Walmart has entered the virtual experiences chat. As we see technology advancing every single day, businesses are looking for ways to keep up while continuing to drive meaningful content and provide value. In this week’s episode, Justin Breton, the Director of Brand Experiences & Partnerships at Walmart, joins Evan Brandoff on UNAIDED. They discuss how Walmart drives meaningful engagement through virtual experiences, the process and shift of brand perception, how people are engaging with Walmart outside of what the traditional walls may appear to be, and much more.
We welcome Justin Breton onto the show. He is the Director of Brand Experiences and Partnerships at Walmart, focusing on digital and virtual experiences that drive meaningful customer engagement. Let’s get into it.
Justin, thank you so much for coming to the show.
I’m happy to be here. Thanks for having me.
First off, your backdrop is perfect. Are you a consistent podcaster because this is the perfect backdrop for it?
No, I’m not a consistent podcaster. This is my second podcast. I will take your feedback and your compliments. If an opportunity to speak on another podcast presents itself, I will make sure this is where I position myself.
We are excited to have you. We have a lot to talk about. I would love to go back in time to high school. What was high school Justin like?
High school Justin was very ambitious. It was the first time in my life that I started to position myself as a leader and somebody that wanted to spark change. I ran for class president. I participated in a few sports. Through both my extracurricular activities and desire to make a change, I was able to do some fun and progressive things for my high school.
I was talking to my dad. He was telling me about how he was reflecting on our local newspaper, the Morning Sentinel, writing an editorial piece about how I went to the local school board and petitioned as class president for our class to have an open campus. They wrote about how I was brave and all these things that he was proud of. It was fun to hear him reflect back on high school Justin. It was an interesting time in my life when I started to want to be a leader, spark change, and have a voice, and I did it. It started that trajectory of how I got to where I am now.
You were well-liked if you were able to push that through.
I don’t know what I did, but it worked. That is all that matters.
It is interesting that you already had those leadership qualities even at a younger age in high school because it is clear you are an incredible leader now. What sparked your interest to go into the field of marketing?
I have spoken to colleagues and have been fortunate to be a part of the Adfellows Program at Walmart. I have shared my professional journey with a wide range of people. I never had a moment in time of my college career where I was like, “I want to get into marketing. I’m a marketer.” I fell into it and I’m happy that I did. My background is diverse. I started publishing at a time when the publishing industry, specifically in magazines, was evolving and embracing newness. I was there for several years before moving into tech during the tech boom.
Over the course of ten years, I have been able to learn and grow within this marketing profession. I’m happy that I am where I am now. In college, I studied communications, which plays a nice role in marketing. I’m in a partnerships role now. I always tell people that it is all about internal partnerships, external partnerships, and building and maintaining those relationships. My collegiate background helped me be successful in this marketing background, but I didn’t ever think that I was going to be a marketer. It worked out and I’m happy with the way it has all played out.
At Walmart, you are the Director of Brand Experiences and Strategic Partnerships, which means you wear a lot of different hats. Summing it all down, what does that role entail at Walmart?
I sit on the brand marketing team. The Brand Experience and Strategic Partnerships team is a small but mighty team. We are fortunate to be able to push the boundaries and test new things for the Walmart brand. Our goal is to drive meaningful engagement, shift brand perception, and get people to engage with Walmart outside of what those traditional four walls might be.
People often think of Walmart as a brick-and-mortar location. That is how we started. We got a robust website that allows customers to shop for first-party products, but also a whole marketplace of products that people can shop for. Those are all delivered to your home in a quick fashion. Our team, specifically the team I oversee, focuses on digital and virtual experiences.
Digital has historically included interactive content. It has included AR activations. In 2022, we focused on shoppable live streams. With shoppable live streams, we are meeting customers where they are online. We are giving them a new way to Walmart and a new way to shop our brand. We got brand partners that are going live. They are saying, “Look at these great products. This is why I built these products. This is the inspiration behind this product. You should buy it now.” It is driving that engagement with customers in a new way that allows them to Walmart in a new way.
With Shoppable live streams, we’re meeting customers where they are online, and we’re giving them a new way to Walmart, a new way to shop our brand.
Virtual experiences are leaning into this newness of the metaverse, showing up in a space that is still being defined, and allowing us to engage with customers in a new way. In this instance, it is a younger demographic. My team led the launch of Walmart Land on Roblox in September of 2022. We are continuing to support that initiative and have some fun things coming out later in 2023.
It is about driving that meaningful engagement and shifting the perception of our brand so that people are like, “This is Walmart? This is cool.” Our role is fun. I’m fortunate to be in the position that I’m in and be able to do the things that we are doing because it is innovative. It gets people to think differently about our brand. I’m proud of the work my team has done and I’m excited for 2023.
