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The New York Times reports this morning that Wal-Mart management is using a consultant to help it repair what it perceives to be a tattered public image.

The project began about two years ago, with the board of directors getting regular updates. The consultant is using "reputation research" polling techniques to find out how consumer perceive the company, and then Wal-Mart will address those issues, often running radio and television ads to address or reverse criticism of its practices.

For example, in response to public attitudes suggesting that Wal-Mart was a place where there dead-end jobs and poor corporate citizenship, the company currently is broadcasting television commercials saying that its stores are a great place to work, that Wal-Mart is a place where opportunity exists and almost limitless achievement is possible.

The consultant involved is Fleishman-Hillard, part of the Omnicom Group, which reportedly has looked at Wal-Mart's relationships with consumers, employees, bankers, community leaders, and even suppliers.

The NYT writes, "Such an effort indicates concern at Wal-Mart's highest levels about fallout from the company's rapid growth and enormous economic influence. With that ascent has come scrutiny of Wal-Mart's penchant for hiring part-time workers as well as its treatment of female employees, the subject of a pending federal lawsuit, and its resistance to organized labor. Community opposition to building Wal-Mart stores has been vociferous in some places, and muttering is heard from time to time among manufacturers, which say they are being constantly pressed to sell their goods to Wal-Mart at low prices."
KC's View:
This isn’t a huge surprise. After all, Wal-Mart always has been something of a corporate control freak - looking to control the market, control its expenses, control the municipalities where it has stores, control what is said about it…

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

The thing is, at some point we suspect Wal-Mart will be faced with a decision. A scenario will emerge in which Wal-Mart can either do what it normally would do to build its business, or do the opposite, which might hurt business in the short-term but improve its image.

There's no question in our mind that Wal-Mart will choose the former route. Because business is substance, and image is style. And in Bentonville, substance rules over style eight days a week…