Taking in the Trash / by Dan Weingrod

Wal-Mart ran an unwitting experiment on brand experience, and we may be the wiser for it.

Earlier this year Wal-Mart unknowingly created an experiment which can tell us a great deal about online brand experience and our perceptions of results. During 2009, in an attempt to hedge against slowing recessionary sales, Wal-Mart removed approximately 300 low selling items from their aisles, but by March 2010 these items were returned. Why ? Because, as Wal-Mart’s COO stated, these items were “things that didn’t sell well…but cost us a trip”. In other words, Wal-Mart determined that these low selling items were actually responsible for driving traffic and intent and without them in place Wal-Mart was losing actual shopping trips and larger checkouts. Interestingly these  items were not high priced loss-leaders or expensive promotions, they  were some pretty mundane items such as Glad and Hefty trash bags.

What does this have to do with brand experience and results? Practitioners of online advertising know that the biggest curse of online is that it is highly measurable, (although sometimes that’s its biggest blessing). Our ability to monitor and optimize has become so effective that we quickly learn what works and what doesn’t and then ruthlessly prune creative or messaging that does not have a direct, actionable result. Wal-Mart’s experience makes me wonder that when we optimize we might just be taking the Glad bags off the shelf. In fact, I think that this is exactly what we might be happening.

A great deal of online ads, social media or pre-roll video may get views, but these may not lead to actions. Web and mobile applications may create fun and utilitarian experiences, but may not be tracked back directly to sales. These  are the types of online experiences that are penalized because they don’t immediately lead to direct action or purchase. Part of this problem is the lack of adequate measurement tools that track a consumer from engagement to purchase. Another part is our traditional reliance on the click.  Just to be clear, I’m not talking about traditional concepts of awareness leading to purchase. We know that traditional mass media awareness campaigns will generate lift and purchase. The problem is that as media migrate further and further online awareness is often penalized for not yielding a click or a purchase.

If we accept the results of Wal-Mart’s “experiment” online brand experiences, especially those with utility and relevance can be the drivers that will ultimately create the “trip” for customers. Examples could be unique calculators on a Bank web site, a customer ratings page, an active and relevant twitter presence a social community or more. These type of options may not be immediately quantifiable, but they create experiences that involve customer choice based on engagement and relevance. We already know how to optimize for results, but if we don’t pay attention to the role that brand engagement plays online we may need a bigger trash bag for our Hefty bags.