Social, Local, Simple: Insights from Walmart CMO, Stephen Quinn (Part II)


Carol Spieckerman presents part two of her two-part, between-the-lines take on a recent presentation by Walmart’s CMO, Stephen Quinn, as part of the Bentonville Bella Vista Chamber’s WalStreet speaker series.

Read Part I


The proliferation of social media platforms and the decisions about which ones to support are keeping many a brand manager awake at night. Walmart? Not so much. In his recent presentation to the Bentonville Bella Vista Chamber’s WalStreet supplier group, Walmart CMO Stephen Quinn shared that the company made a clear decision to choose a single platform that would provide the “shoulders” for its social outreach. That platform is Facebook. According to Quinn, Walmart has 25 million fans on Facebook (25,620,530 as of this writing, but why split hairs?) and has believed from the beginning that fans were a measurable metric that Walmart could leverage once the numbers ratcheted up. When the inevitable question from the audience regarding how Walmart tracks Facebook metrics came up, Quinn was somewhat evasive in answering, as he has been in recent interviews.

Allow me to fill in a blank or two. Let’s assume that Walmart wouldn’t continue its partnership with Facebook without quantifiable results and that it is working out any bugs in a massive way that will benefit its suppliers directly and the industry as a whole for years to come. Under that assumption, Quinn’s almost parenthetical comment that Walmart has better metrics on Facebook than brands do on their own was, for me, the hidden punchline. Bottom line: Mark Zuckerberg wasn't in Bentonville a few months back to check out the scenery and Walmart doesn't issue a press release on everything that it is up to.

As powerful as both platforms are, calling Walmart’s hook-up with Facebook a “social media” strategy minimizes the possibilities. In a September article , I touched on Polaris, the latest feat of algorithmic alacrity to come out of Walmart’s skunk works operation, @walmartlabs. 

Social media enables people to discover brands, and search helps people find brands within an interest area or topic. Getting both to work together seamlessly and synergistically is the next frontier for all marketers and Walmart's close relationship with Facebook, coupled with its Polaris-enabled semantic search capabilities, puts Walmart ahead of the game. Whether or not Walmart leads the pack at the end of the day, it can’t help but have a huge impact as it tries.

It certainly resonated when Quinn stated that “most successful brands are platforms” as the dawning of the platform era is the guidepost for all of the retail trajectories that we are currently mapping, as well as the foundational premise for most of the retail presentations that I’ve given this year. Retailers’ platforms pull together new formats, digital, social, mobile, people, products, partnerships, acquisitions, brands, data, content, and more, taking in all of the complexity that just wasn’t on retail scene even a few years ago. Now that retailers are brands, it follows that they have begun to model themselves after social platforms as brand marketing evolves away from mass communication and toward leveraging a mass of communicators (thanks, Jeff Dachis). As social media is optimized, and as that process is accelerated through game-changing partnerships with retailers like Walmart, it will have a bigger impact, and be more effective at brand building, than traditional marketing or digital marketing as it exists today.

In an interview last year, Quinn hinted that a “retail development kit” was in the works, which would essentially make Walmart’s platform available to brand marketers. I’ve heard little mention of it since, and so was pleased when it resurfaced in the presentation and later, when Quinn took my question regarding the status of the program. Although he didn’t go into detail regarding the structure of existing or potential RDK partnerships, he encouraged suppliers to make it a “platform for your growth” and a “platform for your brand” and stated that it is Walmart’s intention to make its touch points available to suppliers, rather than keeping them proprietary. Walmart is no longer just a distribution point for products and brands, and suppliers who still look at the business that way are being short-sighted.

Just because Facebook is Walmart’s dominant social partner doesn’t mean that it is excluding other social media platforms. In fact, Quinn cited Pinterest as an emerging platform-of-interest, since it resonates with crafters, an important affinity group that drives a key Walmart category. I see this as an important supplier takeaway: social media participation isn’t an either/or proposition but choosing an anchor platform makes great sense, and all the better if it aligns with specific retailers’ social media strategies. Quinn acknowledged that a clear vision for the intersection of Walmart’s touch points is still under debate within the company, with some favoring a website-centric focus and others leaning toward Facebook or mobile apps. For the short term, and particularly going into the holidays, Walmart is trying to ensure that all touch points are aligned, including those that fall outside of its purview, such as third-party apps.


Quinn acknowledged that macro-economic headwinds are likely to delay the U.S. recovery to pre-recession numbers until next year, but Walmart’s silver lining comes in the form of the multicultural consumer. Tony Rogers, Walmart's senior VP of brand marketing and advertising, recently told an audience at the ANA's Multicultural Marketing and Diversity conference that the company plans to double its multicultural ad spending and that "one hundred percent of the growth [in sales] is going to come from multicultural customers." 

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Quinn echoed the latter statistic and made it clear that Walmart isn’t placing multicultural marketing in a silo or taking a tokenistic approach. He stated that “every marketer is a multicultural marketer” and challenged suppliers to determine how they will serve multicultural customers better and to build multicultural marketing into all future business plans.


The importance of joint business planning (JBP) has been a consistent theme in Walmart executive presentations to the supplier community, and Quinn included a description of how JBP standards have sped up in his talk. He encouraged suppliers to collaborate with Walmart to determine what customers will want on a weekly basis and what three to four messages Walmart will communicate and assort to each week. He also revealed that in the coming year, he sees a tremendous opportunity to create “breakthrough plan” opportunities by integrating the Retail Development Kit concept into JBP. Quinn wants to see more participation in both, stating that next year, the “rubber meets the road.” I took that to mean that expectations and standards for multi-touch-point participation and long-term planning from suppliers will be heightened.


Quinn mentioned content-creation as another opportunity area for suppliers, and one that he would like to see accelerate. I’ve spoken and written quite a bit on how content is the engine behind retailer platforms, and on the oft-overlooked opportunities that retailers’ insatiable appetite for content presents to brand marketers. Too often, suppliers assume that retailers have covered content on their own, when the reality is that retailers are seeking a level of content diversity that they can’t achieve organically. Content marketing and content sharing are worthy additions to retail suppliers’ growing list of new conversation topics at retailer HQs.


Quinn also provided several updates on Walmart’s pricing strategy. Contrary to the common perception that price is everything at Walmart, Quinn explained that although price is important in areas such as electronics, overcoming quality barriers and providing quality assurance is the primary consideration in others, such as general merchandise and soft lines.

Quinn spoke of Walmart’s “allergic” reaction to the proliferation of rollbacks that it instituted a couple of years ago, calling them a sale that the company didn’t believe in. Since that time, Walmart has backed far away from using rollbacks, and it would seem that it had done so in favor of the price guarantees and ad match programs that I addressed in Part I of this article. Nonetheless, rollbacks recently found their way into Walmart’s approach to the Thanksgiving shopping season. When an audience member drew attention to that fact, Quinn acknowledged that Walmart’s use of rollbacks could continue, but emphasized that the company would implement them more selectively.

Walmart's grassroots marketing approaches and forays into digital, mobile and social shopping may look simple on the surface -- in today's retail environment, that's a foundation for success.

You might also be interested in:

Oh SoLoMo! Retail's Mighty Mashup: Carol's article on the social, local, mobile movement in retail in Retail Wire.

EVP Pam Kohn on Revving up Walmart's Merchandising Machine: Carol's take on Pam Kohn's presentation. Great insights on Walmart's expanded view of merchandising, training and merchandising services.

Chatterboxes: Carol's take on Walmart and other major retailers' social strategies for Kidscreen magazine.