Congratulations on the launch to the metaverse. I’m still learning more about the metaverse and what the applications can be for brands. Why enter the metaverse? What did you see as an opportunity for Walmart?
Full transparency, when you are saying you are learning, so am I. All of my peers in this space are also learning. It is a space that is being defined in real-time. Brands like Walmart are showing up and saying, “We are embracing this newness. We are here to learn.” They are brands that will be set up for success in the future.
If there are brand marketers and they were like, “We haven’t done anything yet. Are we missing out?” No, there is no need to rush. There is value in testing and learning. That is a huge way I approach marketing and something that I have instilled in my team, which is, “What is our learning agenda with everything that we do? What do we learn from that to inform what we do in the future?”
With the Metaverse, it is a space, specifically in 2022, that was the darling of the new cycle. Everybody was talking about the metaverse and newness in that space. At the end of 2021, we started to think about like, “What is our team’s contribution to the brand marketing team? How can we look for innovation and test into newness?” The metaverse was that space.
We identified Roblox as the right platform for us. We brought in the right partners to continue to test, learn, and build this immersive space that positions Walmart as a different type of brand. It is not just a copy and paste of the physical into the virtual. It allowed us to push the boundaries of what our brand is and how people can engage with our brand, products, or categories that we offer. It was fun. It was anchored in innovation and newness, and the desire to start to build a relationship with a younger demographic. We are still learning. It is an exciting time to be active in that space.
How does it work? When you are in Roblox, are you able to shop at Walmart for your avatar, or are you able to buy things in the physical world?
As it stands today, the way in which consumers would come into Walmart Land on Roblox is through the traditional Roblox platform. In Walmart Land, we have virtual manifestations of physical goods. You can come into Walmart Land and play mini-games, explore the vast world, earn tokens and experiences through those mini-games, or through exploring, and use those tokens to buy these virtual goods for your avatar in Walmart Land. For example, you can buy a Crosley Cruiser record player and hold it as an avatar as you walk around the world. You can buy an assortment of Free Assembly and clothing. Free Assembly is a private-label brand that Walmart launched a couple of years ago.
Users of the Roblox platform are actively changing what their avatar wears almost on a daily basis. The percentage is 70% of Roblox users are changing what their avatar wears on a daily basis. They consider their avatar truly as an extension of them. In Walmart Land, we give customers or consumers of this Roblox experience the opportunity to engage with these physical goods in a virtual sense.
As it stands now, you can’t buy physical goods, but you know those physical goods exist at Walmart. You can go to Walmart.com or to your local Walmart store. We are unique in the sense that we got almost 4,500 stores nationwide. More than 90% of the country lives within 10 miles of a Walmart. If you want that Crosley Cruiser record player, you can make your way to a Walmart and purchase it for your bedroom, your desk, or your podcast set.
I love your strategy of telling other brand marketers that they are not missing out on the metaverse. Walmart Land continues to be the main brand activation in the metaverse. Much of what you and your team are doing is trying new things and investing in new and innovative channels. When entering a new partnership, how are you thinking about what success looks like?
Going back to that learning agenda, when we start thinking about new channels and how our brand should show up, what is it that we hope to learn, and how do we use those learnings to inform what we do next, whether it be within that channel or another channel? Let’s take shoppable live streams for example. We launched our first shoppable live stream on TikTok in December 2020. We were the first brand to execute a shoppable live stream on TikTok. There was so much to learn.
We had a long list of things we were hoping to learn in terms of, “Should this be prerecorded? Should we feature multiple people? Should we go live from Walmart’s handle versus the creator’s handle, knowing that TikTok is much a creator-led platform?” That list goes on and on. Post going live, we looked at that list of learning agenda items and said, “Yes, no.” We used that to inform what we did for our next live stream, which came in March. We had a similar learning agenda. We used what we learned there to apply what we did in May. We went from almost going live every other month to going live 140 times in 2022 just from my team alone over the course of one year. We scaled from 19 to 140 in a year timeframe.
When you start to combine the efforts across the organization, inclusive of the media team, who is partnering with influencers and publishers to go live, you are looking at more than 350 live streams. This learning agenda is helping inform what we do, and also what success looks like. Is this about just driving maximum viewership during the livestream, or is it about driving engaged viewership among an audience that is interested in learning about these products? That engaged audience is more likely to shop than this mass audience of millions of people that are watching.
Going even further than that, is it just about live viewership or is it a mix of live and post-live? Are we using that content and maximizing the value of that content in a post-live state to drive people to Walmart.com? How do we start to think about this learning agenda and these KPIs or success metrics, and how do they go hand in hand to inform what will hopefully become and always be on the channel? It is guided by best practices and truly has those success metrics lined up so that we can say at the end of the year, “This is what we did.” We are continuing to build upon 2022 from a success standpoint and continue to hopefully grow this channel internally at Walmart. That is how we think about new channels as well. What is that learning agenda, what are those success metrics, and how do they go hand in hand?
