wal-Mart's very rationale for not having a union workforce, that organized labor would compromise its ability to deliver the greatest value to consumers, somehow lacks the same authenticity when big-ticket ad buys are undertaken to try and lure more affluent customers.

Meanwhile, Wake up Wal-Mart is adopting new tactics to shift public sentiment away from the company - appealing to the self-interest of taxpayers and parents to oppose Wal-Mart's policies. The gloss of Wal-Mart's newly charged marketing efforts will not disguise its problems, or silence its critics.

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