Thin Mint-y Gate: Wal-mart’s Socia Media Opportunity

by cv harquail on August 8, 2009

Where is Wal-mart’s social media outreach?

This ongoing experience with “Thin Mint-y Gate” is raising a bunch of questions, for the audiences reading and commenting on blogs, for the Girl Scouts and their community, and for me as a blogger & management scholar. I hope I’ll get a chance to address some of these questions in future posts. Right now, let me focus on just one question.

My question is:

With all of the conversation about this story, about Wal-mart’s imputed motives and decision-making processes, and now about customers’ expressing how this competition with the Girl Scouts will affect their feelings about Wal-mart, where is Wal-mart’s social media outreach?

Wal-mart & Social Media

We read that Wal-mart is developing a sophisticated social media practice. We know that Wal-mart has a prominent program for enlisting the support of mom bloggers to burnish the organization’s reputation and attract current and future customers: the “Wal-mart 11″.

Why hasn’t somebody from Wal-mart’s social media group reached out to bloggers, either to me or to others who’ve picked up and run with this story?

You recall that late Monday night I posted a story about having sampled Wal-mart’s two new “value brand” cookie varieties, which I noted were not only quite tasty but also remarkably similar to two celebrity Girl Scout cookies, the Thin Mint and the Tag-A-Long.

In this post I raised the question of whether Wal-mart, an organization claiming to be concerned about its reputation as a good corporate citizen, should consciously or unconsciously be choosing to compete against the Girl Scouts by (1) “knocking off” two of the most iconic Girl Scout cookie styles, (2) selling them year-round and (3) at a lower price. I argued that these three decisions by Wal-mart were likely to take cookie market share from the Girl Scouts, and that doing this might not earn for Wal-mart the “good citizenship” merit badge.Cookie Monster - Muppet Wiki - Muppets, Sesame Street, Henson_1249751370163.png

The Viral Spiral of the Cookie Monster

No one was more surprised than I when my blog post was picked up by AdAge, then posted on diggit, then twittered over 2000 times, then reposted or reinterpreted or summarized on over 800 online locations (and counting). I’ve had over 20,000 more visits to my blog than in an average week, and there are so many comments here and on other sites you couldn’t read them in a day. And no one was more surprised than I when reporters from Fox News, CBS news, CNBC.com, and a dozen other outlets contacted me to get more details on “the story” of how Wal-mart had decided to compete against the Girl Scouts.

With all these other voices getting involved in the conversation, it makes the question all the more pertinent: Where is Wal-mart’s voice?

“Thin Mint-y Gate”

Hey, it’s not quite the same as “The Ranger Station Fire”, the Ford Fansite controversy that is now a “Best Practices” case study (by Ron Plouff) of outreach by Ford’s social media rep @Scott Monty, but this cookie monster accusation is a social media situation for Wal-mart. Someone even labeled it “Thin Mint-y Gate” — so I’m wondering why a representative from Wal-mart hasn’t stepped into the social media space to participate in the online conversation.

Late last night (read: four days after my post was published, and after I’d drafted this post) I got an e-mail about Fox News story, where the Fox Newscasters mention a statement made by Wal-mart.

Wal-mart’s Statement:

Our Great Value product line offers our customers familiar tastes and high quality products at affordable prices. Our Great Value Fudge Mint cookies and Fudge Covered Peanut Butter Filled cookies provide our customers with an alternative to the many fudge mint cookies and chocolate covered peanut butter cookies sold both in our stores and others under a variety of names.

Walmart supports the Girl Scouts at the grassroots level through cookie sales in front of our stores, local fundraising efforts, and donations through both the Walmart Foundation and our Good Works program. Thousands of Walmart associates are former and current Girl Scouts. Additionally thousands more have daughters in the program, while others serve the organization as volunteers.

We appreciate the leadership and life skills the Girl Scouts of the USA teach their members and share their values.

I haven’t been able to find any communication by Wal-mart on Twitter or on blogs. (There is nothing on the Walmart “Checkout” blog.) Here are some speculations (not facts not claims not accusations) about

(Maybe) Why I haven’t heard anything from Wal-mart social media representatives:

  1. Wal-mart doesn’t know about the story.
  2. Wal-mart doesn’t care about bad press.
  3. Wal-mart doesn’t pay attention to criticisms of its business practices.
  4. Wal-mart doesn’t pay attention to mommy bloggers.
  5. Wal-mart just doesn’t know what to do on social media.

As as I look across these possible reasons, I can reject the first four. Wal-mart cares about the story — else they would not have issued a press release. Wal-mart does care about bad press, it does pay attention to criticisms of its business practices, and it does pay attention to mommy bloggers. Given that I actually sampled the cookies at Wal-mart’s own blogger outreach exhibit at BlogHer09, you know they were ostensibly trying to reach me, a female blogger.

This leaves #6 as a possible explanation (feel free to add more in the comments if you think of some.)

The other possibility is that Wal-mart just doesn’t know what to do.

Sure, Wal-mart has issued a press release, and it doesn’t read like Wal-mart is really listening to the story or the concerns underneath it. Instead, the press release is very “2000 and late”; it’s very old-school public relations. Where is a hint of the Web 2.0 savvy that Wal-mart is trying to develop? Could it be that Wal-mart isn’t trying, or isn’t really committed? I don’t know.

Wal-mart Social Media: Missing an opportunity?

Thin Mint-y Gate could be a social media opportunity for Wal-mart. They could be using this situation to experiment with and learn more about having an authentic conversation with their stakeholders using Web 2.0. Their own @ScottMonty (or reasonable facsimile) could set a new standard for social media practice.

Imagine what it would have been like if Wal-mart had contacted me when my post hit the news…or if they’d mentioned on Twitter that they were “looking into it”?

