Editorial: Cultural incongruities hampering Wal-Mart

Canadian entering a Wal-Mart store gets the first inkling of something 'foreign' right at the front door.The retailer's trademark 'greeter,' a person hired to enthuse quintessential, 'Hey, how ya doin'?' Americana, sets the tone of the place the moment you arrive.Technically,...

Canadian entering a Wal-Mart store gets the first inkling of something ‘foreign’ right at the front door.

The retailer’s trademark ‘greeter,’ a person hired to enthuse quintessential, ‘Hey, how ya doin’?’ Americana, sets the tone of the place the moment you arrive.

Technically, it is a great idea, and clearly part of a winning formula that works exceptionally well across the United States, particularly in smaller communities.

But there is something just a little false in the image of a glad-handing greeter trying to connect with an incoming stream of diffident Canadians. It simply doesn’t feel – for lack of a better word – ‘culturally’ right.

A small point, perhaps, but it is worth raising, in the wake of Wal-Mart’s apparently less than spectacular launch in Canada. The question Wal-Mart must be asking is to what degree have such cultural incongruities played a part in the chain’s acceptance in Canada.

In this case, any cultural analysis must also take into account the discrepancy between the Canadian habit of being attracted to retail stores by last-minute deals promoted in flyers that swamp our homes, as opposed to Wal-Mart’s positioning, well established in the United States, of everyday low pricing.

With net sales of US$67.3 billion last year, and an instant network of 122 outlets created by its purchase of former Woolco stores in Canada, a retail juggernaught Wal-Mart certainly is. And there is no doubt that Wal-Mart’s arrival has had a salutary effect on the retail market here by forcing other retailers to sharpen their operations and become more responsive to consumers.

Yet, as the domestic retail powerhouse Canadian Tire has learned through its largely unsuccessful sallies into the United States, a formula alone is not enough. It truly needs local flavoring.

Other developments on the marketing frontline, such as the Coca-Cola company’s decision to abandon exclusive worldwide agency relationships, suggest that the once fashionable concept of selling products through one voice, one sound and one look around the world, is showing signs of extreme fatigue.

The idea of global marketing – as packaged and promoted by multinational, mostly New York-based ad agencies – has never made much sense. Certainly not from the perspective of those of us manning the outposts of the global empire.

Yes, it’s true, there are certain universal themes that will move, touch and perhaps even convince people to buy something, whether they live in Stockholm or Broken Arrow, Wyoming. The sculptures of Michelangelo, the novels of Charles Dickens and the movies of Hollywood all play to a certain global market precisely because of the universality of their content.

To that extent, the ‘global’ concept has a grounding in truth, even though, as someone has pointed out, most of the successful global products have been frivolous things that people could easily have done without. But to make anything more of it than that, is, like the advertising of yesterday, making a whole lot out of very little.

Great ideas have global potential, and, maybe, some advertising concepts have that, too.

But as the Wal-Mart example seems to suggest, to be truly effective, the execution of those ideas must continue to be local.