Wal-Mart's New Tack: Show 'Em the Payoff

The ad campaign fashioned for Wal-Mart by Geico's gecko creator asks families to imagine what they can do with the $2,500 the chain says it saves them in a year. (Wal-mart Stores)
By Ylan Q. Mui and Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 13, 2007

Wal-Mart is shelving its "Always Low Prices" slogan after 19 years and launching an advertising campaign that plays up life's little pleasures over no-frills practicality.

The new motto -- "Save Money. Live Better." -- will show up on everything from store receipts to plastic bags. Accompanying 30-second TV spots were created by the Martin Agency, the Richmond firm behind the Geico gecko and caveman ads. The Wal-Mart ads began appearing yesterday and will run on network season premieres, specials and cable channels.

Stephen Quinn, Wal-Mart's chief marketing officer, said the campaign is aimed at personalizing the chain's low prices. In the two kickoff ads, for example, the company's name is sidelined for scenes of vacationing families and father-and-son bonding while browsing for cars. The commercials conclude that shopping at Wal-Mart saves families an average of $2,500 a year, making such experiences possible.

"People know they can save money by shopping at Wal-Mart," Quinn said. "The emotional connection . . . was what those savings allowed them to do as a family."

Wal-Mart has been searching for ways to reposition itself to combat slowing sales growth as its stores saturate the nation. Its strategy had long been to open in small towns and suburbs much like its headquarters of Bentonville, Ark. But with more than 3,300 U.S. stores that draw roughly 127 million shoppers each week, it is running out of room to grow.

Wal-Mart now is trying to persuade its more-affluent customers to see it as a destination for more than toilet paper and laundry detergent. It hired music celebrities such as R&B girl group Destiny's Child and country crooner Garth Brooks to star in its holiday campaign two years ago. It ran ads in Vogue magazine for its more fashionable clothing line, Metro 7. A campaign with the tagline "Look beyond the basics" was supposed to surprise shoppers with the range of products in its stores.

But the experiment backfired after an unhappy flirtation with an edgy New York advertising agency, which the company dropped in favor of the Martin Agency and its salt-of-the-earth sensibility. Martin created the campaign with MediaVest, GlobalHue, the IW Group and Lopez Negrete.

Martin is the agency behind Geico's successful and long-standing come-on line: "Fifteen minutes could save you 15 percent or more on car insurance." In Wal-Mart's case, the agency latched on to a study by the economic research firm Global Insight that found the retailer's low prices saved customers $287 billion last year -- or $2,500 per household.

The agency crafted the two kickoff ads around that number. Each ends with the new slogan and a question, "Wal-Mart saves the average family $2,500 per year. What will you do with your savings?"

In one commercial, a man and his son drive to a used-car lot. The son spots a sporty red car. The father elbows him and tells him to go check it out. As the son runs his fingers across the hood, cue tagline.

In the other, a real-life family leaves a Wal-Mart parking lot in their minivan and hits the road for a vacation. They stay at a tiny hotel. The kids jump on the bed. They swim in a pool, eat ice cream and frolic on the beach. Then the van is shown headed down the highway, passing underneath a sign pointing toward Orlando. Cue tagline.

"I love retail ads that make a specific promise," said Steve Bassett, a creative director at Martin. "Always low prices was specific, but for me, 'Save Money. Live Better' is a bigger promise that is backed up by a number that's pretty impressive."

But branding consultant Rob Frankel said Wal-Mart should move away from its focus on price. Most of its customers still shop there because they have to, he said. Wal-Mart should give them another reason to walk through the door.

"What they've really done is akin to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic," Frankel said. "This is another corporate stroke that's completely out of touch with what Wal-Mart shoppers need to see, feel and hear from Wal-Mart."

In addition, a study last year by the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, questioned the methodology of the study by Global Insight, conducted in 2004 at Wal-Mart's request. It reported that the retailer saved consumers $263 billion that year, or $2,330 per household, though it slowed growth in wages. Wal-Mart critics argue that there is a net loss in jobs in a community when a Wal-Mart store opens.

In the ads, however, the exact amount of savings is less significant than the message.

"What we're telling people is that the little things that they do all year at Wal-Mart -- the basics they buy, the apparel, all the things they buy -- that stuff adds up to something," Bassett said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company