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Decide to Disconnect: Knowing the Limits of Your Brand Story

By Hannah Landers

ModCloth, Moosejaw, and Walmart; one of these things just doesn’t belong — or so it would seem initially.  

ModCloth peddles well-made women’s clothing that comes in whimsical patterns and vintage silhouettes, while Moosejaw has built its brand around premium outdoor clothing and gear with a bit of off-the-wall raucousness. 

Both of these small, hip retailers are owned by… Walmart.

With the slogan, “Save Money. Live Better,” Walmart has built its empire around the idea of “selling more for less.” Far from attracting the discerning consumer, Walmart has become a store for the average Joes of the world to step into one warehouse sized location to find everything they might need — from toilet paper to Barbie dolls — at the lowest possible price. 

So how does the image of a big-box retailer that specializes in inexpensive products track with fans of ModCloth, a brand built around female empowerment and well-made clothing for every body type? Or with shoppers at Moosejaw, whose happy-go-lucky retail atmosphere involves weekly happy hours and homemade s’mores at the checkout counter? 

The Walmart brand story of huge selection at low prices was never going to appeal to the ModCloth customer who is looking for one-of-a-kind, distinctive fashions that aren’t endlessly restocked in a fluorescent warehouse — and is willing to pay a premium price for such a product. But acquiring a new brand doesn’t necessarily mean that brand has to fit the parent brand’s story or speak to the same audience. Trying to shoehorn an established brand into a certain mold to reach a new audience almost always comes off as inauthentic.  

Rather, brands looking to reach previously inaccessible customer groups need to be able to speak their language in order to be fully understood and accepted.  

Businesses looking to add new brands into the fold must recognize when that brand won’t fit with its established brand story, and accordingly keep the new brand at a safe distance in order to preserve both brand stories. Otherwise, parent brands need to truly commit and do what’s required to make two disparate brand stories truly harmonious.  

A little more than a year after the acquisition, ModCloth CEO Antonio Nieves reported that sales were strong and that customers were buying more pieces than ever at higher price points. Access to Walmart’s sizeable budget allowed ModCloth to expand and evolve in on-brand ways, such as through the creation of a handful of “Fitshops,” or stores where customers can get style advice and try on a variety of samples to find the best fit for their body type before placing an order through the brand’s website.  

Not everything has been smooth. Following news of the acquisition, some fans tearfully deleted the quirky clothier’s app from their phones and formed Facebook groups centered on boycotting the brand, citing Walmart’s questionable corporate and workplace behaviors. The acquisition even sparked a gender equality campaign from OUR Walmart, a non-profit dedicated to bettering the treatment of retail employees. 

Although these socially conscious deserters were a vocal group, they were a relatively small one, all things told. The success of this seemingly incongruous acquisition, and its acceptance beyond that vocal minority, was possible because Walmart knew the limits of its brand identity. 

With its core product line, the appropriately named “Great Value” products, Walmart has strongly leaned into the qualities that make up the core elements of its brand. At an affordable price point and sporting relatively bland, straightforward looking packaging and design, Great Value products reinforce Walmart’s brand narrative as a place to find just about anything one might be looking for at a lower price without the frills.  

In attempting to expand its digital footprint — and knowing that its brand story and physical retail wouldn’t appeal to the millennial market — Walmart purchased ecommerce site Jet and kept it separate from its existing brand narrative. This has allowed Walmart to successfully peddle higher end products and brands to customers otherwise unsuited to the Walmart brand narrative.  

When it came to branching out even further through the ModCloth acquisition, Walmart understood that, although it wanted to expand its offering, it would be unable to massively reinvent its brand to make it appealing to this new audience. Aside from turning loyal ModCloth customers off from their beloved brand, this would also break faith with Walmart’s own loyal customer base and the years of brand equity behind the Walmart name.  

Instead, Walmart acquired ModCloth but let it be ModCloth. 

Rather than placing ModCloth’s beloved fashions in its physical stores, the brand is now sold on Jet, establishing a safe distance between the Walmart behemoth and the indie clothier. Fears about a decline in quality of the clothes or a retreat from ModCloth’s embrace of all body types were unfounded — more than a year after the acquisition, the product and the brand identity are still as high-quality, quirky, and inclusive as ever.  

Walmart employed a slightly different strategy with Moosejaw. In addition to its original website, the brand now has its own “curated storefront” within the Walmart website that gives visitors access to a limited selection of Moosejaw’s premium outdoor products.  

In addition to designing the Moosejaw digital storefront with prominent Walmart visual branding — the logo appears in the corner of the homepage and visitors can easily navigate to other parts of the Walmart website — Walmart plans to roll other outdoor brands into the specialty storefront’s offerings, thereby effectively making Walmart the curator of these high-end outdoor products. 

Accordingly, this acquisition has generated a bit more conflict. It’s been enough to chase some of Moosejaw’s top-tier brands from the storefront, with an executive from ski gear manufacturer Leki stating, “The image gap between our Leki brand and the Walmart name proved to be something that even the premium reputation of Moosejaw was not able to bridge.” Black Diamond, a specialty ski and mountain climbing equipment brand, voiced similar concerns. 

Despite the fact that Walmart has been successful in giving newly acquired higher-end retailers like ModCloth independence and space, the brand still can’t seem to resist trying to reinvent itself by curating its own posh outdoor adventure store with the acquisition of Moosejaw. Yet transforming Walmart into a viable retail destination for the discerning shopper is something the brand has largely stumbled with in the past.  

In the early 2000s, Walmart experimented with high-end fashion through its in-house upscale clothing label Metro 7 along with lines from designers Max Azria and Norma Kamali. All had limited and largely unsuccessful runs.  

Meanwhile, Walmart counterpart Target has had a number of surprisingly successful initiatives with high-end fashion designers like Lilly PulitzerMissoni, and Alexander McQueen over the years.  

These wildly different results suggest that the problem lies not with bringing higher-end products to the retail masses, but rather in trying to shoehorn a product that doesn’t fit with the rest of the brand and its customer base.  

Target’s bid for the higher end market has always been a concerted effort to create a true collaboration that blends both brands to create something truly unique and harmonious — think “Lily Pulitzer for Target.” Target didn’t simply stock high-end Lily Pulitzer creations on the shelves. Instead, Target invested the time and effort to ensure that both companies could work together to create a new, lower priced product that resonated with and amplified the story of both brands.  

The approach that Walmart took with ModCloth of separating its bid for a higher-end market from its own brand story of high volume at low prices is just as valid, as it keeps two incompatible brand stories effectively separated.  

The half in, half out approach employed by Walmart in the case of Moosejaw is not as effective. While a brand should be encouraged to evolve and incorporate new elements into its story, fostering new relationships and connections in the process, that process takes real commitment and decisiveness to be fruitful. Vacillating somewhere between the two is where things get troublesome and confusing.  

Any brand looking to acquire, partner with, or otherwise collaborate alongside another organization has the same decision to make. 

Will it commit to integrating two brand stories that may seem incongruous on the surface or will it make sure both are kept at a safe distance? Making the right choice requires knowing the limits of each story and where there might be an opportunity for the two to connect and intertwine.

Hannah Landers is an associate at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, Woden can help. Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at connect@wodenworks.com to discuss how we can help tell your story.