Walmart Proves the Power of Paring Down

Posted by Carol Spieckerman on December 04, 2012

In a presentation last week, Stephen Quinn, Walmart’s CMO, illustrated how a return to simplicity and authenticity is now moving the needle for the world’s largest retailer.The company’s recent localized marketing campaigns offer brand marketers lessons on the power of paring things down and letting basic strengths tell the story.

Seeing is Believing
Walmart’s more than one-year-old ad match program was designed to give its low-price promise some teeth. Now, its series of ubiquitous “see for yourself” advertisements are breathing new life into the program. Each ad features a peppy spokesperson trailing a real shopper through a store and calling out bargains as they go, and ends with a big reveal of the ticket total, accompanied by the shoppers’ credibility-boosting exclamations which make it clear that they were not loyal Walmart shoppers in the past. The details that make the ads so authentic and compelling also drive their cost-effectiveness. By using local videographers and shooting within real communities, Walmart has reduced its ad costs by a whopping 90%, while at the same time, according to Quinn, generating a positive change in shopper price perception that proved elusive in the past, despite Walmart’s ongoing value messaging.

Quinn openly admitted that, as a marketer, he couldn’t have imagined the ads having such a strong impact, much less staying relevant for months at a time when content has a shorter lifespan than ever before. The ads also fly in the face of brand marketers’ traditional approach of crafting stories and then pushing them out to consumers, adding oomph with high production values. He speculated that the emergence of unscripted reality television and low production-value media such as YouTube has increased consumer receptivity to simpler and more authentic marketing approaches.

All Steak, Low Sizzle
Quinn noted that one of the reasons that digital communities have become so important to consumers in weighing up purchasing decisions is because digital media have allowed for the creation of scams that make consumers warier than ever before. Consumers’ walls are going up even as they reach out to friends and connections for advice in unprecedented numbers through social media. Walmart is meeting this heightened level of skepticism head-on and taking ownership of the ways that it manifests in specific categories.

Walmart’s Achilles heel is shoppers’ perceptions of its breadth of assortment and its quality. The company has addressed the former through its ongoing and much-publicized produce re-stocking and assortment expansion initiatives, and has chosen a surprisingly mundane category in which to take on perceptions of quality problems. In May of this year, Walmart introduced a range of USDA Choice meats backed by a 100% money-back guarantee. Proving that quality perception in many cases has little basis in reality, Walmart went on to collaborate with iconic local steakhouses, providing Walmart steaks to unsuspecting diners and receiving gushing reviews, before surprising them with the actual product reveal.

Quinn cited Folger’s years-old coffee switch commercials as the inspiration for the campaign, and a viewing of the Folger’s ads on YouTube will make it clear just how unambiguous the knock-off was. The “steak-over” switcheroo spots were the cornerstone of a full-blown event marketing program that incorporated cook-off contests, in-store sampling programs, and Facebook promotions. By using an iconic cut of meat to tell its quality story, Walmart created a “halo effect” that has driven phenomenal sales increases across its entire meat program.

Walmart’s success in marrying tried-and-true testimonial tactics with new media message deployment proves that sometimes the best marketing results come from keeping things simple.

Bottom line:

  • Apps and algorithms may be all the rage in retail but grassroots marketing is a compelling antidote to an increasingly complex consumer market.
  • Combining singular messages (e.g., quality) with iconic products (e.g., steak) is a simple but effective formula for increasing marketing reach and impact.
  • Digital media and widespread receptivity to low production value mediums are giving retailers new ways to slash marketing costs while expanding reach.
  • Localization doesn’t just apply to assortment planning. Community-based marketing lends authenticity to brand campaigns, and often at a low cost.

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