Soon We’re Going to Be Unloading Trucks: Walmart Provides Lessons in Losing Love

So there you are, driving your car to the next client meeting when suddenly that dreaded TPMS  warning light comes on. Something is definitely wrong with your tire and you need to deal with it fast. Or maybe this is the play-at-home version of the story where you are happily headed out the door, keys in hand, only to discover that your car has a flat. 

In either situation, you’re going to ask: how did this happen?

There are three ways tires lose air. They either suffer a traumatic event, the ambient conditions contribute to air loss, or the tire has one or more leaks. 

Traumatic events are something you’re definitely familiar with if you drive in Miami, Boston, LA, or any other city where road construction just never stops. We all know that if a tire hits some construction debris or even some extra sharp gravel, damage happens. Air can be lost from tires due to ambient conditions, such as when the temperature drops to 50 degrees below zero. Tire leaks can let the air out slowly and steadily over the course of time, escaping notice until the problem reaches a significant degree. 

Air is to tires as love is to brands: absolutely necessary to maintaining functionality and gained only by effort—and often expense—and lost through a myriad of ways. 

Brands don’t just want to be loved, they need to be loved if they’re going to survive in the competitive world we live in. That’s why, as an industry, we see so much effort and attention paid to gaining more love. We see the tire is getting flat, we rush to change the way we attract love: Perhaps we will drop prices! Perhaps we will roll out a new product! Perhaps we will do a funny commercial! Perhaps we will launch a cool contest on social media! Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps…

Perhaps we need to find out why the tire is losing air.

Brands lose love through the same trio of mechanisms that cause tires to lose air. These are not uncommon events. Whether through poor decision-making or factors beyond their control, brands are vulnerable to losing love every single day. 

Here are three relatively recent examples to consider: 

Love Lost through a Traumatic Event: Wizards of the Coast Pulls the D&D Open License

Dungeons & Dragons fans are notoriously emotional about their attachment to the game. One campaign has been going continuously since 1982! So what would it take to make this devoted customer group declare they were done with the brand?

Warning: some hard-core nerdery follows. 

At the heart of the D&D community’s prolific output of games, novels, and merchandise was the Open Games License (OGL) that allowed anyone to use the D&D core rules and certain lore in their own creations. Specific copyrighted and trademarked content was not included under this license. These creations could be for personal use or sold. 

This arrangement has been in place for decades and had, for many, been considered an unchangeable situation. The D&D fans trusted and loved the OGL.

Hasbro—who owns D&D—announced that there would be significant changes to the OGL. These changes would impact a very small percentage of creators—only those who had more than $750,000 in revenues—and were justified as a measure to help D&D avoid subsidizing its competition. 

This was the equivalent of a high-speed blowout. All of a sudden, D&D was hemorrhaging love. The fan outrage was so great not because of the impact—an estimated 20 creators globally were going to wind up paying royalties under the proposed new OGL—but because the OGL had been changed.

Within 6 days, Wizards of the Coast had to pull a 180 and announce that the original update to the OGL had merely been a draft and that going forward, they’d be soliciting community commentary before making any changes to the OGL. 

But it may well be too little, too late: Pazio (D&D’s most serious competitor) announced it would fund, but not own, an Open RPG Creative License to meet the needs—and presumably, win the loyalty—of D&D fans who feel deeply betrayed. 

This is an example of a self-inflicted traumatic event: The Wizards of the Coast leadership could have discovered the third-rail nature of the OGL via even minimal interaction with their customer base. But, things don’t always work that way. 

For example, Tide did absolutely nothing to start or encourage the Tide Pod challenge. This internet craze led to people eating the laundry detergent product. It sounds like a ridiculous thing to do, but more than 7,000 people were injured and 6 died. Tide lost a lot of love during this time, despite their strenuous efforts involving top-tier celebrity talent to get people to stop eating Tide Pods. 

Love Lost through a Change in Ambient Conditions: COVID & the Restaurant Industry

Conservative estimates tell us that approximately 80,000 restaurants failed during the COVID pandemic. This was not a matter of love being lost because the restaurants had bad food, terrible service, or any other measure within their control. Pandemic restrictions, including lengthy lockdowns during which businesses were forced to close, kept people from patronizing restaurants the way they did before. 

This is the most frustrating way to lose love because there’s nothing the business can do to correct the situation. Many restaurants did go to extraordinary lengths and adapted their businesses to survive pandemic conditions, but it was definitely a hardship for the entire industry.

Another example from food service is McDonald’s in Russia. If you’re old enough to remember Gorbachev, you’re old enough to remember a time when fast food did not exist in Russia. During Soviet times, there simply was not that concept in Russia.

However, glasnost happened. McDonald’s invested millions and millions of dollars in creating the infrastructure necessary to have fast food restaurants in Russia. This involved a lot of health, safety, and cleanliness practices that had to be taught to and practiced by people who had never done business that way before. 

It was absolutely an uphill swim, but McDonald’s won the day. It took 32 years, but there were 850 thriving restaurants in Russia. Brand recognition was strong and an entire people learned—for better or worse—the pleasures of American-style fast food.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was an immediate and dramatic change in the ambient conditions for McDonald’s. While the Russian people may have still loved the Golden Arches, the Russian government no longer loved the American brand and they had to go. 

Love Lost through Slow Leaks: Welcome to Wal-Mart. Hope You Brought Your Bags

It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with my work that I’m generally a fan of Walmart. They’ve invested heavily in understanding their customer. They’ve done a good job delivering value, often through strategic partnerships with brands otherwise unaffordable to their base. 

The experience of shopping at Walmart was never comparable to what you’d experience at a high-end retailer. But, it was reliably adequate for quite some time. People knew what they were getting into when they headed down to Wally World to pick up a few things. 

Now, however, Walmart’s customers are feeling like going to the world’s biggest retailer is becoming a second job. After shopping, you have to check yourself out and bag your order using your own bags—all while under the semi-watchful and often hostile eye of a loss-prevention employee. It’s not a good experience. And, as Walmart customers complain, the workload is increasing with each trip. 

Soon, the social media memes claim, shoppers will be required to help unload the trucks. 

This is the sound of a lot of air leaking out of the tires fast. As brand managers, we need to be very aware when customers voice their feelings that the relationship with the brand has changed. This is especially true when the change is negative.

This is even more important when a brand is in the midst of a pivot, the way Walmart is. 

As digital sales and delivery take up more and more of Walmart’s attention, it’s critical that they address the negative experience their in-store customers are having.  With inflation worries keeping prices high, there’s no reason to go to a store that makes picking up groceries even more exhausting and stressful than it already is. 

If You Want to Be Safe on the Road, You Need to Check Your Tires

It’s easy to take the condition of our tires for granted. But when you know you’re going on a long trip or you’re bringing the family along for a ride, chances are you give the car a quick once over before departing.  You want to know your car is in good shape to face whatever hazards may be ahead.

In much the same way, brand managers need to regularly review how much their customers love them. 

Is this amount of love the same, more, or less than it was previously? 

If your brand is losing love, this is a definite indication that changes need to be made. 

Identifying the nature of the love loss—traumatic event, ambient condition change, or lots of leaks—will help you develop the most appropriate strategy to address the issue. Whether that’s addressing and overcoming the traumatic event, compensating for ambient condition changes, or changing the way you do business to provide a better experience and stop all the leaks, your ultimate goal is to hold onto the love your customers already have for you. 

If you’re lucky, you might even be able to make that love stronger.

Previous Post Next Post