What It Takes to Survive Ups, Downs and Turnarounds in Marketing

Walmart's Longtime CMO Advises Marketers to Avoid Being 'Hired Guns' and to Have a Little Humility If They Want to Succeed in the C-suite

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A turnaround is sweet for any CMO, but Walmart's Stephen Quinn is one of few to survive the journey from peak to trough and back uphill again.

Stephen Quinn
Stephen Quinn
The incoming chairman of the Association of National Advertisers, now in his seventh year as CMO, was around for Walmart's recession-fueled spurt in 2009, followed by two straight years of quarterly comparable-store sales declines, then recently the start of a turnaround. Part of the secret may be a remarkable lack of ego.

Earlier this year, Mr. Quinn saw his group brought under the much-larger merchandising organization headed by Chief Merchandising and Marketing Officer Duncan MacNaughton. And Mr. Quinn says it was a great idea. Walmart's rapidly growing digital-marketing effort, which also falls under Mr. Quinn's supervision, has been playing well with others, too. Digital marketers have been working with the WalmartLabs organization, as well as store managers to implement the considerable local component of the retailer's store-specific Facebook strategy. It's all part of what Mr. Quinn calls SoLoMo -- for social, local, mobile.

Walmart Stores ranked as the nation's No. 14 advertiser in 2011, with an estimated $1.9 billion in total U.S. ad spending, down 8% from 2010, according to the 100 Leading National Advertisers report.

Ad Age : Same-store sales rose 2.6% during the first quarter. Has Walmart turned the corner?

Stephen Quinn: We certainly hope so... The first quarter grabbed people's attention, but we did see an improving trend starting last summer. Retail is such a business of momentum, and it does appear we have it right now.

Ad Age : What role did marketing play?

Mr. Quinn: The biggest thing that happened was just our merchants getting their merchandise assortments where they need to be in a lot of categories, and our real recommitment to making sure we're the low-price leader. With that in place, what the marketing group has done is just bringing that to life.

One thing we've learned is that one-stop shopping is a really powerful idea if you can get your assortment right. That's why I was so excited about that alignment [of marketing under merchandising] because a company this huge, our merchant group is thousands of people and marketing is really small compared to that .

Ad Age : Facebook is playing a big role in the conversation between you and your vendors. How much has that moved the needle for you?

Mr. Quinn: I can't give you specific numbers, or I guess I won't. But I can tell you it really moves the needle.

This concept of social, local, mobile -- SoLoMo, as we like to say -- I think becomes a tool not only for us to get our point across from a marketing standpoint but for a lot of our vendors who are our best partners to get their point across.

Ad Age : You have ads frankly addressing the image that Walmart doesn't have good steaks. How has that gone over?

Mr. Quinn: It's been pretty amazing. Every now and then, you work on a marketing program where as soon as you do it, you see the results, and nobody is questioning whether you've actually seen it or not. With so many marketing programs, there will be doubters. But this one has really had a big impact so far.

It's really taking a page out of the Folgers campaign of 30 years ago that I remember so well: "We've changed the coffee in this five-star restaurant." And it's inherently a social and a local idea, because we've gone to these local steakhouses that are kind of iconic in their regions and really brought it to life, this notion of switching out steaks. And this summer we'll be doing it in other areas -- cookouts, county fairs and other places where people cook steaks to do the same program. And it's a lot of fun. It involves our stores. There's a lot of sampling we do at store level as well.

Ad Age : What's the secret of your longevity?

Mr. Quinn: I don't really think it's a secret. I'm fortunate to work for Walmart, because it does look at people's careers over a longer term. And it's a commitment. You don't just move to Bentonville on a whim. You've got to really buy in. And that is a big piece of it.

Marketers in general need to avoid being seen as hired guns. They need to commit to the company they're serving. That means really buying into the culture they're joining. The other thing for marketers in general, and I know a lot of marketers -- I'm involved in the ANA -- it's really important to make sure it's not about you. Because we're promoters in general, we can sometimes mistake the need to promote ourselves. That can kind of be a real problem, unless you can personally string together a phenomenal number of programs that are just huge successes. A little humility and making sure it's not all about you is important.

Ad Age : My Local Walmart is really a hard program to implement with so many stores. How do you do it?

Mr. Quinn: We've had probably around 1,000 of our 4,000 stores that have just been naturally very much wanting to get into this space. But over time we'll have to get all the stores to really have an interest in doing that , just like merchants of 50 years ago had to have a natural concern for their community and know what was going on, know what events were coming to town, know what was going on with the weather and what the Boy Scouts were doing.

And to me that 's what could really be so powerful about this. You've got the scale of Walmart but you're still as local as any retailer, and our job in marketing I think is to give a voice to that .

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