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Hurricanes have a way of getting your attention. Being part of the Mid-Atlantic path of Sandy has made me aware of many things out of the normal course of daily business. Storms of all sorts are increasingly opportunities for local news stations to push weather expertise and project themselves as round-the-clock regional communications centers. The result is typically a lot of supermarkets benefiting from bread and milk sales and a lot of snow shovels and sidewalk salt sold at Lowes and Home Depot.

Erie Insurance and State Farm took to the air pre-Sandy promoting emergency preparedness.

Erie Insurance and State Farm took to the air pre-Sandy promoting emergency preparedness.

However, the potential for serious flooding, property damage, and power outages with Hurricane Sandy over such a wide path of the Eastern seaboard has upped the ante in many directions. Yesterday, a number of smart retailers like Wal-Mart and Office Depot had moved essentials to the front of their stores, including bottled water, flashlights, batteries, etc. Perhaps the only exception — portable generators are still tough to be had at a time like this.

Especially surprising were some smart radio commercials yesterday by two different major property/casualty insurance giants — State Farm and Erie Insurance. Both spots were direct, full of good preparatory advice, and reassurance that they would be there for policyholders. That is a solid message for corporations to send ahead of what will be a costly quarter for them as they help customers settle claims post hurricane. The media buy was expensive, but likely more than offset by the new customers they will gain from competitive property/casualty insurers who don’t treat their insureds well in the days ahead.

Travelers sent a safety email to customers in advance of Sandy.

Travelers sent a safety email to customers in advance of Sandy.

I wondered about my own company, Travelers, but found a similar message emailed to me, along with important details on storm preparedness and claim follow-up. This is a terrific use of a Customer Relationship Marketing database, and while it may seem like a no-brainer, it requires advance planning on the part of the insurance company’s marketing department, along with coordination with all the departments within the company to ensure accuracy of information.

One of the biggest concerns related to Sandy appears to be about loss of electricity from downed trees taking down transmission lines and water affecting the power grid. I had one unexpected level of assurance from my friend Steven Brush posting to Facebook on Sunday — he snapped a smartphone picture of electrical crew trucks traveling north from Alabama via I-95. Now, that’s emergency preparedness and much appreciated out-of-state assistance even before it is officially needed.

Power crews from Alabama already headed north in advance of Sandy.

Power crews from Alabama already headed north in advance of Sandy.

In the information age, all of us are getting better prepared to handle whatever nature throws our way, certainly following painful lessons learned during Katrina. And government, utilities, media, non-profit relief agencies, and businesses are getting smarter in helping citizens weather these storms.

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Some stories are just too good not to follow and share. This one has two parts. The first is about badvertising — a creative concept that should have been killed by the agency before it ever reached the client. The second is about social media being wildly unpredictable and entertaining.

When ad and social media campaigns go bad.

When ad and social media campaigns go bad.

Adweek’s Ad Freak does an admirable job of presenting both accounts, going so far as to question whether the first one is worst campaign of the year. The badvertising is for the product of a new start-up company called Energy Sheets. You probably remember a similar product —breath freshening strips that you drop on your tongue. The effect is a hit of super-concentrated mouthwash triggered as the strip instantly dissolves. Presumably, Energy Sheets delivers the equivalent of a 5-hour energy shot via a similar quick hit. Incredibly, LeBron James is a key investor.

The entire campaign relies upon a dumb double entendre, “I Take A Sheet In The ______,” to include the pool (Caddyshack flashback anyone?), the library, and in an ad featuring the hot rapper Pitbull, on the stage. Even if you appreciate bathroom humor, as Adweek notes, do you want to promote a product that you put in your mouth with a headline that “references defecation?”  Can’t wait for the “Who gives a sheet?” gift cards.

On such dubious footing, it makes perfect sense that Energy Sheets would work with retailers like Wal-Mart to leverage the popularity of Pitbull via a social-media based contest. Like your favorite Wal-Mart store on Facebook and win a visit to that store by Pitbull. Sounds okay in theory, but the wild world of social media always has room for the unpredictable and unexpected. Enter one David Thorpe, a writer for the Boston Phoenix, who decided to have a little fun. He and a friend researched the most remote Wal-Mart store in the chain store’s chain and launched their own social media campaign to send Pitbull to Kodiak, Alaska, reachable only by plane or ferry. Already at 60,000 likes and climbing fast, the Kodiak Wal-Mart is looking more and more like the destination for Pitbull, who calls himself Mr. Worldwide. If that happens, Pitbull will have to reorient himself from hot, steamy Latin rhythm dance clubs to arctic landscapes. However, in the process, he may be able to finally answer the question, “Does a polar bear sheet in the woods?”

Update: Wal-Mart has a winner. Looks like Pitbull had better start packing his parka and lined boots for Kodiak, AK. As they used to say in the old Shake and Bake commercials, “And I helped.”

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Black Friday shopping gets bleaker with each passing year.

Black Friday shopping gets bleaker with each passing year.

