Marketer of the Year 2009

Walmart: A Promise of Value When Shoppers Need It Most

Marketer of the Year Runner-up: Retailer Makes Most of Its Marketing Budget

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Walmart was one of the few retailers to manage to eke some growth out of a recession that's snapped consumers' wallets shut. While there's a little of the right-place, right-time thing going on, don't overlook the fact that the retailer has gotten smarter about its marketing. Those cheesy smiley-face ads are a thing of the distant past, as are those ham-handed upmarket moves of the middle part of this decade. Now Walmart is cranking hard on its value proposition and it's got the strong creative and analytics to get the job done.

of voters said Walmart should get top honors for turning around its marketing.
A few years ago, there was a not insignificant portion of the population that viewed Walmart as a plague that was ripping apart the fabric of American life. All that has changed, thanks in large part to an economic calamity that has led consumers to appreciate the low prices Walmart is known for. But at the same time, the retailer has gotten smarter -- not to mention kinder and a bit gentler -- about how it relates to its customers. Its circle-the-wagons, war-room PR approach seems like a thing of the past and Walmart actually gets credit for its work on sustainability issues and other causes. Most importantly, there's also a focus on giving people the information, the products, like its Great Value line, and of course the price points, to save money. Perhaps this recent Fortune headline best sums it up: "Why We Don't Hate Walmart Anymore."

Sure, not many other companies have clout like Walmart does, but still, there's lessons to be learned in how to selectively lean on others. As touchy-feely as the retailer has become in dealing with consumers and on issues like the environment, it's gotten less shy even when it comes to keeping pressure up on partners. One example: It's finally gotten over its reservations about throwing its weight around on marketing budgets, and much of the fun of watching an NFL or NCAA game live now is seeing which is the latest marketer to fork over big wads of cash to Walmart's co-op TV ad budget.

Walmart may push prices down on everything from books to coffins, but it hasn't used the recession as a chance to slash its ad budget. In fact, unlike most marketers, Walmart has increased measured spend during the first half of 2009 by 32% to $423 million. Of course, the media help from its partners doesn't hurt.

Part and parcel of Walmart's getting more serious about marketing in the past year or two has been stronger investment in market research and analytics. If Stephen Quinn's June interview with Ad Age is any indication, there's a newfound appreciation for customer loyalty at Walmart. "While it's very exciting to be opening new stores and building your base out that way, it clearly is the kind of game where there has to be some natural plateauing," Mr. Quinn said. "You're going to have to work a lot harder in an existing neighborhood to get them to consider other categories or to build that emotional bond with them."

At the risk of selling short the sophistication of Walmart's marketing operation, it's still true the most visible output is a series of pitch-perfect ads that push the retailer's value message. The campaign, from Interpublic Group of Cos.' Martin Agency, strikes a tone that's both urgent and elegant in communicating how Walmart can help people make a reality out of the tagline "Save Money. Live Better."

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