September 14, 2007
By David Lazarus
For 19 years, Wal-Mart has remained consistent, and undeniably truthful, in its marketing pitch to customers: "Always low prices." Say what you will about the world's largest retailer, it rocks on the discount-price front.
Now, however, Wal-Mart has a new slogan: "Save money. Live better." And the company's pitch no longer focuses on saving a few bucks as an end in and of itself. Today's kinder-and-gentler Wal-Mart is all about improving your quality of life.
An ad for the new slogan, unveiled Wednesday, depicts a happy middle-class family taking a vacation to Florida with all the money they've saved shopping at Wal-Mart. Another depicts a father and son bonding as they browse for a car.
"From the family vacation to a daughter's wedding, the savings American families realize at Wal-Mart bring the good things in life a good deal closer," Stephen Quinn, Wal-Mart's chief marketing officer, said in a statement.
"The new advertising tells the same story we've told since Day One, how we're working hard to save people money so they can live better."
To see for myself, I traveled Thursday to the sprawling Wal-Mart Superstore in Rosemead. It was, I have to admit, my first visit to a Wal-Mart. (The closest one to my former home in San Francisco was on the other side of the bay.)
Before I was shown the door by a pair of Wal-Mart security types for "harassing the customers," I tried in vain to find anyone who could tell me that shopping at Wal-Mart helped them live better.
"I just like the prices," said 24-year-old Angela Garcia, pushing a cart through the boulevard-wide aisles with her 4-year-old son. "It's the only reason I come."
Yes, but what about all the savings? Wal-Mart says its low prices save the average household about $2,500 a year. Does Garcia use that money for vacations or other splurges?
"I buy groceries," she replied. "I pay my bills."
Similarly, Marizol Nino, 36, said she wasn't planning any trips to Florida thanks to Wal-Mart.
"Whatever I save, I spend on my kids," she said. "Whatever they need."
Harold Kassarjian, a professor emeritus at the UCLA Anderson School of Management who specializes in consumer behavior, said Wal-Mart's real goal with its new campaign was to give itself an image makeover and make its stores more appealing to a slightly more upscale clientele.
"This has nothing to do with bonding or vacations," he said. "This is about saying that if you're middle class and upwardly mobile, it's OK for you to go to Wal-Mart."
Kassarjian noted that Target had been relatively successful at repositioning itself as the hipper and cooler alternative to the likes of Wal-Mart and Kmart.
"Wal-Mart probably feels that if Target could do it, so could they," he said.
The company probably also wouldn't mind if its "Live better" campaign caught on in California, where Wal-Mart has been struggling for years to expand its footprint. There just isn't that much more room for growth in the well-saturated territory between the coasts.
Melissa O'Brien, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman, dismissed any suggestion that the company was trying to emulate Target and grab a little hipster cachet for itself.
"We're much larger than any other retailer," she said. "Following others' leads is not what we do." O'Brien said Wal-Mart's new campaign was about articulating something the company had long known — that its low prices translated to richer lifestyles for customers.
"Customers are always telling us things like, 'Because of you, I can now buy Christmas presents for my kids,'" she said.
Shopping at Wal-Mart, O'Brien said, "will allow you to experience the good things in life."
That's not quite how Deneasha Kirby sees it. The 20-year-old Watts resident said she shopped at Wal-Mart twice a month, typically spending more than $100 per trip on household necessities.
"They're not going to improve my life," Kirby said. "All they do is save me some money." And that money isn't going toward any Florida vacation or new car. Kirby said her Wal-Mart savings basically helped her get by and attend classes at El Camino College.
Steve Manning, chief executive of Igor, a San Francisco brand-consulting firm, said he wasn't surprised that Wal-Mart shoppers weren't reflective of the new Wal-Mart campaign.
"You were talking to people who shop at Wal-Mart because maybe they have to shop at Wal-Mart," he said. "That's not who this campaign is targeting."
Manning said Wal-Mart was instead going after slightly more affluent people — the kind of people who can be made to feel guilty that they aren't setting aside $2,500 for a family vacation.
"Why wouldn't you want to save some money and take your family to Disneyland?" he asked. "Why wouldn't you want that?"
In any case, Manning said there was no harm in Wal-Mart trying out a new sales pitch.
"They've got nowhere to go but up as far as corporate image goes," he said.