PHOENIX (AdAge.com) -- For an Association of National Advertisers that's been trying hard to elevate the role of marketers in business, Walmart Chief Marketing Officer Stephen Quinn delivered a welcome message: Marketing played the central role in a turnaround for what may well be the predominant marketer of the moment.
While marketers often get judged -- and even fired -- based on the quality of their communications plans, they're really responsible for setting the direction of their companies, Mr. Quinn contended during an appearance at the ANA annual conference at the J.W. Marriott Desert Ridge Resort here.
To that end, he made the big leap, laying claim to the retailer's legendary founder, Sam Walton, as part of the marketing discipline. "I would argue that Sam Walton was one of the most brilliant marketers who ever lived," Mr. Quinn said.
Little regard for advertising
That may come as a surprise to veterans of the retailer and Walmart supplier base who recall the retail titan having relatively little regard for advertising. But as Mr.Quinn said: "Marketing is so much more than that. It's making sure everything your company does is customer-focused. [Mr. Walton] was naturally focused on the customer, which really is marketing."
Walmart lost its way in that regard five years ago, Mr. Quinn said, and suffered a bit of an identity crisis as a company that had started as a David and turned into a Goliath, and a widely disliked one at that.
Part of its solution was moving toward using its size for good, such as its focus on sustainability, Mr. Quinn said. But the bigger part was helping focus Walmart on the customer.
Marketing was also in disarray years ago, and widely dispersed throughout the company, he said. "We mistook being very entrepreneurial and centralized as a virtue in itself," he said. "We lost focus on the customer and the brand. In many ways, we didn't have the fundamentals of brand management anywhere in the company."
While retailers generally, and Walmart specifically, have long needed to focus on store operations and supply-chain issues, marketers need to take the lead in steering a consumer-focused direction to those other disciplines, he said.
To be sure, the ascendancy of marketers hasn't always gone over well with other parts of the Walmart organization. Remarkably, however, that hasn't nipped the effort in the bud, either, as former marketers play a growing role in the retailer's merchandising ranks.
ANA Marketers' Constitution
Mr. Quinn's talk dovetails with a message the ANA has been trying to send in recent years, that marketing should be the function responsible for leading growth in organizations. One of 10 articles in a new ANA Marketers' Constitution unveiled by ANA CEO Bob Liodice is that "the marketing discipline should be elevated and respected."
But he acknowledged to the gathering of 1,200, including 500 marketers, that "Sometimes I think marketing is the Rodney Dangerfield of the marketing community."
To be sure, early efforts by marketing to take the lead at Walmart weren't necessarily successful. A scandal that enveloped the company following the December 2006 firings of former VP-Advertising Julie Roehm and the new agency she helped select, Interpublic Group of Cos.' DraftFCB, certainly didn't help.
Mr. Quinn made no mention of that, but he did acknowledge now being embarrassed by some of the work he showed the ANA confab three years ago as the retailer took a stab at going upscale, including ads in Vogue.
"I'm glad we were able to give everybody a good laugh with what we were doing," he said. He noted it was a different time, with best-selling marketing tomes focusing on how to navigate an age of affluence. Clearly that's changed.
The paycheck cycle Walmart has long dealt with has become even more exaggerated, Mr. Quinn said, with sales during the last 12 hours of the last day of the month now down 10% to 15% from where they were the same day a year ago, then shooting up 200% to 300% over year-ago numbers starting at midnight at the turn of the month.
Retailer still advertises
The things people are buying include diapers, baby formula and food for their families. "There are families today who are not eating at the end of the month and literally lining up at midnight so they can take home food for their families to eat," he said. "There are a lot of people who need tangible solutions ... they don't need ad campaigns."
Of course, such are the things that drive Walmart's "Save money. Live better" campaign from Interpublic's Martin Agency, Richmond, Va.
The "live better" part is both something that has driven the emotional component of the campaign and some of those tangible solutions -- including a re-staging of Walmart's Great Value brand that includes advertising that meals that can be made for $2 a serving using ingredients from the private label.
Walmart has to stretch dollars itself, he said, in a changing media environment that may well require 10 times as much media content, albeit without anything like 10 times the budget.