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Pundit’s Mailbag — Wal-Mart or Walmart?

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, July 15, 2010

Lately we have been getting some helpful e-mails on our spelling; they all relate to one company:

Hey Jim, Walmart does not have a capital M.

Jim Vangelos
President & CEO
Polymer Logistics
Arro Grande, California

It is always a pleasure to hear from Jim Vangelos. He has written us before, including here. Plus we have had opportunities to mention his father, Al Vangelos, Chief Executive Officer of Sun World on several occasions, including here, here, here and here.

Jim Vangelos’ note expresses a commonly held perception in the food industry, but it is not quite correct. In the interest of helping everyone make sure that their correspondence is properly written, we will explain the situation:

Yes, the hyphen has disappeared from the brand and from the stores and with it the capital “M” in Mart.

However, the legal name of the corporation remains Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.

So, if you are referring, as we typically do, to a corporate policy or corporate initiative, it is appropriate to use the corporate spelling.

Wal-Mart puts it this way:

Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (NYSE: WMT) is the legal name of the corporation. The name “Walmart,” expressed as one word and without punctuation, is a trademark of the company and is used analogously to describe the company and its stores. Use the legal name when it is necessary to identify the legal entity, such as when reporting financial results, SEC filings, litigation or governance matters.

Even so, we would add a caveat to the matter… Trademarks involve more than letters; they can include the font, the color and other attributes commonly called “trade dress,” and they are inherently marketing tools.

Although, in general, we try to honor requests to call people what they prefer — so if they prefer we will call someone “Jim,” even though their name is “James,” or “Dave” even if their name is “David” — and we even respect unusual punctuation as in e.e. cummings or k.d.lang, when it comes to corporate trademarks, we don’t necessarily feel obligated to assist in the organization’s efforts to promote itself. So we don’t write out Coca-Cola in its distinctive script, even though it is a trademark.

Wikipedia deals with the issue through its style guidelines:

Follow standard English text formatting and capitalization rules, even if the trademark owner considers nonstandard formatting “official”:

• avoid: REALTOR®, TIME, KISS

• instead, use: Realtor, Time, Kiss

Although these rules can get tricky — for example traditional usage would call for all sentences to begin with a capital letter, but there is a fierce dispute as to whether it makes any sense to capitalize, say, iPod. The Chicago Manual of Style says that one should either recast the sentence or capitalize the “i” in iPod. We would generally rewrite the sentence.

Supervalu legally changed its name to all capitals, but we don’t write it that way because it makes Supervalu look exceptionally dominant on the page. Although that was probably Supervalu’s goal in changing its name, the whole issue of utilizing trademarks reminds us of a short but famous poem by Stephen Crane, known to most as author of The Red Badge of Courage.

A Man Said to the Universe
by Stephen Crane

A man said to the universe:

“Sir, I exist!

“However,” replied the universe,

“The fact has not created in me

“A sense of obligation.”

So we are free to resist the entreaties of corporations to use our pages to promote their trademarks.

In any case, the distinction between a trademark and a legal corporate name is worth remembering. We thank Jim Vangelos for helping us to discuss this commonly confronted issue.

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