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  • Jennifer Marks

Walmart's Brand Stepchildren

The largest retailer in the world unveiled a new logo last week.

WAL-MART officially became Walmart — lower case, less muscular and, one assumes, less menacing to the eye. The star symbol that had separated the Wal from the Mart in the 16-year-old logo, last updated in 1992, was replaced by a sunny starburst after the name.

It's friendly looking, like an icon one might associate with a kid's fruit drink or a clean energy consulting firm.

More interesting, and perhaps more telling about Walmart's directional thinking, are two other brand IDs unveiled in recent weeks.

Canopy is Walmart's big new private label home program. Marketside, which will debut this fall in bricks-and-mortar, is a new easy-to-shop neighborhood market.

Neither print advertising for Canopy, nor its canopyliving.com website, nor the new website for Marketside, advertise that these entities are part of the Walmart universe. Only when doing a localized "where to buy" search on the Canopy site, does Walmart come up — and then as a list of nearby stores where the line is available. On www.marketside.com, mention of Walmart is buried deep in the site.

This isn't a unique proposition. Williams-Sonoma Inc. is parent to its eponymous brand and to Williams-Sonoma Home, Pottery Barn and its spawn, and to West Elm. Urban Outfitters Inc. boasts a portfolio of nameplates that include its own, plus Anthropologie, Free People and Terrain. Bed Bath & Beyond owns The Christmas Tree Shops, Buy Buy Baby and Mexico's Home & More operation.

What is at variance in Walmart's case is that it seems less a strategy of launching alternative brands and more a matter of building brands dissociated from the Walmart taint.

I use the word "taint" advisedly here. Millions of American consumers love Wal-Mart. They are the core, hard-working, budget-minded middle and lower middle of the market.

But Walmart hasn't given up on wooing the upper-middle income consumer out of the food and sundries aisles over into the Land of Richer Margins, namely softlines. I think that's what the disassociation from Walmart in the brand-building efforts for Canopy and Marketside are all about.

In the national media narrative of late, Walmart's environmental evangelism, price-chopping on prescription drugs and public endorsement of raising the minimum wage have turned around three solid years of stories that badly tarnished its reputation.

Or maybe not. Earlier this month, Harris Interactive (formerly the Harris Poll) released its annual survey of consumer attitudes about the 60 leading corporations.

Walmart ranked at No. 44. It was the third straight year in the survey that Walmart dropped in the rankings. Only two other companies dropped farther in this year's survey: Bank of America and Halliburton. Walmart responded to the survey by pointing to its sales gains in recent months, arguing in essence that dollars speak louder than words.

True, but given the state of the economy, that's to be expected. This column has noted before that it's one thing when consumers feel they have to shop the store, as opposed to wanting to shop the store.

Hence, the new brands that dare not speak their parent's name.

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