How Walmart has adapted when it’s ‘far from business as usual’

One of the big lessons Tammy Sadinsky has learned from the last remarkable month of doing business during a global pandemic is how agile her team is, and how quickly things can change.

“It busts all previous, traditional timelines,” says the VP of marketing at Walmart Canada. “It busts ‘what’s possible?’ because anything is possible.”

Like a lot of big brands, Walmart Canada was getting ready to launch new spring creative when the pandemic brought everything to a screeching halt. “We were just finishing up the content for our spring campaign,” says Sadinsky. “And very quickly—I think it was March 16, the day we were all working from home—we looked around and said ‘This is just not relevant.'”

The marketing team needed something new and very different, and they needed it fast. “It was a complete 180,” she says. The period between throwing out the spring campaign and coming up with something new went by in a bit of a blur: “For the first two-and-a-half weeks, I’m not sure when the day started and when it ended,” says Sadinsky.

By early April, Walmart was ready with a 60-second brand spot made by Cossette. It  speaks directly to the new reality—”It’s far from business as usual”—and addresses not only the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, but the health and economic anxieties gripping so many Canadians.

From initial briefing to final cut, the ad was produced in just five days, using existing footage from 20 different sources and an original music track recorded by Berkley Studios in the musician’s basement.

The Message talked with Sadinsky about making that quick-response ad and how—or if— she and her team can start working on what comes next.

After pulling the spring campaign, how soon did you talk to the agency about something new? What did you ask for?

“It was that week… It was a conversation around, ‘Let’s shelve this and then let’s quickly articulate, via a brief, what is the most important thing that Canadians need to hear from Walmart right now.'”

Walmart needed new advertising focusing on its commitment to safety for employees and customers, to keeping shelves stocked and prices low, and its support for charity partners like food banks and the Red Cross.

“We realized very quickly it was not about selling merchandise,” says Sadinsky. “It was not about selling a season like spring. It was about providing certainty and reassurance in a very anxious time.”

The ad includes several of your associates smiling confidently straight to camera. Can you tell us about its tone.

“It’s very important that we find the right tone for the moment but stay consistent to our brand persona—and our brand persona is an eternal optimist,” she says.

According to Walmart, 80% of Canadians shop at Walmart, and most are on a budget. “They are making their dollars work really hard, but there’s always a sense of resilience [with] our customers, and there’s that same sense of resilience in our brand,” says Sadinsky.

“For that reason—for the optimism—it was very important for us to communicate our message in a manner that gave people comfort and gave people some hope and a smile. There’s enough doom around us, and our brand doesn’t need to take this on. Our brand needs to be an ally to our customers and act as a catalyst for what they need during these times.”

Can you start to think longer term at this point? Two months out, three months out? End of year?

“I think every company is trying to wrap their heads around what this is going to look like. What’s going to be top of mind for people. What will their media consumption patterns and habits look like,” she says.

“What will change is the context around how we communicate that message. That’s what we’re trying to wrap our heads around… Our DNA as a brand will be the same, how we flex that in our plans we are assessing, based on what’s topical and top of mind for consumers.”

But can you start working on briefs for different scenarios: a quick recovery period, more optimistic or pessimistic scenarios?

“We can certainly start assessing based on all of the literature out there as to what consumer mindset will be,” she says. Other countries that have gone through the COVID crisis earlier and started to open up again will provide some clues about how to prepare but those clues to provide a full picture.

“One of the biggest questions we talked about is are kids going to school. We are a leader in share of wallet [during the back-to-school period], so what is back to school time? What will that look like? I personally ask the question because I’m a mom of two. But when and how people will do things makes the brief process hard.”

Has Christmas come up yet?

“Well it’s funny you ask because I just saw a meeting in my calendar, and I thought ‘Oh my God, I can’t even get to tomorrow.’ We’re writing a brief, and we’re writing a contingency brief. It’s all about scenario planning based on jumping off points that might be a little different based on consumer mindset assumptions that we make. So I would tell you that once, when one plan was [normal], multiple plans that we might decide to activate is the reality.”


David Brown