Is Walmart Trying to Brand Itself as Socially Conscious?

The value-focused chain seems to embrace corporate responsibilty

Walmart has long been a vilified brand, possibly one of the most-hated in America. But in the last year the retail chain has made several significant moves that may change its brand perception, and some analysts say it's doing so in order to appeal to consumers who value corporate social responsibility.   

In its latest move, Walmart last week announced it would work to improve the welfare of farm animals in its supply chain, adopting the "five freedoms" of animal welfare as goals for its food suppliers.

Earlier this month, the brand kicked off the inaugural Bentonville Film Festival, in its hometown of Bentonville, Ark., for which the brand partnered with actor and gender-equality activist Geena Davis to champion diverse voices in entertainment.

And in February, Walmart CEO Doug McMillion announced the retailer would increase its minimum wage to at least $9 an hour, above the federal minimum wage of $7.25. That same month McMillion spoke out against anti-gay legislation that was being debated in the Arkansas Legislature.

"Walmart understands that consumers' sense of value is changing," said Ruth Bernstein, co-founder and chief strategic officer of YARD, a branding agency in New York. "It's no longer just about how much a product costs"—long Walmart's strength—"but also how it is made and where it is from. A company's values play a big part in consumers' perception of value." 

Allen Adamson, North American chairman at brand consulting firm Landor Associates, agreed. "In this new, transparent world, where everything a company does is seen by everybody and consumers are doing business with companies who 'do the right thing' in terms of treating their workers well, for the environment, sustainability," he said, "almost every company now has to connect corporate citizenship to their marketing and business much more than they did before." 

A Walmart spokeswoman disputed that. "These are first and foremost business decisions," Molly Blakeman told Adweek, and not part of a concerted effort to alter perceptions of the company. She acknowledged, however, that the moves "do have some effect on reputation issues."

That effect has yet to be seen. According to YouGov, which measures brand perception, Walmart's score on its BrandIndex has remained flat over the last year.

"Perception lags reality," said Landor's Adamson. "While they may be making these moves, it will take a while for it to impact the brand." 

These moves may also be unavoidable. "[Walmart] is actively working to appeal to American consumers who our ongoing research finds are more health conscious, more concerned about social issues and are more likely to shop with brands who share their values," said Matt Conlin, co-founder and president at the marketing firm Fluent. "Walmart may be making moves to improve its image, but most of all, the company is skating to where the puck is heading."

It's also possible that these changes can impact operational costs, especially for a company of Walmart's scale.

"What's happening is that consumers' definition of value is sometimes not just the cheapest sale price," said Adamson. "But a low price is still important. For a company like Walmart, you live and die by how competitive you are on the price front."