Guns and Walmart were synonymous since its founding by Sam Walton, a hunter who opened the first store in 1950 near his in-laws' quail-hunting ranch. Later, the brand sold firearms emblazoned with the founder’s likeness. But on the day that a 21-year-old shooter killed back-to-school shoppers in a Texas Walmart, the company’s brand image came into direct conflict with its marketing. And many consumers on social media called for Walmart to stop selling guns.
“Go Back Big” is the slogan appearing on Sunday, atop Walmart.com’s back-to-school page bearing the images of five elementary-school-age students. Minors are listed among the shooter's victims. A quick search on the site reveals guns, some of which are eligible for “NextDay delivery.”
What the juxtaposition reveals is part of Walmart’s conflict between its brand image and its marketing. Is Walmart the home of the hunting rifle? Or is it the home of children’s brightly colored backpacks? Is the store family-friendly or for gun enthusiasts? Or are those images necessarily at odds?
It's clear Walmart’s public face in this tragedy isn’t addressing its gun sales:
We're in shock over the tragic events at Cielo Vista Mall in El Paso, where store 2201 & club 6502 are located. We’re praying for the victims, the community & our associates, as well as the first responders. We’re working closely with law enforcement & will update as appropriate.
— Walmart (@Walmart) August 3, 2019
And on Saturday and Sunday, many consumers were demanding Walmart change its brand image and stop selling guns. Walmart, seen as the nation's largest gun retailer, doesn't report gun sales, according to the Orange County Register.
Dear @Walmart I'm about to go to your store ...
should I update my Last Wishes b4 I go ?
should I wear a body armour?
— CowboyundertheStars (@KyHoopFan) August 4, 2019
Even though an early-morning mass shooting in a Dayton bar followed shortly after the Walmart shooting and the Texas attack is being investigated as domestic terrorism, consumers wanted to know what the brand was going to do.
People over profits.
STOP SELLING GUNS
You have the ability to make a real difference here. Closing the door on guns could potentially open another door for marching those profits elsewhere with public support. The marketing alone is worth it.
You’re on the clock, @Walmart
— Joe Caruso (@joecarusoOTT) August 4, 2019
Although the shooter didn’t buy his gun at Walmart and he did do so legally elsewhere, it’s possible he could’ve bought a firearm from Walmart. At 21, he did match the age threshold the brand enforced — but Walmart doesn’t sell the AK-47. The Washington Post reports on Saturday:
Last year, Walmart said it would raise the minimum age to buy a firearm or ammunition from 18 to 21 and remove products resembling assault-style rifles, such as airsoft guns and toys, from its inventory, as The Washington Post reported. The company said in a statement that it made the decision “in light of recent events” — an inescapable reference to the February 2018 shooting at a Parkland, Fla., high school that left 17 people dead.
It was an unusual acknowledgment from Walmart, which has often attributed its changing positions on gun sales to market factors, even when other issues are present.
Meanwhile, just below a tweet about a previous Walmart shooting, the brand posts family-friendly content:
— Walmart (@Walmart) July 29, 2019
We’re still excited from our celebration of @DisneyLionKing! @jdmccrary, @Shahadi, @KenyaMoore, and @KSTiLLS were all there, along with lots of fans who got hands-on with crafts, face painting, and more. Get your paws on exclusive @Disney toys at https://t.co/ptbdXhbRIn. pic.twitter.com/BMOWgppYc1
— Walmart (@Walmart) July 24, 2019
Unicorn Decor Is SO Popular, Walmart Just Opened an Entire Shop Devoted to the Trend https://t.co/LJ9A6quTvI
— House Beautiful (@HouseBeautiful) July 24, 2019
What do you think, marketers? Does Walmart need to change its branding?
Please respond in the comments section below.
Related story: Does Gun Marketing Matter?