Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Ultimate Bubba Files: Does Walmart Have a People Problem?

If you haven't seen People of Walmart yet, it is possible that you've been living in a cave since it debuted in August of this year. But as the meme catches on within more and more circles, advertising and public relations professionals are taking notice. Is the site detrimental to Walmart's already tainted image? What should the folks in charge of strategic communication at the big-box giant do, if anything?

If you're unfamiliar with People of Walmart, you should go check it out before reading the rest of this post. The owners of the site don't have anything against Walmart, they just like to poke fun at the ridiculous people who shop there, most of which are reminiscent of our Bubba Files. The concept is simple: regular Walmart shoppers capture those other shoppers on camera who are oblivious to social norms, anything resembling class or fashion, and who might actually think that they are sexy while we find them repulsive.

So what is a little bit of poking fun going to hurt? It is, after all, likely that the people featured on the site will never figure out how to use a computer (or figure out that Walmart has only one L, even if they do get the Web browser opened), so their feelings probably aren't going to be hurt. In fact, if they grow a three-foot-long mullet and wear a mustard-stained wife beater out in public, it's safe to say they don't care what anyone thinks about how they look anyway. Fair enough. But what about Walmart's reputation as a company?

Let's face it, Walmart is similar to Microsoft in that it's no one's favorite corporation — it's just a necessity for some people that they probably wouldn't mind avoiding if they could get the same services and products elsewhere for less cost and more convenience. The arguments about why Walmart practices unfair employment and business tactics abound, so the Mecca for Beccas from 'Bama doesn't really need another PR headache.

Writer B.L. Ochman over at AdAge writes that Walmart can't stop the site, but he also says the company shouldn't try to do anything special about it either.
If Walmart tries to squash the site, they'll quickly become the laughing stock of social media. If they laugh with the site, they'll be accused of laughing at their own customers. They're better off to stay quiet and let the hoopla die down. Which it will, eventually, if Walmart doesn't get heavy-handed. It's not a site that's likely to do lasting damage to the brand, or help it. It's a joke that's gone viral. But my bet is that Walmart won't suck it up and be a good sport. Time will tell.
Walmart's spokesperson, David Tovar, said to ABC News, "It doesn't seem like it's news that there's a Web site that allows people to post photos on it.

Well, OK, Mr. Humorist. I think a better statement might have at least attempted to say something nice about Walmart's customers.

But is ignoring the site really the best strategy? Some in the media community have suggested that Walmart should flip the script by creating its own Web site with flattering pictures of its more photogenic customers. I could see this working out well (once they find the customers, which will likely be a daunting task), especially if the photos are accompanied with short blurbs about why the shoppers love Walmart instead of snarky captions about self-defecation. However, while it would look good for Walmart, I'm not sure it would be a viral success because it wouldn't be funny. And the media might turn the story about Walmart's counter site into an investigation to see if the customers are cherry-picked, considering the company doesn't have the best track record with trying to implement social media (just Google "Wal-Mart blog scandal" or click here).

I am rarely one who thinks that companies should ignore potential image damagers. I think trying to just let things blow over is generally a very poor PR strategy that often results in disaster. However, in this case, I'm not so sure. Almost any action taken by Walmart would be like them saying, "Those aren't typical customers, our customers are usually very well-dressed and well-groomed." Oops, you just called a third of your shoppers rednecks.

My thinking is that, as a discount warehouse, Walmart isn't expected to be classiest place on Earth. People shop there to get anything they need in one convenient place and to get it at a price that is less than they would pay elsewhere. I don't think People of Walmart is going to stop anyone from shopping there (aside from those who already refuse to shop there) or hurt the company's bottom line. Will People of Walmart taint the company's image? No, I don't think so, because it's not telling anyone anything that they don't already know — it just gives us a chance to relive those special Walmart moments in our own homes where we can actually laugh out loud instead of having to restrain ourselves.

Even though People of Walmart has gone viral, it's not likely to cause widespread tremors in the media now that the launch has come and gone. Similar sites have gone viral on a much larger scale, especially those affiliated with social media mogul Ben Huh, such as I Can Has Cheezburger? and FAIL Blog. Still yet, I'd guess that the general population (and an even higher percentage of those in a Walmart store at any given time) have even heard of these sites. Sure, you think for a second that I'm crazy because everyone knows about those cute kittens with their misspelled phrases, but you're reading a blog right now. You're not exactly at the bottom of the food chain in that whole diffusion of innovations theory.

All I know is I can't wait for a Women of Target site to launch.


So, what do you think Walmart should do? Leave your thoughts in the comments!


dbwms9 said...

The Walmart response is simple: respond online, through new media outlets as opposed to TV, that these are not typical customers. For the same reason most of the people featured on the site won't ever find themselves on it, they'll also never hear Walmart calling them rednecks.
And any Walmart near a college campus will eventually have some hot chicks visit, so Walmart should just have photographers staking out those locations and taking secret pictures of said college chicks. Yeah, it's creepy, but perhaps no more so than having others take pictures of sloppy rednecks as well - we just laugh at the sloppy rednecks because it's funny!

John Michael said...

I noticed you made a post about Perhaps you might be interested in doing a follow up about People of Public Transit.

People of Walmart inspires sister site (People of Public Transit)

The public bus and subway systems are littered with amazing photo opportunities. Many of us have been sitting alone witnessing something amazing and only wishing we could share the experience with our friends. Well now you can!

Thank you,
John Michael