Mr. Retail: Lou Puim, director of marketing, Wal-Mart

All the cool kids shop at...Wal-Mart? It may sound funny now, but don't doubt Lou Puim's ability to shift perceptions.

All the cool kids shop at…Wal-Mart? It may sound funny now, but don’t doubt Lou Puim’s ability to shift perceptions.

After all, he’s the man who made the big bad American retail bully relevant to Canadians through his clever strategy of using ‘real’ Canucks in his ads. And, he’s recently taken the tactic a step further, reaching out to not only youth, but also various demos, as well as ethnic groups across the country with culture-specific TV spots in different languages.

A couple of recent campaigns exemplify this strategy. One is February’s launch of the George men’s clothing line, which was featured in strategy’s Creative section and scored laughs by featuring London men running around in their knickers. And August’s youth-oriented promotion for the chain’s 725 apparel label, which employed stylized, illustration-based animation, resonated with teens by tapping into their desire for independence and control. Meanwhile, a new campaign for the George fall line launches this month, playing on the established ‘Fashion, taken from the streets of London’ theme.

The Mississauga, Ont.-based director of marketing ‘understands creative on an intuitive level,’ says Duncan Bruce, CD of Wal-Mart’s Toronto-based AOR Publicis. ‘He knows what each piece of his communication is going to do to move the brand forward.’

In the past few years Puim has reached out to ethnic Canadians, by featuring members of various communities speaking in their native languages about their experiences shopping at Wal-Mart. The TV spots run on Omni Television across the country in six different languages, including Mandarin, Spanish and Italian. ‘Are we doing enough? No, but

at least we’re trying,’ says Puim. ‘It’s about treating these groups with the respect they deserve.’

Puim has spent his entire career trying to figure out what Canadian consumers want. A true retail man, his ascent to his current role began right out of high school, when he joined Woolworth’s management training program in 1976, earning a marketing degree from Wilfred Laurier University on the side. He’s seen his company change hands twice – first to Woolco and later to Wal-Mart – but his impact has been constant.

Part of the key to Puim’s staying power is certainly his ability to thrive with change. When Wal-Mart Canada bought out Woolco’s 122 Canadian stores in 1994, the chain’s honchos were impressed enough with Puim’s track record to keep him in his post as director of marketing. But, while his title stayed the same, everything else had changed.

‘It was a bit of a tough transition for the first two years,’ Puim recalls. With the Wal-Mart name came the unfavourable reputation of an American bully set to muscle out local businesses. ‘The biggest challenge was to communicate that we’re a Canadian company.’ He quickly developed an approach that addressed both the need to Canadianize the brand, and promote Wal-Mart’s ‘the customer is the boss’ mentality, and launched a new campaign

in 1994. ‘Using real people [in ads] was unheard of back then,’ he says. ‘Before [the buy-out,] Alan Thicke was basically a talking head [for Woolco].’

Today, Wal-Mart’s customer testimonial approach seems natural. ‘The real people strategy made it really Canadian,’ says Bruce. The agency has even hired journalism school grad Clair Galea to travel and talk to customers full-time in search of stories to bring back to Puim. ‘I’m always really excited to make Lou proud – he instills that in us,’ she says. ‘He’s never come across as being intimidating, even though his job is. He’s very down-to-earth.’

Another challenge that came with the takeover was convincing Canadians that Wal-Mart’s ‘Everyday Low Prices’ (ELPs) were just that. Puim explains that Canadians were used to waiting for things to go on sale, and were skeptical about the ELP concept. ‘It probably took about three to four years before people realized this was the way Wal-Mart does it,’ he says.

Along with his ability to Canadianize Wal-Mart, Puim’s strong leadership skills have no doubt contributed to his staying power. Bruce describes Puim as trusting. ‘He gives us clear direction, then lets us go. Although he still has a firm hold on everything,’ notes Bruce.

‘I clearly know where I stand in Lou’s mind.’

Favourite current TV show:
I don’t watch any TV – when I get home my wife and I just talk.

Favourite vacation spot:
The Algarve in the south of Portugal. First of all, I’m Portuguese. I think it has all the best of Europe.

Favourite TV commercial of all time:
The Canadian Tire spot with the little boy looking at the Canadian Tire catalogue ['A Bike Story.'] I’ve always enjoyed it.

Most useful business book, and why:
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen R. Covey. It has so many things that relate to Wal-Mart.

Greatest strength:
I probably don’t have any! I guess being adaptable to change – I get really excited about things changing.