Something you are speaking about a lot is this term learning agenda. It is somewhat obvious what it means, but it is a unique term that not all companies use. Can you speak to what a learning agenda is and how often you are setting new learning agendas? Is it by initiative or strategy for the year? What does that look like?
At least for my team, it is at an initiative level. We talked about shoppable live streams. When we think about our annual operating plan for 2023, and as it relates to shoppable live streams, we will say, “These are things that we tested in 2022. Based on those tests or the learning agenda that we had in 2022, this is what we learned. In 2023, we want to go a little bit further with this particular learning agenda, and we want to see whether we can increase sales if we implement X across a set number of live streams throughout the year to see if it increases sales during a livestream.”
Quantifiable things like that help us measure success against what we learned in 2022 based on that learning agenda that we had. How great it would be if we were unlocking this for people and people start saying, “Justin Breton’s learning agenda.” I picked that up from Casey Schlaybaugh, who is the VP of Brand at Walmart. I sit under her team. It is something that she instilled in me when I joined Walmart. It is something that I will continue to use in my professional career at Walmart and wherever the future takes me because it sets me up for success. It also helps manage the expectations of people you are working with internally.
We are thinking about what is next and how to improve what we are doing because we are saying, “These are the things we want to test and learn.” From there, we use those learnings to inform a better approach and strategy. A learning agenda might be 1, 2, or 3 things. In that example of our first livestream in December 2020, our learning agenda were fifteen items long, but it became smaller as we got smarter and better, and as we did more and more. It is a way to set yourself up for success and would encourage marketers to start thinking about it as it relates to the initiatives they are doing at their brands or companies.
You did this livestream and activation to drive sales. The desired outcome is to increase sales. Is that priority number one when you are thinking about new partnerships and activation opportunities? You are sitting on the brand team. Is that a different marketing department’s KPI that you are trying to help generate more leads for?
We are focused on driving meaningful engagement and shifting brand perception. That is more of an upper funnel tactic, and that is where we play. My team specifically is in a unique position in that shoppable livestreams are driving meaningful brand engagement. We are allowing people to watch a Drew Barrymore live stream, ask Drew Barrymore more questions, and hear her answer those questions. It feels like a two-way experience that gives you access in a way you might not get outside of that particular experience.
We are achieving that, but because the nature of shoppable livestreams is to shop, we are driving revenue for the business. In this instance, we do see that as a success metric. It is something that we measure against. As we are evaluating new partners and as we think about what the future of Walmart is in the metaverse, it is not about driving sales. It is about driving meaningful engagement, shifting perception, and implementing tools and tactics that allow us to measure that.
We can say, “Post-launch, we drove a 14% point increase in the likelihood of this demographic to shop at Walmart because they had a meaningful experience with our brand on a platform they are active on regularly.” It is not the end-all-be-all. We are not forecasting for every partnership, but we are a company that needs to make money. We think about it. When we can achieve a goal of driving sales, it is something we explore, but it is certainly not always at the top of the list.
How much do evolving macroeconomic conditions impact the brand marketing team’s KPIs when exploring different initiatives?
There has been so much happening now around the country in the past years, and what people are forecasting for the year to come. With Walmart and the brand marketing team specifically, we want to continue to educate people on our promise of providing customers with everyday low prices. We are making sure that people realize that everyday low price doesn’t necessarily mean cheap. It just means that we are a brand and a retailer that can provide high-quality products at a lower price based on the business model we established many years ago.
Walmart is a brand and a retailer that can provide high-quality products at a lower price based on the established business model 60 years ago.
For us, it is continuing to educate consumers about the fact that Walmart is your one-stop shop for everyday low-price goods, whether it be at your local Walmart or on Walmart.com. It is re-instilling that promise to the consumer. As we think about Walmart as a brand and the things that we offer, we got Walmart Plus. It is a membership program that allows customers to save time, save money, and live better. That is achieved through the benefits that come with that membership program. You get free delivery, a benefit on gas for Walmart stores that have gas stations, and the list goes on and on.
That was a program that launched a couple of years ago and has seen great success. That is our way of reacting to give customers that are loyal to Walmart even more benefits. We are fortunate to have internal partners that are constantly monitoring what is happening in the market. They are helping us ensure that the marketing that we do is effective in instilling who we are as a brand, delivering on that brand promise, and where opportunities present themselves, showcasing new offerings like Walmart Plus to help customers save time, save money, and live better.
How much of the brand marketing team’s or your team’s focus is on building brand trust amongst consumers?
