Part 1 of 2 book excerpt from “For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results with Game-Changing Public Relations” by Ronn Torossian.
“Some writers confuse authenticity, which they ought always to aim at, with originality, which they should never bother about.” —W.H. Auden
In a 12-month period, a major discount retailer started a new fashion line, initiated a renovation of 1,800 of its stores, overhauled its advertising to focus less on the promise it is best known for (price) to focus more on style (something it’s never been known for), rolled out a $4 generic drug program, ended its layaway program, and imposed wage caps on its workers—among a host of other changes. The year was 2006; the retailer’s stock shares dipped 5 percent and store sales rose only 2.4 percent, half as much as its chief rival, Target, which saw its 2006 store sales go up 4.8 percent.
The store? Walmart—stalwart, dependable Walmart, proving that even large, iconic, and successful brands can make missteps, lose value and sales, and rattle consumer trust by trying too hard to become something they’re not. Consumers and Wall Street alike felt the decline in value was brought about by the company’s overzealous desire to change. Since that time, Walmart has reasserted itself as a discount brand leader by returning to its roots (T-shirts, jeans, baby formula, diapers, grocery items, toiletries) and reinvesting in its main promise—great savings. It reinforced that idea with a strategic redesign of its logo (a cheerful, modern daisy icon) and a great tagline, “Save money. Live better.” And, most important, by continually developing ways to deliver on that tagline’s promise every day.
Keeping the Bargain
Not that many years ago, Walmart had been losing some authenticity. With 8,100 Walmarts in fifteen countries, compared with 1,684 Targets in the world (all in the United States), the retailer is still the giant in the room. So the missteps gave its competitors like Target and Kmart an opening to jockey for position—and begin to challenge the chain in certain areas such as product quality, selection, and ambiance. Walmart was smart enough to get back to its roots fairly quickly, and in the process reassure consumers and shareholders, by refocusing on what it does best: offering low prices by leveraging its powerhouse ability to buy and distribute large quantities of goods quickly.
“Through sheer managerial brilliance, Walmart is truly a global supply chain—they can get product from China to Minneapolis in three days,” Charles M. Denny, retired president and chairman of ADC Telecommunications, a Fortune 500 company, told me. He analyzed America’s largest retailer as part of a yearlong research fellowship at the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota.
How does something as monolithic and ubiquitous as Walmart become an “authentic” brand? Whether a brand is large or small, or a mass-merchandise or luxury product, the heart of its authenticity is in consistently practicing what it preaches and delivering on its promise. When a brand’s language, look, or actions become out of sync with customers’ expectations, brand integrity suffers and trust is broken. One of the hallmarks of an authentic brand, business, or personality is how it connects with its audience on a personal level.
“The public is the only critic whose opinion is worth anything at all.” —Mark Twain