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Cookie Monster: Is Wal-Mart Taking on The Girl Scouts?

Friday, 7 Aug 2009 | 4:41 PM ET

For companies trying to market products using social media, the exercise can rapidly become a game of "telephone." Just ask Wal-Mart and the Girl Scouts.

AP

There's a big controversy in the blogosphere about how an angry "Cookie Mom" has accused the world's largest retailer of trying to take a nibble out of the Girl Scout's business.

The story being told goes like this: In an attempt to market its store-brand cookies, Wal-Mart shared samples of two flavors of cookies at conference that some thought were suspicously similar to those sold by the Girls Scouts. The mom accused Wal-Mart of undermining the organization's efforts to raise money.

But that's not quite what happened. Instead, management professor and consultant C.V. Harquail in her blog Authentic Organizations questioned why a company that is trying to improve its reputation as a good corporate citizen is selling a product that knocks off one closely associated with a non-profit group.

"Just when you think your opinion about Wal-Mart might be changing ... just when you think that maybe, just maybe, Wal-Mart was learning to be a better citizen ... Wal-Mart turns around and does something really despicable," Ms. Harquail wrote.

Harquail did use Wal-Mart's Great Value cookies as she an example. She says she recognized the familiar taste and texture of the Wal-Mart cookies when she sampled them at the recent BlogHer conference in Chicago. But she was trying to make a point about business leadership.

"It's a lesson in how quickly the story becomes the story," says Harquail.

In the ensuing debate, Harquail became painted as angry mommy blogger from Ohio, who was worried about Wal-Mart's ability to trounce out its pig-tailed competition.

(For its own part, Wal-Mart expressed its support for the Girl Scouts, and noted that it often allows the organization to sell its cookies in front of its stores.)

Harquail, who is from New Jersey, guesses the blog got misinterpreted because of her association with the BlogHer conference. A portion of the conference's attendees are mommy bloggers, but some are simply women who write blogs about a variety of subjects. Although Harquail is a Girl Scout mom, the blog she was writing is not about parenting issues.

Most likely Wal-Mart was passing out the cookies at the conference in an attempt to try to get some positive buzz about the product. But what unfolded was a fierce debate that even went as far as to question the Girl Scout's use of little girls to peddle sugar-laden products. And it serves as a reminder that when companies court bloggers to promote products, they are not sure what they will get. The end-result can cut both ways.

"I don't think Americans really understand how a blog can be different from an op-ed piece, and from a feature story in a newspaper," Harquail says.

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