Turmoil at Wal-Mart to Affect Branded Entertainment

Ouster of Julie Roehm Removes Hollywood Evangelist

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The deal: Wal-Mart has pretty much been a non-player when it comes to branded entertainment. But that started to change when it hired Julie Roehm as its marketing chief. The retailing giant began courting Hollywood for more movie tie-ins, product placements, original programming opportunities and interest in becoming involved with celebrity studded events as a way to promote the brand.
Wal-Mart's foray into branded-entertainment is likely to drop below the horizon now that Julie Roehm has left the company.

The result: Ms. Roehm’s ouster will likely end all that as the ultra-conservative company hits the reset button and reverts back to its more traditional ways of marketing itself.

Wal-Mart has long sat on the sidelines as marketers across all categories have turned to branded entertainment as a way to rise above the clutter of traditional advertising and promote their brands and products. As companies turned to product placement or sponsorships or started producing their own content -- from TV shows and web series to movies and live events -- Wal-Mart was always a major holdout.

Sure, the company had dabbled here or there. It had produced a reality show on ABC called “The Scholar.” But the show struggled to find an audience and didn’t merit a second season. And one show doesn’t mean a company is a branded entertainment producer.

All that started to change when the company tapped Ms. Roehm as its senior VP, marketing communications last January. The executive had helped lead the charge at The Chrysler Group to get the automaker to actively use entertainment as a way to put a spotlight on its vehicles.

And she saw opportunities for the world’s largest retailer to do the same thing.

Almost immediately, Ms. Roehm encouraged the company’s executives and agency reps to reach out to Hollywood’s event planners and product placement companies to find ways to improve the Wal-Mart brand. She wanted the company to appear at gifting lounges and suites or backstage at awards shows to connect with celebrities. Sponsorships were on the list. She also wanted the company’s stores to show up more in TV shows or films via integrations. Of course, Wal-Mart had certain conditions: Stores always had to appear bright and clean. And the parking lots couldn’t be shown full; the message had to be that it’s easy to park in a Wal-Mart lot and shop at its stores.

More movie tie-ins were also on the list. This summer, the company launched a pricey campaign built around DreamWorks Animation’s “Over the Hedge,” with TV spots showing the film’s talking animals running through Wal-Mart’s parking lots and store aisles and chatting up products it sells. The campaign launched again for the film’s DVD release.

This fall, the company partnered up with Madison Road Entertainment (the producers of NBC’s “Treasure Hunters”) for “Holidaze: The Christmas That Almost Didn’t Happen,” a stop-motion animated direct-to-DVD film that’s planned as an ongoing franchise. The film is being exclusively sold at Wal-Mart and broadcast on ABC. Wal-Mart is prominently integrated into the film.

Wal-Mart also tried to capitalize on the appeal of social networking sites on the Internet and target teens as part of its back-to-school efforts. But the site, which was jammed with entertainment offerings and encouraged kids to submit user-generated content, was shuttered after several months when it just didn’t appeal to its target audience.

And the company had started talking to content creators to produce original entertainment programming for Wal-Mart’s in-store network, that’s regularly viewed by millions of its shoppers.

All that activity certainly raised eyebrows among executives in Hollywood because Wal-Mart has traditionally been known for making studio honchos hop on their private jets and fly out to Bentonville.

If Ms. Roehm wasn’t afraid to try something new at Wal-Mart, her replacement certainly will be. The message is now clear: take a risk and your job’s in jeopardy.

And when it comes to a marketer actually producing any form of branded entertainment, taking a risk is exactly what’s needed from an executive. Most marketers don’t even get into the content creation space unless there’s an executive -- even just one sole staffer-- at the company that leads the charge. Companies like BMW and Home Depot, that broke new ground in the space, suddenly no longer were players anymore after losing their entertainment cheerleader.

That’s not to say Wal-Mart will avoid Hollywood entirely. Hardly. The company is the largest seller of DVDs and it’s not looking to lose that title anytime soon. But keeping those sales going doesn’t necessarily need non-traditional methods.

Just how conservative Wal-Mart will become again remains to be seen. Only time will tell.
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