A commanding presence. Wisdom and power beyond compare. A really cool electronic interface. Yep, the Wizard of Oz had a pretty good gig until that pesky little lap dog revealed that he was little more than high tech (for 1939) bells and whistles run by a fairly ordinary person. Move ahead by 70 years and the Wizard’s ultimate unmasking is a convenient parable for the central challenge many executives face in managing public brand perceptions versus internal company realities.
The Information Age makes it harder than ever to hide behind the curtain of a carefully crafted image. When companies are small and their brands are just beginning to be established, there is rarely enough public scrutiny to cause a stir. You can say what you want and there are likely to be few challengers. But as companies grow and the machines of their enterprise become larger and far flung, it is often much more difficult to put forth a squeaky clean brand image.
There is nothing Mickey Mouse about Disney, Inc.
The Disney brand has become synonymous with family fun and entertainment as delivered by its theme parks, cable channels and entertainment products. Their brand is Snow White, Cinderella and Goofy all rolled into one. And everyone lives happily ever after. That is as long as you don’t misappropriate their intellectual property. Disney drew a lot of unwanted attention to itself when it sued several day care centers for playing Mickey Mouse videos without paying licensing fees. Other operations received letters from their legal department threatening law suits for having images of Mickey or other Disney characters painted on the walls of their playrooms.
Yet Disney has largely managed to keep their brand about family and has minimized criticism for their heavy-handed legal attacks. And within the legal community, there is a healthy respect for Disney and its band of lawyers.
Wal-Mart: What cost low price?
In 1962 Sam Walton had five stores in Arkansas and very few people cared about his personnel policies, effect on downtown merchants, or what happened to his storm water runoff. It was a place to get decent stuff at a good price. And Sam was a pretty likable guy. Fast forward 35 years and Wal-Mart has become the great and powerful Oz. The most dominant retailer ever. Wisdom and power (Wal-Mart maintains the second largest computer system in the world topped only by the Pentagon’s). And a pretty cool electronic interface as well.
But now there are a thousand Totos nipping at their heels.
Wal-Mart’s legendary success has also engendered dozens of organizations on a local and national level whose sole purpose is to attack the mammoth retailer for all manner of conduct and policies they find unacceptable. The internal workings of Wal-Mart are continually being brought under public scrutiny, in particular for their treatment of employees and their effects on local businesses in communities where they build their stores. To witness a brand under constant attack, just do a quick Internet search with the term Wal-Mart and note how many negative sites turn about in the results. Sites such as walmartwatch.com, wakeupwalmart.com, and walmart-blows.com are just a few examples.
Successful brands make more enemies.
Both Disney and Wal-Mart have a venerable founder who is central to the legends of their brands. Both claim family values as a key pillar of their brand concept. But both have grown so large that their towering success draws exponentially more attention to their business practices, which they would prefer to keep behind the curtain of brand mystique. They have managed admirably considering their detractors, but are likely losing business as well because of publicity over some of their actions. (Several major labor unions actively promote boycotting Wal-Mart stores.) Wal-Mart has made changes to personnel practices, redesigned stores and instituted numerous other policies in response to public criticism. Their brand remains highly successful, though tarnished by mounting criticism.
The lesson here is simple: Big brands make big targets. As a company grows, its brand image will most likely come under greater attack. Being prepared to fend off criticism, while staying true to the brand can become a delicate balancing act. And when creating a brand strategy for public consumption, company’s should be sure to evaluate their ability to deliver on that image, especially when the public attempts to pull back the curtain for a closer look.