“When Black Friday comes, I’ll collect everything I’m owed.  And before my friends find out I’ll be on the road.” I’m pretty sure that Steely Dan didn’t have the “official” start of the Christmas shopping season in mind when they wrote those lyrics. But there is a sense of entitlement captured there that rings truer with each passing annual installment of these retail follies.

This year, the yuletide injury report is evenly scattered coast-to-coast, many at Wal-Mart stores, and this year with pepper spray being used by both a psycho-shopper, and in a separate incident by law enforcement as a warning to an unruly mob.  Nothing says the season of giving like trampling others in a bid for electronic gear that will still be available in the same stores tomorrow and the day after that. And December 26, too. The obsession with material goods clouds all common sense — one shopper was shot to death by parking lot robbers when he refused to part with his purchases.

For 11 months out of the year, brick and mortar retailers are begging shoppers to come visit (and shop) and yet mall traffic continues to dwindle. Then, one stinking, heavily promoted, holiday sale day arrives and suddenly amateur productions of “Lord of the Flies” break out in unison across the US map.  It is little wonder that online and catalog sales continue to surge. Seasonal shopping is no longer a Currier and Ives moment. Darwin rules.

My son decided to brave the crush and went with friends to the Philadelphia Outlets at midnight. It turned out to be very good exercise because they had to park a mile away or risk getting in the parking lot and off-ramp gridlock that went on for hours.

In spite of the holiday horrorshow that is Black Friday, one retailer has managed to strike a balance of quirky humor and obsessive fun about the shopping frenzy. Last year, and revived this year, Target created an entire campaign centered about the loonytoon Christmas shopper lady, well dressed, but with crazy ninja skills, who encourages shoppers to prepare for the season. And for the mayhem.  If all the real world shoppers shared this lady’s off-kilter spirit and uber-anticipation, we wouldn’t need a national police blotter tallying the body count. I preferred the original meaning of “shop ‘til you drop.”

Black Friday isn’t about to go away as a sick holiday tradition, though. Early reports show that sales surged once again in spite of several years worth of sordid news stories.

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52 posts in 52 weeks makes for a minor milestone (or a good excuse for a game of 52-card pickup).  But we’re proud to report that NewtonIdeas.net has reached the one-year mark.  In honor of the occasion, here are a few varied mini-stories of interest. Some even have something to do with marketing.

Even in the Wright Brothers era, advertising was helping to build business ventures.

Even in the Wright Brothers era, advertising was helping to build business ventures.

Advertising has long been the wind beneath business’s wings.

Spending President’s Day weekend in DC was refreshing for a lot of reasons. One was seeing this Wright Brothers era display from the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum. A long time before Burma Shave ever hit the highways, the medium of outdoor advertising was practiced in some pretty creative ways on some remarkable canvases.

Two other reasons were the guided tour of the Capitol (the building itself gives you goosebumps, the prelude film is magnificent, first-rate audio headsets for all, and our tour guide was a polished gem eager to share information, as well as a very energetic senior who is living proof that retirement is overrated) and a cabdriver from Ghana who was this week’s embodiment of the American Dream. He has been driving a DC cab for five years to put himself through Howard University. He is currently studying five hours a day to take the CPA exam.

Back to earth courtesy of the current Congress.

This story from the Washington Post will tell you all you need to know about what happens when the second oldest profession takes on the oldest profession. Upon first seeing the headline about Harry Reid challenging prostitution, which is currently legalized in his home state of Nevada, I was perplexed. The explanations and the instant poll here are revealing of motives and politics (prostitution) as usual.

Softer side, my a@#.

Nothing agitates agencies more than having to do spec work to win business. Unless it is being told by the prospect that they will own your ideas even if you aren’t named agency of record and you won’t be compensated for them. According to Advertising Age, that is what Sears is doing in its current search and why many shops are fighting mad and turning down the opportunity. Interesting business model. I suggest shoplifters come armed with a copy of this story to discuss with Sears store security and ask why they aren’t entitled to something valuable for nothing as well.

Coupled with this news about Wal-Mart and you begin to wonder if there are any intelligent, common sense-oriented adults left in retail management. Two key takeaways from the Wal-Mart story: “Wal-Mart still is suffering a hangover from its overly aggressive effort last year to broaden its base of customers to include more affluent shoppers” AND “Wal-Mart this year has opted to return its marketing and its merchandise to a focus on its roots: low prices on everyday items.” Sam Walton must be spinning in his grave like a gyroscope.

The difference between PR and news.

A LinkedIn group I belong to has had a spirited discussion going this week on “pay for play” PR placements, and whether as a book author has suggested, it is the future model for public relations.  I don’t see it that way, but then a friend independently sent me this link, which amusingly approaches PR from the other direction — from the consumers of news side. Journalism vs. Churnalism. Are editors getting ever lazier and running press releases verbatim? Now, you can test the story you’re reading via this cheeky site. I am convinced we are all being put through a digital blender these days, for better and for worse. And for constant change and status quo challenges. It’s been an interesting first year of agency blogging. Looking forward to many more.

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