What if Wal-mart had engaged in conversation and listened to how this  Thin Mint-y Gate story was unfolding?

Imagine what it would’ve been like if they’d said:

  • “It didn’t occur to us that our decisions might be experienced this way by consumers.”
  • “It didn’t occur to us to consider whether our choices of cookie varieties would create problems for nonprofits.”
  • “We didn’t realize that people might see us as choosing to compete against the Girl Scouts, at the very least for customers who like GS Thin Mints or Tag-a-longs. Maybe competing against Keebler et al. is not the same as competing against the Girl Scouts.”
  • “We don’t really want to contradict ourselves by competing with the Girl Scouts while also (trying to) support them.”
  • “We don’t want people to think that our intent to be better Corporate Citizens would seem false, hollow, and inauthentic because we didn’t put these claims into practice when we were making choices about our new cookie business.”

Imagine what it would have been like for Wal-mart if they’d said:

Thanks for bringing these issues up; we’ll think about them.

That kind of participation in the social media conversation might have shown Wal-mart to be:

  • an organization in touch with its larger community, not only its current customers
  • an organization that is learning and open to reconsidering not only the decisions it makes but also the social and reputational effects of the decision it makes
  • an organization that is indeed committed to learning how to be a better corporate citizen

To be clear, I’m not expecting that Wal-mart will withdraw these cookie varieties from their “Great Value” line. I’m sure some brand managers went to a lot of trouble to get the flavor, the manufacturing, and the cost of these cookies just right. When I sampled them, I thought they were pretty good cookies. Maybe that particular cow has left the barn.

But I would expect that someone at Wal-mart might raise the questions:

  • Do we really want to make cookies so much like Thin Mints and Tag-a-longs that people might- just might- buy cookies from us instead of the Girl Scouts?
  • Should we compete against both Keebler and the Girl Scouts?
  • If we make this choice, are we being the good citizens we claim to want to be?

Whether that conversation is happening at Wal-mart or not, I don’t know. Neither do you. And that’s the social media problem and opportunity for Wal-mart.

What I Do Know

What I do know  is that no one from Wal-mart has actively participated in a two-way, interactive conversation  with me and/or (from what I can tell) with other people writing about the story.

That’s disappointing, because if Wal-mart did join the conversation, in a public and transparent way, we would feel like Wal-mart was learning. And, we would be more willing to reconsider our assessment of who Wal-mart is and is trying to be as an organization.

When Wal-mart joins in the conversation, more transparently and more openly, we’ll be able to see what they really intend, and understand why. Until then, none of us will know whether Wal-mart is trying to be authentic or not.

Surely, that’s a missed opportunity.

{ 6 comments }

Scouter at heart August 8, 2009 at 11:12 pm

I still think it would be a social coo for Wal-Mart to donate 25 cents or so from each package sold to the GS. Even if it’s just for only a one week period during, before or after the GS sell theirs. They have all the data on Retail Link to make it happen, and all the clout to squeeze that manufacturer for a cause other than profits. They could pick a product a week and support lots of charitable community programs from minor league ball to Boy Scouts.

Ike August 10, 2009 at 10:34 am

CV (Hi, it’s been a while.)

You didn’t mention another possibility:

#7: Walmart has weighed the options, and there’s little to be gained by engaging certain segments of the public.

Call me a heretic, but if the people taking the biggest slings and shots at your corporate image are A) the least likely to have liked you anyway, or B) not inclined to be budged from their strident opinions — then there’s no reason to step forth into engagement. All it would do is add fuel.

Yes, you would like to hear from them. Is it really because they can say anything that will give you pause? Or would they just be adding fuel and oxygen to an existing fire?

CV Harquail August 10, 2009 at 10:52 am

Hi Ike,

That’s a great possibility… there certainly are people who wouldn’t change their minds re: Wal-mart— and yet there are also people who are willing to revised their opinions about Wal-mart, given the opportunities. Wal-mart’s progress across different reputation polls shows that people are willing to revise their opinions. All they’d need to do, for me, in this case, was indicate that they were listening, not that they’d turned on their autoresponse PR option.

I think that there is more to it, though, than having more people like you.

Wal-mart’s challenge is to (continue to) grow into a better community member and a better corporate citizen. To do this, they need to listen to valid concerns from other members of their community (like me and other Girl Scout fans). I really think this issue w/ the question of competing with Girl Scouts is an opportunity for Walmart to engage… and engagement in public conversation in what’s right/best for all of us, well, isn’t that the epitome of good citizenship behavior?

Thanks so much for adding #7, and your thoughts, to the conversation. I’ll keep musing on this one Ike.

cvh

sis August 13, 2009 at 9:37 pm

come on walmart is not trying to rip off the gs its a cookie there are lots of diff cookies out there like the gs ones that i have tried i guess anyone just wants to yell about walmart get over your selfs

Just another parent September 17, 2009 at 2:44 pm

I would just like to make people aware…….. As soon as the cookie sales start in our area, I will refuse to shop at Wal-Mart. This is rediculous, that they do this to our children and to the people our children help with the money they make from their sales.

A GS parent and cookie mom October 5, 2009 at 7:59 am

Truly, I applaud Walmart’s choice to offer a more affordable version of the Girl Scout cookies. I would rather buy the Walmart brand and DONATE the difference to my troop or local council. It would result in a larger profit for the troop (they usually earn 50 cents a box, sometimes a little more) and eliminate the pushy GS cookie behavior that I’ve often witnessed. And I say this as the mother of four Scouts and a former cookie mom. I think that the GS cookie empire needs a little competition in order to look reasonably at their prices and the actual value that is being received from the cookie sales. (Plus, I hate the junky prizes that they offer and I think that the entire prize structure instills the wrong values in our kids.)

Just my 2 cents.

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