Walmart spokesman Kory Lundberg would have you believe that the $3 million ad campaign that has been popping up on Hulu and elsewhere lately has nothing to do with last November’s Black Friday protests against the company’s treatment of workers, allegations of bribery in Mexico to circumvent zoning laws, or controversy over factory conditions in places like Bangladesh.
Just a coincidence, then, that the world’s largest retailer is launching a public-relations blitz centered around “The Real Walmart,” which on the surface seems like a direct rebuttal to the company’s critics, who accuse the company of blighting the communities its stores occupy and mistreating its workers. The only explicit reference to haters is a nod to “a website that makes fun of people who shop with us,” to which the company replies that the people who shop at Walmart are America, that’s who. Beyond that, though, Lundberg says, the campaign isn’t a response to anything in particular.
“We look at it as just a natural extension of telling the Walmart story,” Lundberg said. “The more people understand Walmart, the more they trust us.”
If the campaign is a coincidence, it’s well-timed. Walmart continues to struggle to shake its image (among some consumers) as a Big Corporate Bad Guy, and The Real Walmart’s ads seem squarely aimed at helping you view that big yellow smiley face in a whole new light.
Thought the company treated workers poorly? The Real Walmart offers pay “at or above” the industry average, plus benefits, maternity and paternity leave, and a 401(k) plan.
Walmart wrecks communities? “Walmart only succeeds when the communities thrive,” says The Real Walmart. “Across the United States, we have opened 86 new stores in underserved communities bringing hundreds of new jobs.”
Walmart loves veterans. Beginning on Memorial Day, the company started making good on a promise to hire any honorably discharged veteran in America—2,000 to date.
Look, even Bill Clinton likes us!
“Walmart has deployed more photovoltaics on their buildings than any other company in America,” Clinton said last September on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. “They are the No. 1 solar company in America now. And they also run some of their buildings with wind energy. And they also have cut their packaging ...”
But if the ads do an effective job of putting a different shine on the company that has for some become a symbol of American excess and corporate greed, what they don’t do is make any promises, or announce any real change, notes Zev Eigen, a law professor at the Northwestern University School of Law who specializes in labor issues. It’s all lipstick-on-a-pig stuff, as far as he’s concerned.
“We've so normalized to corporate identities as ‘persons’ that doing stuff like this PR campaign ends up ringing frightfully hollow,” Eigen told The Daily Beast.
If Walmart really wants to improve its public image, says Derrick Plummer, a spokesman for the organization Making Change at Walmart, it could start with a simple step, one that’s admittedly more expensive than a few million bucks on an ad campaign: pay workers more. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union claims that the company’s workers make less than $9 an hour, on average—a number Lundberg won’t confirm—and that half of the company’s workers bring home less than $22,400 a year, putting them below the federal poverty line.
Walmart says it pays workers well, and that the retail giant’s salaries and benefits are above the industry average. The company’s average hourly full-time wage is $12.57, 10 cents more than it was on Black Friday. During that round of protests, the company released a statement touting its 37 percent turnover rate, lower than the 44 percent retail industry average, and the fact that 75 percent of store managers began in hourly positions.
Still, the campaign raises interesting questions about Walmart and the perception of Walmart: Will the ad campaign “work”? And is it necessary? Does a company with such mammoth buying and selling power need to convince people they should get the warm fuzzies about buying its stuff?
“If you feel like a robot is trying to tell you it’s human, you feel like you’re being conned.”
The first question is a tough one to measure, Eigen said. But the research he’s reviewed tends to show that people have an adverse reaction to feeling like they’re being convinced of something.
“If you feel like a robot is trying to tell you it’s human, you feel like you’re being conned,” Eigen said. “It’s like Coca-Cola coming out and saying soda is a part of nature. No, it isn’t.”
A better idea: “How about doing stuff,” like raising wages, “and then create a campaign around those actions.”
McDonald’s comes to mind. When that and other fast-food companies began to come under heavy fire in the public with the rise of obesity in America, the company responded by changing its menu, and the way nutritional information about its food was shared with customers.
“Their response was more on the ground,” Eigen said.
Facebook could learn this lesson, too, Eigen said. Instead of trying to convince people that the company is some kind of stalwart defender of its users’ privacy, Facebook could instead be transparent about how it uses people’s data and give users the opportunity not to opt out of a change to privacy policies but to opt in to them, instead.
Plummer doesn’t refute the company’s claim that its wages are on par with other big box stores, but he does says that Walmart’s outsize status gives the company an outsize responsibility. Plummer’s group launched a website in response to The Real Walmart campaign, calling it reallywalmart.org and including a different set of statistics. For example: with 2 million workers at more than 10,000 stories worldwide, even a minor bump in wages would result in a widespread boost to the U.S. economy and could force other retailers to follow suit, for fear of losing the ability to attract good personnel.
“When you start talking about a company that made almost half a trillion dollars last year, and $16 billion in profit, if Walmart paid its associates $25,000 a year on average, it’d still be making more than [its chief competitors] combined,” Plummer said. “They talk about how giving people the opportunity to have a good job, eventually, down the road. But now, you have Walmart associates surviving only because they receive food stamps or some other type of public assistance.”
As for whether any of this image polishing is necessary, consider the results of a brand-perception study conducted among college-age adults last year, reported in The Wall Street Journal: the company’s “energized differentiation,” a term that describes consumer interest in a brand’s direction, dropped 50 percent between 2011 and 2012, the study said.
"A drop like this is a leading indicator of problems to come in the future,” said Anne Rivers, BAV Consulting's global director of brand strategy, told the Journal. "We saw AOL dropping in 2002 until eventually they weren't differentiated enough to even care about."
With 10,000-plus brick-and-mortar stores across the world, it’s tough to imagine Walmart going the way of AOL anytime soon. But the company seems intent to take control of its narrative, as quickly as possible.