Brand Stories: How Walmart’s Evolving Design and Low Prices Took Over the World

Very early in his career, before he ever opened the first Walmart, Sam Walton developed a marketing philosophy around discount pricing that would eventually let him become one of the richest men in American history: “By cutting your price you can boost your sales to a point where you can earn far more at a cheaper retail price than you would have by selling the item at a higher price. In retailer language, you can lower your mark – up but earn more because of increased volume.”

For example, by accepting a much slimmer margin on a jar of pickles then their competitors, Walmart is able to sell more pickles – resulting in more profits in the long run. This strategy persisted throughout Sam Walton’s many successful business ventures, including the original Walton’s 5 and Dime locations across small American towns. This was another part of his early brand strategy – Walton understood that residents of small towns with populations of less than 5,000 people would make for an especially strong target market. When he proposed to his backers that he wanted to dramatically cut back margins even further, they couldn’t get on board with the vision and declined to get involved. Walton struck out on his own, officially launching Walmart (then “Wal-Mart”) in Rogers, Arkansas in 1962.

When the company initially launched, it did not even have a true consistent logo. For the first two years of operations, the font and style was chosen at the discretion of the printer any time the company’s name appeared in writing. The first official logo was chosen in 1964, a “frontier font” style that gave the brand a folksy and Western look. The company would hold onto this style for nearly twenty years, even as it quickly expanded and outgrew its humble roots. Within the first seven years alone, Sam and Bud Walton would come to employ 900 associates across four states and produce $30.8 million in sales. 

The company completely overhauled their logo in 1981, finally modernizing the brand and bringing it much closer to the look that shoppers are familiar with today. Two years later, in 1983, the company launched Sam’s Club in Oklahoma. By selling in bulk via a new club channel, Walmart Inc. could offer shoppers even lower prices per unit than in their Walmart stores. 1983 also saw the introduction of “greeters” at Walmart entrances, something that would become an integral part of the in-store brand experience.

The 80s were a vital era for Walmart’s nationwide expansion; by the end of the decade, there were locations in almost half the country. 1988 saw the launch of one of the company’s more ambitious projects – the Supercenter. These stores offer a range of grocery items in addition to Walmart’s selection of household goods, creating one of the first true national “one-stop shops”. By 1989, Walmart Inc. owned over 1,500 stores across Walmarts, Walmart Supercenters, and Sam’s Clubs. The organization employed 275,000 people, with annual sales reaching almost $26 billion.

In 1992, over a decade after the last logo redesign, Walmart replaced the hyphen in its name with a star. According to Su Matthews, senior partner at Lippincott (one of Walmart’s top agency partners), the addition of the star had to do with the new way that Walmart was considering their brand. In the past, Walmart’s ability to help consumers save money was seen as a technical benefit, and the old logo reflected this cold and utilitarian point of view. By putting a star in the center of the logo, Walmart was signaling a shift in the way that they talked about their relationship to consumers. Saving money was now an emotional benefit as well as a practical one, and a patriotic star let them express this in a subtle way.

Walmart and Sam’s Club both launched online stores in 1996. This was three years before competitor Kmart’s major push into digital, and two years before Sears’ launched a web version of their Wishbook. This early foresight paid off, with now one of the strongest players in ecommerce. Many of the company’s former competitors eventually died off, unprepared and unable to compete in the new digital marketplace.

In 2002, Walmart became the first service company to take the top spot on the Fortune 500 list. They still hold that place today, even ahead of their rival Amazon, which sits at #2.

The logo that we all know today was first introduced back in 2008. With the company firmly established as an international powerhouse, they realized that they needed to bring in a brand symbol that was more ownable and iconic than a “generic” star. Lippincott developed the spark symbol, and each spoke now represents a specific core tenet of Walmart’s mission: exceeding and satisfying customer needs; respect for the individual; integrity; the associates on the front lines; service to customers, associates, and greater community; and, finally, the company’s commitment to excellence. Unlike the star, the spark was a symbol that can be recognized on its own, even when the name “Walmart” isn’t present.

Throughout Walmart’s entire history, there have been elements of their brand strategy that proved to be far ahead of their time. They pioneered the kind of large-scale, low-margin business model that many leading retailers have come to depend on today, and their early foray into the Internet has helped them stay on top in the digital age. Even though they have only had a few logo evolutions in the brand’s lifetime, each logo has also reflected the position and strategy of the company in that era. From its early days as a discount Western chain to its modern status as one of the largest employers in the world, innovative thinking and a consumer-first philosophy have propelled the company into massive success.

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