Power to the People: On Walmart and Purpose

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Here’s an interesting rabbit hole, if you’ve got the time: run a quick search on the terms “purpose and corporate responsibility.” In .85 seconds, you’ll pull roughly 324 M results, a cool 10 million more than what you’ll find if you google Walmart and guns.

This may be a sliver of algorithmic hope for the future to those who still believe they can change the world—and are finding unexpected allies in brands that stand for something they believe in.

Last week and by the hour, Walmart’s decision to change its gun policies has generated considerable momentum—perhaps even a corporate movement—around the issue of gun violence. As the world’s second-largest retailer makes its way into cultural conversation and Congressional inboxes, other brands are tucking in behind it: Kroger, CVS, and Walgreens also came out this week to show their support for Walmart’s move, joining companies like Starbuck’s, Trader Joes, Chipotle and DICKS Sporting Goods to take a public stand on an issue that has claimed global attention.

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Questions from reporters last week centered around themes of backlash, branding and polarizing politics: Will Walmart’s stance on gun control have a positive impact on profit, despite potential boycotts? – Minimal. In this divisive political arena, what do brands need to know before picking a side? – Be careful, listening and authentic. Will more brands follow in Walmart’s footsteps? – They already are.

But here’s the thing: While #boycottwalmart is definitely trending, Walmart is not a bit concerned about its profit right now. (If you are, dear reader, take a quick look at Dick’s Sporting Goods strong second-quarter earnings after it announced its own reduction in gun sales in March.) And while the world debates whether Walmart can truly make an impact in curbing gun violence, an interesting shift is occurring, one that citizens and CEOs alike should pay attention to.

Consider this: Walmart’s move was inspired by the inside-out, the people who worked for it, not by politics or profit. After two shootings in its stores in a single week, one of which was the deadliest in Walmart’s history, devastated employees came together as a community to plead with similarly devastated, top-level leadership to unite around a central purpose, and to let such a purpose drive corporate action. As a result, the historically conservative brand changed its policies and product offerings—and reached out to Congress calling for further support.

Politics aside for a moment, that’s quite a pivot for a heritage brand that was at one time the world’s largest gun seller.

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In such a polarized time, this is the power to the people: The public is discovering they don’t have to wait for the government to legislate solutions if they can influence social issues by engaging with the companies and organizations they love (or don’t) and work for.

Walmart showed courage and compassion; it led with purpose this week. What major brands will follow suit? In some way or another, maybe they all will eventually find something to stand for beyond profit, as more and more people choose to vote with dollars instead of waiting for legislated change. The search results on the topic will only continue to increase in number as the headlines and interest in the subject of purpose do, too.

Consumers, employees and investors alike have companies in a vice grip of change. Purpose provides a brand with direction, trajectory; it’s the heartbeat of a company that connects it to people, both inside its walls and to the global village. Purpose allows a brand to take a stand when it comes to hard conversations, and research shows people are starting to expect this of the brands they love. These expectations will only increase from this point on, especially when people find ways to empower themselves through commercial partnerships and advocacy. Companies like Walmart recognize collaboration is required to solve the global issues of our time. Brands that ignore this movement, that choose to stay safe and silent, may not be around to see what happens next.

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