Walmart is the world’s most successful retailer ever. They are the largest private employer in the United States, Canada, Mexico and the world with over 2 million employees. They are a leading innovator in logistics, own the second largest computer system in the world (only the Pentagon’s is larger), and have been credited by some analysts with single-handedly improving our standard of living by driving down the prices of countless consumer products.
So why do so many people hate Walmart? The giant retailer couldn’t have a bigger target on its back if its name were, well, Target.
Microsoft Corporation has developed or adapted some of the most defining elements of computing, including the ground-breaking MS-DOS (Microsoft Disk Operating System), the graphical interface, and the more recent Windows and Office products that dominate computing today. Yet it has been characterized as the “Evil Empire” and “The Borg” for its perceived ruthless business tactics. It has been sued for its bundling of Microsoft products with the Microsoft operating systems that come with most PCs. What would play as added value in many businesses is seen as monopolistic in large part because of their success in their core products.
Some brands are naturally polarizing. The National Rifle Association, Planned Parenthood and Paris Hilton come to mind. Each of those three is directly linked to moral, ethical, and/or political perceptions that tend to create a clear choice for users or non-users. But Microsoft was essentially just very good at improving computing and Walmart was better at selling the same brands of consumer products that their competitors were selling. Why all the fuss and French horns?
It isn’t just their rise to the top that attracts the detractors; it’s a larger issue than that. For some additional insight, consider the now-defunct Hummer brand of SUVs. Hummer followed the same path to consumer product as the venerable Jeep. It was essentially a tricked-out military vehicle, tamed down enough to navigate the parking lots of shopping malls, but still tough enough to drive through a stream bed and over small boulders on the way to Olive Garden for dinner. But it too became a polarizing brand, targeted by environmentalists as an example of energy-wasting excess. Yet a study in the Journal of Consumer Research showed that Hummer supporters (not necessarily owners) saw the criticism of the vehicle as a threat to their basic freedom and individualism as in “Don’t Tread On Me.”
And that’s the common thread that links each of these assailed brands. As each one reached a peak of success, the brands came under new levels of scrutiny that tested their resiliency. The bar was raised for each of these brands. It was no longer enough to sell stuff at a better price, make computers faster and more capable, or even to build a super heavy duty SUV with military DNA; now each of those brands were required to meet the standards of moral and ethical actions as defined by people and organizations that may not even be their customers.
Walmart and Microsoft have been forced to backpedal and reexamine their personnel policies, manufacturing conditions and competitive practices. Some of it is legally based, but most of the pressure comes from entities that look far past what is within the law and demand a more morally acceptable policy. The Walmart and Microsoft brands are far too dominant to be destroyed, but they have been dinged. The Hummer brand tried to adapt, and despite producing less gargantuan models in its final years, it was unable to withstand the shakeout of automobile brands that also saw the demise of Pontiac, Saturn, Plymouth, Lincoln and now Saab.
The moral of the story is exactly that. As a brand reaches a certain level of success it will likely face more and more tests of its brand citizenship. Mediocre brands aren’t worth the trouble of attacking, but success breeds contempt for brands that reach for the top. For those that get there, they often find a whole new battle must be fought.