• Walmart learned an important lesson about corporate reputation in the mid-2000s, CEO Doug McMillon said at the National Retail Federation’s annual Big Show in January.
  • It realized it needed to focus on being a good citizen in addition to putting customers and employees first.
  • It’s a valuable lesson for any corporation that has achieved ubiquity, like Amazon.

Walmart went through some big changes in the mid-2000s, and it’s a huge lesson for any company that operates on a similar scale.

Speaking to attendees at the National Retail Federation’s annual Big Show in New York City in January, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon explained the company had not cared much about its reputation for decades. It didn’t pay attention to the positive press in the beginning, and it didn’t pay attention when the tide started turning against it.

“At some point point, Walmart became big, and societal expectations changed,” McMillon told the crowd. “And we missed the memo.”

McMillon said that Walmart had been ignoring its critics, but then tried to combat the negative attention with facts.

“That didn’t really work,” McMillon said.

Eventually, the company decided to confront its critics head-on.

“Let’s find the people who dislike us the most and go figure out why, and see if there’s some good in what they’re saying — and then implement it,” McMillon said, paraphrasing words from Lee Scott, who was Walmart’s CEO from 2000 to 2009.

That led to a watershed moment for Walmart as it started its first large-scale humanitarian efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. McMillon said Walmart “unleashed” its entire staff, sending products, money, and people down to affected regions.

“We’ll worry about what it costs later,” he remembers Scott saying.