Issue: A small supplier decision comes back to bite Wal-Mart
Commentary by: David Vinjamuri
[Image from NALIP.org]
In Accidental Branding, I write “Do Sweat the Details”. By this I mean that very small actions that do not at first seem to be related to our brands often have very big consequences for the brand. What I meant when I wrote this is that consumers often cue off of small details that are of no interest to brand marketers, like how the package opens, how customer service handles complaints or how business partners speak about our business.
This week, Wal-Mart has provided an excellent example of how decisions seemingly unrelated to marketing can affect our brands. It’s a big enough deal that I would call this Wal-Mart crisis a textbook example of “Brand Karma” – meaning that what you put out into the world eventually comes back to you. Wal-Mart has never had a great reputation among its suppliers. For years it has been accused of sourcing goods locally in new markets only as a competitive tactic to drive out other retail customers and then ending the relationship in order to bankrupt the local supplier.
This general attitude towards suppliers bit back recently as The Wall Street Journal reports. The company which Wal-Mart used to capture video of sales conferences and other internal meetings for thirty years, Flagler Productions Inc. was dismissed two years ago. It does not take much reading between the lines to suspect that this termination of a longtime relationship was not handled well. INstead of maintaining a fondness for Wal-Mart and seeking to regain the Wal-Mart business, Flagler has gone into the business of selling these candid and embarrassing videos of Wal-Mart events to the general public. It appears that in spite of Wal-Marts general legal rectitude, they never secured exclusive rights to this video.
It’s a brand disaster. The videos, as Gary McWilliams reports, contain:
A former executive vice president and board member challenges store managers in 2004 to continue his work opposing unionization. Male managers in drag lead thousands of co-workers in the company’s corporate cheer. In another meeting, managers mock foolish or dangerous use of a product sold in its stores.
I have written a lot about Wal-Mart in the past several years, and I don’t think it’s an evil company. Their basic goal of trying to reduce prices for average working families is a good one. They have made some good steps forward (along with Target) on trying to bring prescription drug prices down. They’ve also tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to bring down the horrible, predatory purveyors of pay-day loans with fair competition.
Where Wal-Mart seems to falter is that they have no corporate instinct for the integrity of their brand. A corporate obsessed with costs is bound to bruise a lot of “little guys” in the process. (See Wendy Bounds nice blog post for more on this.) And not shockingly, one with the ability to really hurt Wal-Mart has finally bitten back.
The lesson? Everything affects your brand. If the way you treat your employees, suppliers or customers is not consistent with your brand, they will become a cancer in your system. Brands may not practice Buddhism, but they should believe in Karma. It all does eventually catch up with you.
If anyone has links to the Wal-Mart videos, please feel free to post them in comments.