It wasn't exactly a morale booster for career marketers at Wal-Mart. And the implication for marketers at Wal-Mart suppliers wasn't too favorable, either. They were already fighting uphill battles in corporate pecking orders against sales and other disciplines armed with better metrics. And their overwhelmingly powerful customer was making a not-too-positive if subtle statement about the value of career marketers, too.
That thinking got its comeuppance a year ago, when Wal-Mart got shellacked by Target and others on Black Friday to punctuate a year of weak same-stores-sales growth. By March, Mr. Connolly had announced his retirement. By April, Wal-Mart had appointed a widely respected internal candidate with marketing experience, John Fleming, to add marketing to his Wal-Mart.com duties. And by August, Wal-Mart had landed Stephen Quinn from PepsiCo's Frito-Lay for its No. 2 marketing post. By September, CEO Lee Scott was making mea culpas to investors over Wal-Mart's past marketing but promising a best-in-class future. And by November, behind new advertising-and more aggressive merchandising-Wal-Mart was beating Black Friday forecasts as Target disappointed.
Marketing may not solve Wal-Mart's biggest long-term problems, like inevitable supercenter saturation of the U.S. or the stubborn refusal of Europe and Japan to be more like America. But it can clearly boost same-store sales. A sad fact of life is that marketing gets more important once fundamental growth prospects slow.
Interestingly, Wal-Mart's marketing epiphany comes as two of its bigger suppliers, who know all about mature markets and have held marketing in high regard, are trying to further elevate its role.
Unilever's restructuring has stripped most of its career marketers of P&L responsibility, but given them more unfettered power over product development and advertising decisions. Procter & Gamble Co. has been building the ranks of its central advertising-development department, adding regional marketing positions around the world and trying hard to sound convincing when it tells its people that being a career marketer is an acceptable alternative to the up-or-out general-manager track.
"As the marketplace gets more complicated from a communications perspective, as our businesses get more specialized, this need for real [marketing] maestros is going to be ever more important," Global Marketing Officer Jim Stengel said in a recent interview. "We need to be sure both of those careers are seen with the same value, which they aren't always today."
There are plenty of skeptics on this. The central marketing government at P&G, as it were, still lacks clout vs. the general managers. But the sentiment and the argument behind making it stronger are real. The slow, agonizing convalescence of the 30-second spot means more work for marketers, not less.