Will Recent Online Flubs Hurt Wal-Mart’s Brand?

A PR blog fiasco. A defunct community site. And now a holiday site that’s incited a child advocacy backlash. Can Wal-Mart do no right online?

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood has launched a petition against the mammoth retailer’s new holiday toy site, claiming Wal-Mart ToyLand prompts kids to nag their parents into buying them over priced or inappropriate toys. The site allows kids to view an endless stream of toys, add them to their saved holiday gift lists, and e-mail or print them to facilitate parental nudging.

“If you really want to get them you’ve got to tell someone,” declares one of the site’s elfin instigators. “We’ll help you plead your case.”

“Certainly this online strategy to, in effect, annoy parents is going to close the wallets of the parents who were supposed to open them,” noted Robb Hecht, marketing consultant at the imc strategy lab and adjunct professor of marketing at Baruch College. This is especially the case, he added, “if the reinforcement to nag is not coming from a kid down the block, but from a Wal-Mart branded Web site any parent could visit, and discover the culprit.”

JupiterResearch Analyst Emily Riley wonders whether the site’s approach is a good one in the midst of a consumer climate that’s already leery of corporations pitching kids. “Retailers who target children specifically have come under fire pretty recently,” she said, noting efforts to curb promotion of unhealthy food to kids. “It’s definitely bad timing for Wal-Mart to be anything but pristine,” she continued.

Jumping on the already-crowded social networking bandwagon, Wal-Mart launched a teen community site, The Hub, this August as part of its back-to-school efforts. It prompted virtual snickering among Web pundits who panned the overly-policed site as out-of-touch and missing the point of social networking’s free-spiritedness. According to reports, Wal-Mart aimed to deepen its connection with consumers by offering a forum for kids to create personal pages and submit videos. A contest component involved shopping sprees and the chance to participate in a TV ad.

Earlier this month the site was kaput. “Thanks for dropping by but the ‘School Your Way’ contest is now over and The HUB website is no longer accessible,” reads the moribund site, which now redirects visitors to the company’s Soundcheck music site, sponsored by Gillette Fusion.

“[Wal-Mart] isn’t really a brand where they have the right audience in the first place [for social networking],” said Jupiter’s Riley. “They didn’t have the right market play to even start down this path.”

Hecht told ClickZ News, “Wal-Mart trying to engage the consumer in a humane way through social media is a good idea.” However, he questions the approach they took, which struck many as inauthentic. Some reports mentioned the use of paid actors posting to the site. “Wal-Mart may have had better luck capitalizing on their MySpace page,” said Hecht.

Paying people to post positive messages about the company isn’t exactly a new practice for Wal-Mart. The worldwide purveyor has caught loads of flack recently for its also-dead “Wal-Marting Across America” travel blog, which employed several tactics typically considered novice no-no’s by online PR and marketing consultants. But back in March, the firm’s efforts to provide right-wing bloggers with positive information about the company came under fire, and spurred a New York Times story.

Wal-Mart’s PR firm, Edelman, was behind both efforts. Indeed, it’s hard to tell which company has been subject of more online vitriol, the retailer or its public relations partner. In the case of Wal-Marting Across America, the blog chronicled the journeys of Jim and Laura, RV-ers who parked in Wal-Mart lots while on a road trip to visit their kids. Now that the truth has come out that the couple was in cahoots with Edelman all along, that site, too, is no more.

The blog was created under the guise of another Edelman-related creation, an organization deemed Working Families for Wal-Mart (WFWM). When contacted for this story, a Wal-Mart spokesperson said the company could not comment because “Wal-Mart is not affiliated with Working Families for Wal-Mart.”

According to WFWM Spokesperson Donna Lewis Johnson, the independent organization “accepts funding from Wal-Mart” and “started with conversations between Wal-Mart and its supporters around the country. But it quickly took on a life of its own as people came together to tell the positive story of Wal-Mart.”

Jupiter’s Riley predicted consumers will find out about the failed blog and wonder, “Why would Wal-Mart lie?”

The blogging scandal will trickle down (or up?) to the general public’s consciousness sooner or later, Internet marketing consultant B.L. Ochman told ClickZ. “It’s not [happening in] a vacuum,” she said. “It’s a fire and you have to put it out when it happens….People really have radar for things that don’t ring true any more.”

Hashem Bajwa thinks marketers shouldn’t be so quick to judge. The new media account planner at Goodby Silverstein and Partners commends Wal-Mart for experimenting with new media, and isn’t so sure the firm’s recent online marketing efforts will have a significant effect on the company or its brand. “I don’t think people have a big perception of Wal-Mart as a marketer,” he said. “I think these will just be things that pass very quickly.”

Indeed, Wal-Mart’s recent experiences could serve to teach his clients a lesson, said Bajwa. “Whatever Wal-Mart is doing I would love to sit down and talk to our clients about that,” he continued. “I think we all need to be more open to [learning].”

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