A poorly timed Tesco ad has infuriated English apple growers. Richard Clarke raises a few core issues about advertising etiquette

When Tesco’s creatives dreamt up the idea of using a Granny Smith in a press ad, they could hardly have imagined the brouhaha it would provoke. The advert itself was pretty innocuous. The strapline, below a picture of a green apple, read: ‘Granny Smiths. What’s the difference between ours and our competitors? Not much really. They’re the same quality as Waitrose. And the same price as Asda.’
But they did not twig that, as the ads were appearing in newspapers and Sunday supplements last month, the English apple season was just getting into its stride.
And Granny Smiths, although ubiquitous in stores, are not grown on these shores.
It’s hardly the kind of thing that would bring a business down. But the timing baffled and amused Tesco’s rivals and left English growers, who this year have invested heavily in promoting their crop, absolutely fuming.
And, at a time when research carried out exclusively for The Grocer showed that more people than ever are concerned about the growing might of Tesco (The Grocer, October 15, p4), the company is unlikely to have relished playing right into its critics’ hands.
Indeed, word on the street is that Tesco’s apple buyers were nonplussed. And who can blame them? This year Tesco has launched a sustained charm offensive in the apple sector. It has invested in sponsorship of the National Fruit Show in Kent, which is dominated by English apples, and the Brogdale Horticultural Trust, also in Kent, which aims to preserve hundreds of forgotten and threatened English varieties.
It has also introduced a line of Finest British apples, sold at a premium, to the delight of growers - who feel that at least some of their fruit has been saved from the supermarkets’ price war.
So what went wrong? Who made the decision that threatened to unravel Tesco’s diplomatic efforts in the English apple industry? And what lessons can be learned?
Tesco, for its part, remained tight-lipped when approached by The Grocer. But Andrew Jolliffe, director of the eponymous advertising agency behind the Red Tractor Promises campaign, says the ad was “a bit naïve”. He argues that it reflects the fact that many people working in advertising have little understanding of the British food sector.
“The politics of the food industry in this country are very complex and I think that for any agency or executive to operate in it effectively, they would have to steep themselves in it for a very long time.”
Jolliffe also warns of the dangers of knocking competitors. He says Waitrose and Asda, both mentioned in the ad, would have enjoyed pointing out privately the tactless timing of the Tesco ad. “The Golden Rule in advertising is to concentrate on what is great about your own brand,” Jolliffe advises.
Talking of rivals, Tesco’s ad appeared just as Sainsbury was being hailed by growers for its TV ad featuring English Cox in a Jamie Oliver recipe - and helping sales of Cox rise significantly in Sainsbury stores.
Sarah Douglas, board director on Sainsbury at Abbott Mead Vickers, the agency behind the advertising, says it is important to engage retailer staff who are responsible for getting products on shelves, as well as those in the marketing department.
“At the start of a campaign, when we first sit down to go through the candidates to be one of our ‘hero products’, we always talk to the buyers. It sounds as though that didn’t happen at Tesco in this case.”
So what should Tesco do to make amends? There were unconfirmed rumours it was considering running another ad - this time featuring an English apple.
But Jolliffe warns embarrassed companies against doing anything that could draw further attention to such rows. “You have to be very careful about defending something and, in the process, digging yourself in even deeper. That way, you could do even more damage to your reputation.”