Green or Greedy: Wal-Mart's $9.7-Billion Reputation Conundrum

FastCompanyCover.jpgThere were long lines at my local Staples this weekend. (Note to self: Avoid back-to-school season next year.)

So I picked up this month’s Fast Company—yes, it’s still being published—while waiting at the cash register.

The cover story (“Working with the Enemy”) is a fascinating piece about Adam Werbach, environmental consultant and former president of the Sierra Club, who has been vilified for helping Wal-Mart “go green.”

To fellow environmentalists. Werbach is a weasel and a sell-out. But Adam says his work with the goliath retailer is a “chance to change the world.”

The story reinforces just how hard it is for any company with a bad reputation to actually fix it, no matter how hard they try to do the right thing. (And, at least when it comes to the environment, I believe Wal-Mart is.)

That’s an enormous business problem. This summer, Business Week estimated that Wal-Mart’s tarnished image costs the company nearly $10 billion in stock-market valuation compared to its rival Target.

But you can’t simply transform “I hate Wal-Mart” opinions into “I love Wal-Mart” feelings with a barrage of publicity about your good acts and well-intended initiatives. Often, as the Fast Company article illustrates, it just makes your opponents all the more vocal and vitriolic.

It’s time for Wal-Mart to stand for something more than “always low prices” and “we’re not as bad as everyone thinks.” That just might be the biggest branding/positioning challenge of the decade.