Friday, February 27, 2009
Synchrony for the Devil.
I am not a fan of Walmart. To be frank, I think that the fundaments of this company – universal entitlement to a limitless supply of cheap stuff, and the ruthless, monopolistic driving of costs out of their suppliers’ business models – have, in the long run, done a lot more harm than good to the economy and to the planet. So it’s a bit galling to see them luck out the way they did with their mid-2008 ‘rebranding’. Apparently, even a stopped clock is right twice a day.
The story goes like this: In the middle of last year, Walmart treated itself to a new logo. The logo was friendlier and mellower than their previous, chunky Ministry of Greed livery. The new look also gave fresh life to a slogan change they’d made in the fall of the previous year, an admonition to the throngs: “Save money. Live better.” Design wonks were predictably critical. But hardly anybody else paid much attention.
And the Dow was above 11,000.
But it’s not above 11,000 any more, is it, kids. And suddenly, context has utterly changed the meaning of this ‘rebranding’ and made it accidentally brilliant. You see, in a time of rampant consumption and groundless optimism, preaching bargain hunting is an inherently differentiated thing to do. Of course, Walmart was never unique in this, but they certainly became the dominant and defining voice for tightwad consumerism. But in a matter of a few harrowing months, the need for frugality has ceased to be a choice for a lot of us. And so, not being a matter of choice, it thereby loses its value as a basis for branding.
And in the very nick of time, in what seems like a stroke of sheer, dumb luck, Walmart reframed bargain hunting from being a competitive sport for greedy people, to being a way of living well despite the troubles. Had they not done so, their “Always low prices” message would have become a dreary reminder to consumers of the hard times; having done so, the brand now seems to be cheering them on.
Of course, a slogan is not a brand, and I doubt it’s in Walmart’s nature to invest a lot in giving this one meaning. But the whole affair is a potent reminder that no brand exists in a vacuum.
And that fate has a funny sense of humor.