Changing a corporate or brand identity is a big undertaking. When done right, it sends a powerful signal to the outside world. It makes you sit up and take notice, ready to hear the rest of the story. But if there is no story ... well, it can do more harm than good.
Changing a logo, to use a personal analogy, is a little like changing your "look": new wardrobe, new hairstyle, new glasses, etc. It sends a signal that something about you has changed. When the loveable but slightly scruffy and lazy mailroom guy suddenly shows up to work clean-shaven and wearing a bespoke suit, people will notice. The message he's sending is, "I'm not lazy anymore! Give me the chance and I'll prove it to you!" And if, in fact, he changes his lackadaisical ways and becomes more disciplined and pro-active, then management may truly see him in a new light, and potentially give him new opportunities.
But if the new suit is simply a cover-up for the same old lazy habits, the message he is sending is hollow, and will quite likely bring even more scrutiny. The same principle is true for companies and brands.
Truth be told, perceptions of the highly profitable Wal-Mart have started to suffer from decades of aggressive business practices and dubious employment policies. Now, the bulk of the revenue-generating customer base might not be paying much attention to those issues. But on top of that, the world's richest company has always had a decidedly un-cool, low-end, bargain-basement image. There's no question that a re-positioning on some level is in order. So what's Wal-Mart's new story? Well, based on cryptic postings like this (sourced from identityworks.com), it sounds like a touch-up:
"This update to the logo is simply a reflection of the refresh taking place inside our stores and our renewed sense of purpose to help people save money so they can live better. The updated logo won't begin to appear on storefronts until the fall."
In contradiction, the logo seems to be signaling a bigger personality shift than that. The former bold, all-caps, industrial strength typography has been replaced with a lighter, friendlier, upper-and-lower case treatment. This makes the name feel more approachable, as though being used in a conversation instead of an institutional pronouncement. The deep, monopolistic blue has been traded for brighter, less ominous cyan. This adds a certain freshness and energy to the mark. The military-style star has turned into a bright yellow spark. While not the most own-able symbol one could choose, it certainly feels more contemporary, optimistic, and yes, lively. And the hyphenated WAL-MART has become the single word Walmart, making it feel like a proper name, instead of a coined reminder of the mega-retailer's somewhat humble roots. All-in-all, the logo change sets expectations for a pretty different version of the Wal-Mart experience.
The store environments themselves need play a big role in that experience. The obvious competitor in the mega-retail space is Target, who has always understood the value of good design in all aspects of the brand experience, and whose favorability scores overtook Wal-Mart's last year in CoreBrand's Brand Power Analysis. Shopping at a Target (while not exactly like browsing specialty shops and boutiques in, say, Paris) is certainly a different experience than shopping at a Wal-Mart. Much of the merchandise at Target tends to be better designed; the graphics and packaging are more sophisticated; the overall environment feels downright warm and inviting compared to Wal-Mart's stark, fluorescent, Five-and-Dime glare. Revamping the in-store experience for Wal-Mart should be a large part of signaling change. What those changes are remain to be seen.
So what's the rest of the story? At a cursory glance, certain changes are noticeable. Wal-Mart is stocking and promoting many "green" products, demonstrating not only environmental-consciousness, but purportedly allowing families to save money in energy usage. Its new high-production-value commercials feature lifestyle and benefit messaging, a shift from the pure price-slashing message from before. And new licensing deals are being sought out, such as an exclusive clothing line from rapper Master P, to add a hip, contemporary edge to its image.
It's certainly a start. Wal-Mart is a mighty big ship to turn around, with a fair amount of brand baggage to purge before perceptions can really begin to change. Sheer scale, longevity, aggressiveness and ubiquity have woven Wal-Mart quite firmly into a very specific part of American, and increasingly World, culture. The new logo signals a pretty big change. Can they back it up? We'll just have to wait and see.