Wal-Mart's Media Tack for Tough Times

National Radio, Targeted Cable Buys Working for Retailer's 'Live Better' Push

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Wal-Mart's "Save money. Live better" tagline seems to be translating to its media strategy, as recent buys on national radio and targeted cable networks such as CNBC have helped boost sales for some of the retailer's biggest initiatives.
AC/DC: Makes debut at No. 2 on Billboard.
AC/DC: Makes debut at No. 2 on Billboard. Credit: C.M. Wiggins

Last week, Wal-Mart's exclusive retail sale of AC/DC's "Black Ice" produced big results for the band, helping to move 784,000 copies during its first week in stores. That made it the second-largest debut week for a new album this year, according to Billboard. Helping to drive awareness was a targeted radio campaign Wal-Mart and its media agency, MediaVest, executed across key Clear Channel radio stations, buying commercial time to run immediately after an AC/DC song was played.

Bob McCurdy, president of Clear Channel radio sales, said Wal-Mart is "probably the most aggressive retailer" using radio in 2008, and its frequency has only been increasing. During the week of Oct. 20, Wal-Mart aired nearly 60,000 radio spots, making it the top radio advertiser for the week and nearly quadrupling its normal weekly ad spending, according to Media Monitors.

Wal-Mart's heavy radio advertising in advance of Halloween also appears to have helped boost seasonal sales, based on data shared by Chief Merchandising Officer John Fleming during a two-day analyst conference last week. Wal-Mart's comparable-store sales for Halloween candy are up double digits this year, he said, and the retailer expects to increase its U.S. market share of Halloween candy this year from 31% to 33%.

Steve Bratspies, senior VP-marketing, said the thrust of holiday advertising, ranging from TV to digital and circulars, will focus on how grocery savings can be used to buy gifts -- which will dovetail with gift sections in stores featuring $5 and $10 price points.

Happier holidays
One new TV ad references $700 that families can annually save on groceries by shopping at Wal-Mart. An upcoming Thanksgiving ad will focus on "great foods you can get at unbeatable prices," said Mr. Bratspies. Another Christmas ad will focus on "how Mom's going to feel on Christmas morning when she can save money and deliver the gifts that her children really want," he said.

A focus on saving money to "deliver special family moments" will play out not just across TV ads, but across all media for Wal-Mart this holiday season, according to Mr. Bratspies.

Wal-Mart radio numbers
It's a message that should resonate particularly well this year, said Thom Blischok, president-innovation and consulting for Information Resources Inc., which in a 1,000-consumer survey fielded this week found that people plan to place greater emphasis than ever on family get-togethers and gift giving this holiday season but also very much on saving money.

Big-box stores such as Costco and Wal-Mart stand to gain the most from those trends, he said, but Wal-Mart is advertising that message much more aggressively.

Shoppers will also be looking to put more private-label products on the table around the holidays, according to the IRI survey, said Mr. Blischok, and that comes as Wal-Mart prepares to roll out a massive rebrand of its entry-level-price Great Value private-label brand, including a packaging overhaul -- though the repackaged and, in many cases, reformulated products won't hit stores until early next year.

Bad news bears
In another unusual media move, Wal-Mart has substantially stepped up advertising on financial news network CNBC in the past two weeks in the midst of the financial crisis.

The ads -- featuring moms talking about how one-stop shopping at Wal-Mart helps them save money and gasoline -- appear to serve several purposes, reminding investors of Wal-Mart's value as a defensive play while also appealing to retirees and others whose nest eggs have been substantially reduced by a bear market.

The buy comes as CNBC has enjoyed record ratings even as its endemic financial advertiser base has been decimated, and substantially consolidated, by the global financial crisis.

The network's historic $100,000-plus annual salary demographic might seem like an odd fit for Wal-Mart shoppers, but increasingly it's not, according to Eduardo Castro Wright, CEO of Wal-Mart Stores U.S., who said at the analyst conference last week that the chain's supercenter same-store traffic is up 2% among shoppers with incomes over $65,000 as opposed to slightly down among families making less than $65,000 for the fiscal year to date through Sept. 30.
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