Small Biz: Change Your Logo Like Wal-Mart?

When you're the country's biggest retailer, everything you do gets analyzed obsessively.

So it's no surprise that when Wal-Mart ( WMT) debuted a new logo this week, marketing and design experts began decoding the meaning behind it.

If your small business is considering redoing its logo, you could take a lesson from what everyone's saying about the change from the Arkansas-based behemoth.

For instance, a logo alone won't reinvigorate your company. But, as in the case of Wal-Mart, it can be an important step in an overall transformation.

The key is to show that there's some substance behind your new look.

Wal-Mart's logo has changed a few times during the company's almost 50-year history (in the '60s and '70s, it featured a black, Old West-style font). Since 1992, the name has been emblazoned on storefronts in blocky white capital letters, separated by a star.

The new logo takes a less in-your-face approach. Gone are the forceful capital letters, replaced by a more casual, rounded lowercase font. The word "Walmart" now runs together without interruption; instead of a star in the middle, there's a bright yellow something (a star? the sun? a flower?) at the end.

The company itself has been cagy about what the new look is supposed to represent. A press release describes the updated logo as "a reflection of the refresh taking place inside our stores and our renewed sense of purpose to help people save money so they can live better." (No word on what the yellow thing is.)

"It's smoother and softer," says Charles Fishman, editor-at-large of Fast Company magazine and author of The Wal-Mart Effect: How the World's Most Powerful Company Really Works -- And How It's Transforming the American Economy.

"The company is trying to promote sustainability, and the yellow burst conjures up the idea of the sun, even if it's very subtle."

Fishman points to the company's new slogan -- "Save Money. Live Better" -- as an even more significant signal of change, compared to the previous slogan, "Always Low Prices."

"It's quite on point," he says. "It's a pretty good way to convey in four words what the company is trying to do."

And what is that exactly? Wal-Mart -- like many companies, big and small -- wants to connect emotionally with its customers.

For years, Wal-Mart has inspired plenty of emotions, from fear that the behemoth was destroying small towns to anger at the perceived abuse of low-paid associates. What the company is after now is that warm-and-fuzzy feeling that keeps shoppers loyal because they believe in the store's values and mission.

That's meant making huge changes throughout the company. And so far, the company has plenty to be proud of. Offering $4 prescriptions has allowed cash-strapped seniors to afford their medications. The company's green initiatives, including everything from more efficient packaging to investing in solar power, have saved massive amounts of energy. And its power to educate shoppers about sustainability has been just as important: in one year, the company doubled the U.S. market for compact fluorescent lightbulbs.

"No one is shopping at Wal-Mart because of the logo," says Fishman. "The real core project is to change how they're perceived. By behaving differently, the company can reposition itself in the minds of consumers, and the new logo will be part of that hoped-for new image."

A new logo and slogan can send a powerful signal that your company is shifting in a new direction -- but only if they're backed up by specific actions (and if you can make changes in as many different areas as Wal-Mart has done, more power to you).

"The real question is, is the store experience evolving in a way that benefits consumers?" says Fishman. "From what I'm hearing, it seems to be pushing in the right direction."

First, do the work to justify your improved image. Then feel free to show off that flashy new logo.

Elizabeth Blackwell is a freelance writer based in Chicago. She is the author of Frommer's Chicago guidebook, and writes for the Wall Street Journal, Chicago, and other national magazines.

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