What happened to the smiley face? It’s long gone from Wal-Mart marketing after years as the corporate symbol, and its disappearance is part of a much larger story. It’s hard to believe, but for decades the world’s largest retailer wasn’t much of a marketer. It spent little on marketing, and its efforts, epitomized by the grinning circle, could be charitably called down-home and realistically described as amateurish. Change finally began four years ago when Stephen Quinn was made chief marketing officer of Wal-Mart U.S. He exiled the smiley face to the land of e-mail emoticons and developed a new theme — “Save money. Live better” — that became a statement of corporate purpose. Current TV commercials actually include some wit while hammering home the message. Quinn talked with Fortune’s Geoff Colvin about marketing in today’s “hourglass economy,” how Wal-Mart stores are reversing their decluttering initiative, why the company just launched 3,500 new Facebook pages, and much else. Here’s two edited excerpts:
You have more customers than any other retailer on earth. How do you sense what they want and need?
A couple of ways. First is something unique to retailers, in that we have hundreds of merchants in our merchandising area, and each of them tries to think of their business as their own business, so they’re constantly trying things. That’s why you’ll hear people talk about the data that Wal-Mart has. It’s really data about sales, and as we are trying things, we’re seeing the customer likes this, they want more of that; they really don’t like this other thing, and we should probably do away with that. The insights-driving machine at the core of retail is the ability to look at our data and bring some kind of meaning to that.
The second way is more traditional, and that is market research. We’ve amassed an enormous amount of data. Like almost everybody, we’re trying to figure out how to get all that data into the same place so we can see how these data interact with each other. And that includes some of the newer areas like social media, where we’ve got almost 11 million Facebook fans, and they’re constantly giving us feedback because that’s the very nature of that medium.
If a young person told you that he or she wanted to become the chief marketing officer of a big corporation, what would your advice be?
First, it starts with the customer. You’ve got to be incredibly customer-focused nowadays because — it’s been said many times — the customer is in control. All the technology and the societal trends we’re seeing point to that control just growing and growing. Second, marketing ought to be active inside the organization at breaking bureaucracy and getting the company to serve customers, to do the things we need to do to be successful with the customer. Way too many marketers get focused on the advertising and the marketing communications messages, even if all that is becoming more complex today with social media and so on, and they don’t play enough of an activist role inside the company to get the company to do the things we know we have to do to be successful for the customer.