Wal-Mart <i>Angry Birds</i> Promo Great Tactic, Weak Strategy

Sometimes, it pays to be the world's largest retailer. Wal-Mart, looking to stage a promotion to (please forgive me) hawk about two dozen pieces of merchandise based on the absurdly popular Angry Birds mobile game, wanted to offer specific clues about how gamers could jump to higher levels. And it wanted those hints only available at Wal-Mart, hidden within the very fabric of those items.

To make it smooth and easy, Wal-Mart wanted the hint-attachment to happen at the manufacturer. But being Wal-Mart, it wanted these 25 pieces of hint-included clothing, toys, phones, snacks and other items (including some Easter-themed eggs. Is it legal to have something dual-themed?) to be only shipped to Wal-Mart, forcing runs for just Wal-Mart and then for everyone else.

Asked for an example of the type of clues that will be given, Sarah Spencer, director of media relations for Wal-Mart stores in the U.S., said it could be "a picture that will say to go to this level and look for something."

The idea works on two very tactical levels, but it misses at the strategic level. That's not necessarily a criticism, because chains need lots of short-term tactical moves—gimmicks, if you will—to move sales, surrounding the more game-changing strategic moves. It only becomes a criticism when management starts to confuse the two, which Wal-Mart does not seem to be doing.

The first tactical level that works is finding a way to differentiate Wal-Mart from rivals and to do so on something other than lowest price. In short, an Angry Birds fan who wants this stuff will now have a definite reason to go to Wal-Mart rather than to someone else.

The second tactical level is that it's designed to simply get fans of the game (which has been downloaded more than 500 million times) to walk inside a Wal-Mart. Although Wal-Mart's policy is to not require any purchases, it's hard to envision that many of the fans walking into the store and walking through various aisles to find the many clues won't at least buy some of the Angry Birds-themed merchandise and perhaps a box of Tide or some paper towels.

That all said, the campaign has some serious limits. First off, Facebook, Twitter and tons of gaming blogs will see to it that the need for Birds fans to go into a Wal-Mart and hunt around will likely only last a day or two. After that, the full sets of clues will be published by early fans (the store campaign begins March 25) and the incentive will quickly diminish. Suddenly, the advantage of Wal-Mart versus rivals disappears.

The strategic issue is more daunting. At its core, this is a tactic to get customers into the store. But there's nothing about the promotion that speaks to the shopping experience, nothing that will not only get them to shop that day but likely convert them into long-term Wal-Mart shoppers.

Wal-Mart has articulated a brilliant in-store social media strategy, and what makes those plans so good is that the retailer used a wide range of data tools to help customers find what they need, to anticipate what they want, and to make it require fewer steps and less time than anywhere else. Now that's a reason to shop at a specific chain.

It's strategic, because it starts with what customers want and need, and then builds ways to deliver it. Compare that with the Birds effort, which might have its full effect for only a couple of days, and—even then—ardent fans might go in, write down the clues and leave empty-handed. People who enjoy using slingshots to attack pigs tend to resist doing anything beyond their core objective.