Wal-Mart: To change or not to change, that was the question.

July 14, 2008

The word “branding” comes from the cattle ranching days of the Old West. The branding of livestock was a rigidly-enforced practice that helped to keep life peaceful and orderly.


All cattle look pretty much the same. Without a brand, no cowboy would know whose cattle are whose. Determining ownership would be a nightmare.


In the American West, cattle still graze freely and branding allows ranchers to easily identify their animals especially during the fall roundup.


(Of course, some ranchers keep their herds on fenced lots and in that case branding isn’t required but is often done anyway. And in business, if you have no competition you don’t need a brand either.)


A brand is the special mark or identifying design owned by a rancher. Branding occurs when an owner’s branding iron is heated to red hot in a fire and is pressed against the side of the animal. Not a particularly pleasurable process for the animal but essential for the rancher.




In the marketplace, brands and branding are as essential as they are on the ranch. Without a brand, consumers would have difficulty differentiating one product from another. But while any company can put a mark on the side of a package, that doesn’t make the mark a powerful brand. Brands are only powerful when you can burn that same mark into the mind of the consumer as well. Ouch!


Burning the consumer’s mind is the key detail many companies miss. They think branding is putting their name and logo on the package. But that is only half the answer. Making a branding iron is the easy part. Holding the consumer down and burning that brand into the mind is the hard part.


The good news is that once you have burned your brand in the mind of the consumer it is practically permanent. An established brand is difficult to change and hard to forget. Unless you keep changing what the brand stands for to the point of no recognition.


It is important to keep the look of your branding iron consistent over time. Constant or drastic change can be a brand-killer.


(Of course, if nobody knows your brand, you can change it all you want. Marlboro was initially a women’s cigarette which was rebranded with cowboy imagery.)


It was no trouble for Marlboro to change from a woman’s to a man’s cigarette but they can’t change from the cowboys without dire consequences. Marlboro has wisely stuck to the same imagery, look and logo for over 50 years.


Marlboro brand


Why do companies want to change the look of their brand?  One reason is to keep the brand current and fresh. Or to attempt to change the position of the brand.


Making subtle changes over time to a brand is fine. It allows you to keep the logo fresh and up-to-date. The UPS logo has undergone 4 changes over 100 years but it still retains the same look, feel and most importantly the same color, brown. Consumers have hardly noticed the changes.


Ups logo


Sometimes a logo may not be perfect, but sudden, radical change to a well-known brand can be jarring, disturbing and destructive. This is the case with the latest changes to the Wal-Mart logo.


Since the launch of the company in 1962, Wal-Mart has made many subtle changes. But for the most part it has stuck to its traditional uppercase type. The brand is currently the world’s largest retailer meaning that its logo is burned into the minds of hundreds of millions of people around the world.


Walmart logos


So what did they just announce? A drastic change.  Not a small change, but a change that makes me cringe.


To hyphenate or not to hyphenate? Uppercase or lowercase? Star or no star? Dark blue or light blue? One color or two colors? Let’s change everything!


One change would have been radical enough, but making all these changes at once will  disconnect Wal-Mart from its past. Which for the world’s largest retailer is stupid.


In general, it’s preferable to avoid hyphens in names and to use upper and lowercase letters rather than all-caps. But for Wal-Mart, its name and its typography are so well known that changing everything at once is dangerous.


What is even worse is the yellow starburst that Wal-Mart is adding to the end of its name. What the heck is that? I’ll tell you what it is. It is an attempt to make Wal-Mart look like a environmentally-friendly company and a big-box store that cares despite a record of union blocking and community commoditizing.


Wal-Mart spokesman Kevin Gardner said: “This logo update is simply a reflection of the refreshed image of our stores and our renewed sense of purpose of helping people save money so they can live better.”


Really? I think this logo update is an attempt by Wal-Mart to try and change the minds of consumers. To try to convince them that Wal-Mart has a renewed sense of purpose.


Has anybody mentioned Wal-Mart’s renewed sense of purpose to you? No one has mentioned it to me.


Changing the logo won’t change the brand in the mind. The only way to change what people think about Wal-Mart is to generate favorable publicity. The company has been making progress in this area with a more media-friendly CEO, Lee Scott, and by promoting energy-efficient light bulbs and a discounted drug program. I congratulate Wal-Mart for their PR, but question their radical logotype redesign.


For consumers who had problems with Wal-Mart’s brand the new logo won’t change their minds, slapping lipstick on a pig does little good either. For consumers who love to shop and save money at Wal-Mart (and there are a lot more of these consumers) the new logo is likely to confuse and frustrate. It is like your wife coming home with a new Mohawk, she might hope it makes her suddenly look young and rebellious but her family knows nothing could be further from the truth.