Wal-Mart Targets Critics With New Image Ads

The latest salvo in what feels like Wal-Mart's 100-year war to save its tattered reputation began airing yesterday.

The Bentonville, Ark. -based retailer said that two new corporate image ads, which it tested last summer, are now running on national TV. In a release, the company said the two ads, one invoking late founder Sam Walton and the other defending its employee benefits, are part of Wal-Mart's "continued effort to inform the public about the company's positive impact on communities, including its core values, affordable health care, customer savings, and charitable contributions."

The announcement comes within days of a Wall Street Journal story detailing Wal-Mart's plans to switch its 1.3 million workers to computerized schedules based on store traffic, rather than worker preference. And it follows a year of Wal-Mart being attacked as an all-around bad boss, in terms of pay, promotions, health benefits, and attendance policies.

Image experts don't expect these ads-aimed at Wal-Mart's critics, not its customers--to make much difference. Just as the company's many labor PR black-eyes haven't seemed to stop 127 million Americans from shopping there each week, its many image-burnishing efforts haven't seemed to dampen the hatred of the vocal Wal-Mart bashers.



"These ads are mostly harmless," said Robert Passikoff, Ph.D., founder of Brand Keys, a marketing firm in New York. "If you were to ask whether it's important for a company to treat its employees fairly, probably 98% of people would say yes. But unless you were somehow personally affected by Wal-Mart's labor policies, most people just don't care, at least not enough to leverage behavior."

Of course, one reason-and perhaps a good one-to buy pricey national TV ads is so that when shareholders say, 'What are you doing about this endless publicity nightmare?' Wal-Mart execs can point to something concrete. But in terms of any real ROI for brand strength, said Passikoff, "this falls into the category of 'Field of Dreams' marketing-the idea that if we build it or say it, people will come. But really, they won't."

Last week, Wal-Mart projected that its disappointing sales-which it blamed on misguided merchandising decisions as well as disruption from its remodeling efforts-would continue into this month, when it expects to post a gain of 1% to 2% in same-store sales, compared with a 5% gain a year ago.

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