That is a huge piece of our puzzle and what we are working towards. It goes back to everyday low price doesn’t translate to cheap. We have to continue to educate people that it is our brand promise. It is what we can deliver and offer. It stems from what Sam Walton, the Founder of Walmart, set out to do, achieve, and offer to customers. We have maintained that as we have scaled drastically in the last 60 years. Everything we do is to drive brand trust and increase brand favorability. That is achieved through a wide range of initiatives. It is not just brand marketing.
Brand trust and brand favorability can be improved by a great in-store experience, quick online delivery of your order, and the work that my team is doing with shoppable livestreams or Walmart Land on Roblox. I say it is a big piece of the puzzle because many facets of the business play into it. In order for us to be someone’s preferred brand or preferred retailer in a time when it is easy to go to Target.com or Amazon.com and price compare. Brand favorability and brand trust sometimes might help push someone in the direction of a particular brand. In our instance, we want them to choose us. It is a huge piece of the puzzle. It is something we are constantly monitoring and making changes to improve it.
It sounds like the consistency of the message for the last 60 years is pivotal to building that trust amongst consumers. I don’t know what you could share, but any exciting initiatives or campaigns coming up that you could speak to?
We got a fun roster in 2023 with Walmart Live. We had a learning agenda in 2022. We are using that learning agenda to inform what we are doing in 2023. We have identified an assortment of great partners that lean in and create content that is worth watching. Walmart.com/live, we will have a great roster of activations in 2023. I’m excited for our customers to be able to watch and shop for those.
As it relates to Walmart Land, when we first launched, we had 2 of 6 aisles or spark arms because this virtual experience is the manifestation of Walmart Spark and the categories that exist within the Walmart store. In a couple of months, the full realization of Walmart Land will come to fruition and be a full brand world experience on the platform, with new categorical mini-games, experiences, and virtual items that we are excited to bring to the Roblox community.
We got some fun stuff in our back pocket later for 2023 as it relates to the metaverse, thinking about new technology and using learnings that we have gotten to date to inform what we do in the future. Walmart will continue to be a brand that you should watch in this space. I’m excited to see how people respond when they see what we have got planned.
Walmart will continue to be a brand that you should watch in the Roblox Community.
I’m excited too. I know that the next time I’m with my nephew, I’m going to be logging into his Roblox account to go to Walmart Land.
If you are anything like me, you can create your own account.
I should be creating my own account.
Roblox is a space to watch as more brands embrace it. I often talk about the metaverse and platforms like Roblox, Fortnite, Rec Room, or Minecraft. With brands showing up there, it is almost like the evolution of social media in the sense that it is truly a platform where there are millions of people that are actively engaged. They are there to experience these brand experiences, but they are also there to build community and chat with each other. As we think about the evolution of the space, you will see more brands there, and it is an interesting space to watch.
The last part of the show is something we call the Lightning Round. I got four questions for you and two minutes to answer all four questions. It is the first thing that comes to mind. The first question is, what is your favorite youth sports memory?
Playing basketball at basketball community school was a great experience. I always have positive memories when I reflect back on them.
We are going to have to play some pick-up basketball. What is a brand whose marketing you admire most?
I’m always inspired by what Nike is doing. They do a good job of delivering on their brand promise. They do a good job of visually bringing Just Do It to life. I’m always watching what they do. They have entered the metaverse. They are the ones we continue to watch as well.
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be famous, which that ship has sailed. Here now is fun. I’m famous in my own way. Through my professional endeavors, I have been successful. Hopefully, I can continue to share what I have learned with people. That is what I wanted to be.
What is a cause that you are passionate about?
One that I learned about through my work at Walmart is the Adfellows Program, which is a rotational program for young students to participate in. It is a rotation program where they go from brands to agencies and learn about different disciplines within marketing. That is one that I have been exposed to. I’m fortunate to have been a mentor as a part of that. That is one that comes top of mind. Walmart is one of the brands that are fortunate to participate in it.
Justin, this was insightful and interesting. It was great having you on the show. Thank you so much for coming on.
Thanks for having me. I had a great time chatting with you. I look forward to seeing you in New York when you make your way up here.
Thank you. We will see you soon.
Take care. See you later.
Thank you for tuning in to this episode with Justin Breton. As a recap, we discussed the metaverse, livestreaming activations, how to constantly learn and evolve your marketing strategy, and how to measure success with digital and virtual experiences. Thank you. See you next time. Play on everyone.
Justin Breton is the Director of Brand Experiences & Partnerships at Walmart, focusing on digital & virtual experiences that drive meaningful customer engagement. During his time with the brand, he’s launched commerce-enabled interactive content platforms to facilitate product discovery, an in-store augmented reality activation in support of a national partnership, and a series of first-to-market shoppable livestreams on TikTok, YouTube, & Twitter to drive authentic brand & product storytelling. Prior to Walmart, Justin oversaw strategic partnerships & integrated activations at Squarespace & Foursquare. He lives in Brooklyn, New York with his husband and Pomeranian.