Wal-Mart Gets a Facelift

Gone are the mega-retailer's blocky letters, hyphen, and star. Can Wal-Mart remake itself by remaking its logo?

Something's up at Wal-Mart. Visitors to walmart.com will notice that the logo consumers have become accustomed to over the past 17 years is gone. Gone, too, are the sharp, uppercase letters spelling out the name of the Bentonville (Ark.) company and the pointy star that served as a hyphen. In its place: a new logo made up of rounded, lowercase characters. The hyphen has disappeared. And in place of the star is a symbol that resembles a sunburst or flower. It appears after the "Walmart" name, like an asterisk begging for a footnote.

On June 30, Wal-Mart (WMT) officially unveiled the new logo, issuing a statement that in the fall, "Walmart's U.S. locations will update store logos as part of an ongoing evolution of its overall brand." The updated logo made its start online on July 1, although the old logo still appears on the site of Wal-Mart's parent company, walmartstores.com.

The new logo's debut coincides with CEO H. Lee Scott's goal of transforming Wal-Mart—most recently under fire for losing a Minnesota court case over breaking labor laws—into a more environmentally friendly corporation. The new sunburst "looks organic. My sense is they are trying to say, 'we're an eco-aware company,'" says Marty Neumeier, president of Neutron, a branding firm in San Francisco. Over the past two years, Wal-Mart has increasingly offered sustainable packaging and products, as well as reduced its truck fleets' energy consumption.

Generic Image

Neumeier adds that the image lacks the distinctive power of the most successful logos, such as Target's (TGT) bull's eye, which is immediately recognizable. Wal-Mart's new sunburst, in contrast, "is designed so simply that there's no ownership to it," Neumeier says. In other words, it could be used by almost any corporation.

But Robyn Waters, a design consultant and Target's former vice-president for trend, design, and product development, sees Wal-Mart's new logo as a sign that the retailer might actually be becoming more original. "I never thought the star said or meant anything. It was just generic," she says, pointing out that Macy's also has a star as its symbol.

Other observers are homing in on Wal-Mart's new typeface, which breaks with the company's 46-year tradition of using bold capital letters. "They seem to be going for something friendlier," says Tobias Frere-Jones, a professor of typography at Yale University and a principal at Hoefler & Frere-Jones, a type-design firm in New York. Frere-Jones has worked with the likes of Nike (NKE) and Estee Lauder (EL). Wal-Mart's shift, he says, can be seen as an attempt to recast itself as a kinder, gentler company, despite losing the Minnesota labor case (which could mean paying up to $2 billion in damages). How is the image friendlier? Lowercase letters tend to be interpreted as more casual and approachable, says Frere-Jones. But Wal-Mart hasn't gone too far, keeping the brand name a proper noun and beginning with a capital letter—think Google's all-text logo with a big "G," vs. Facebook's with a small "f." "Otherwise, it might look like they're trying too hard to play with the cool kids," says Frere-Jones.

Unmentionable Costs

In general, corporations change their logos when prompted by the marketplace, be it increased competition or an economic downturn. Such redesigns are more than just prettying up an outdated logo. As Frere-Jones points out, the investment is significant (Wal-Mart wouldn't reveal details of the cost of the redesign). "Given the complexity of the company, this is a major financial undertaking. It affects manufacturing processes, fronts of stores, package design…all of which has to accommodate the new imagery and fonts."

Lately, some of America's most-recognized brands have indulged in a wave of logo refreshment. In the last year or so, Saks Fifth Avenue, Delta (DAL), and AT&T (T) have changed their logos. Xerox (XRX) got a makeover this past January, while Starbucks (SBUX) changed its logo in April. "Companies understand the equity and value in using their logo as a tool or strategic weapon against competitors to differentiate their services and convey their unique offerings," says Michael Gericke, a New York partner in the international design firm Pentagram. But it's clear that a new logo alone can't save an ailing company during tough economic times. This week, for instance, Starbucks announced hundreds of store closings despite the brand brushup.

Wal-Mart's latest logo redesign is surely not its last. And some branding design experts think the new logo is just that—a new logo and nothing more. "Will the logo help purge brand baggage? Will it make them cool? Not really," says Andrew Bogucki, principal at consulting company Corebrand in New York. New lettering and imagery will no doubt liven up Wal-Mart's look. But the company will have to keep delivering on Scott's lofty environmental goals and rethink its labor practices to refresh the public's perception of the big-box retailer.

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