Last week, Morrisons became the latest multiple to unveil a new strapline with its promise to deliver 'Real Value Every Day'. Coming hot on the heels of Asda's 'More For You For Less' and Sainsbury's 'Try Something New Today', it seems the multiples are leaving no cliché or alliteration unturned in their quest for a pithy summation of their brand values.
Yet there appears to be a lack of connection between these values and the reality of the shopping experience, according to an online survey of more than 3,000 supermarket shoppers by Harris Interactive. So are the multiples trying to embody too many brand values - or simply the wrong ones?
The survey, in which shoppers were asked to compare their most recent with their best shopping experiences, exposes a serious gulf between what shoppers expect from their supermarkets and what those supermarkets actually deliver.
Top of the list of irritations are: over-crowded stores, long queues and poor availability. Range, customer service and cleanliness of stores also come under fire. Shoppers appear to be less bothered, however, about low prices, the key brand value for the multiples historically. Neither are they particularly worried about the multiples' healthy, local or ethical credentials, the very values many of the new campaigns are pushing.
Surprisingly, Tesco is one of the worst performers. Caroline North, senior marketing executive at Harris Interactive, says: "In terms of meeting needs, Tesco has the biggest gap in expectations between what people think they should experience and what they actually do experience."
This is borne out when shoppers are asked to describe how they felt during their last shopping trip. More than 50% of Tesco shoppers say they were bored, stressed, frustrated or overwhelmed. This in itself is unremarkable - similar numbers say the same about the other multiples - but Tesco shoppers have the highest expectations, so the gulf is wider. A similar picture emerges when they are asked to compare their recent and best shopping experiences.
Waitrose, on the other hand, is the strongest performer. Its shoppers' experiences are more positive in the first place and they tally more closely with their expectations.
Mark Joy, joint MD of integrated promotional marketing agency, Gasoline, believes that Waitrose's success is closely aligned with its reputation as a specialist grocer. "It possesses the vestiges of an old-fashioned grocer," he says. "It is more about the products and the service than the prices or promotions."
If shoppers are not as interested in price anymore, it is either because they believe that prices have gone as low as they can go or because they expect their supermarkets to embody a broader set of brand values.
Either way, Waitrose's 'Quality Food, Honestly Priced' message gets it out of jail free with its emphasis on quality over price, brand experts believe.
Tesco's problem is not that it pushes the wrong brand values, but that it too often fails to live up to them, they say. They point to the success of its advertising campaign and enduring slogan 'Every Little Helps' in acting as a platform for Tesco's shift in emphasis to quality as well as price.
Shaun McIlrath, creative director of integrated communications agency VCCP, calls its TV and print advertising campaign a "fantastically common sense campaign".
The only threat is its own ubiquity, he says, arguing that this is probably why it is looking to diversify into tertiary brands. "The question I'd ask is how does it keep it going? I think that 'Every Little Helps' is a great mantra, but it is in danger of becoming so formulaic that it loses its meaning."
Despite the launch of a new slogan, Asda is seen to be less sure of its footing. It is too early to call how successful its replacement of 'Pocket The Difference' with 'More For You For Less' will be.
But doubts have been expressed over its decision to enlist the help of Wayne Rooney, particularly after Andy Bond reportedly warned last October that celebrities should be used with caution because of "the danger when there is a disparity between them and the company".
Asda has insisted that it is only using Rooney to front a World Cup campaign. But McIlrath is still not convinced: "Asda is obviously trying to make things more creative, with its campaign for its Great Stuff kids' range, but perhaps it is at the expense of the clarity of its message. The Sharon Osbourne stuff was pretty awful - whether Rooney will be a better ambassador is open to question. I'm sure the rationale is that he comes from the same sort of family as their shoppers, but he's conspicuously not from that kind of environment now."
Either way, Asda should limit the number of slogans it uses, he adds, especially now that it is diversifying into new areas such as standalone non food and own brand grocery, with Living and Essentials. "There's a lack of consistency. It feels like an organisation that is looking for an idea - something it can latch on to."
Ditto Morrisons with the blunt price positioning of its new 'Real Value Every Day' promise, which will sit alongside 'More Reasons to Shop at Morrisons', he says. "There is no broader sense of brand value being communicated."
The key issue for Morrisons is whether to continue to play to its Northern heritage with the honest price message or go for something a bit less coldly rational, says McIlrath.
One of the side effects of the pure price message is that consumers expect ever lower prices, adds Joy. "This looks worrying for Morrisons," he says of the survey findings. "It trades on 1,000 reasons and 150 bogofs and yet is being asked to address most of these issues sooner rather than later."
Unlike Tesco, neither Asda nor Morrisons get away with their strong price messages, because they dominate every other brand value - despite Asda's recent emphasis on its fresh credentials, say the experts.
Joy believes that the price wars have delimited the multiples' brand values and made it difficult for them to adopt new ones. "Investments in customer service initiatives such as promising to open another till if there are three people in front have been lost in the margin and price battle.
"The apparent disregard for ethically and locally sourced products is worrying. It may be that the whole price war started by Asda and won by Tesco is commoditising the whole experience and destroying brand distinction in the process."
Like Waitrose, Sainsbury is steering clear of an overt price promise, which could stand it in better stead than its rivals in the long term, says Joy. "They seem to be perceived slightly differently, but Tesco and Asda look headed for brand problems."
McIlrath is particularly impressed with Sainsbury's 'Try Something New Today' plea. "It's good because it's populist and taps into the time-honoured play that is consumer education," he says, adding that it reinforces the "less aspirational, more practical" message in its TV and press advertising campaigns.
Jamie Oliver remains a powerful brand ambassador, although he needs to be used sparingly, stresses McIlrath. The only downside to Sainsbury's campaign, he says, is the lack of coherence between its grocery and financial services campaigns.
The survey suggests that Somerfield, with its 'Somerthing Different' and 'A Great Deal Going On' pledges, is in the biggest trouble. As with Morrisons and Asda, there is scepticism over its decision to rely on more than one slogan. Its positioning is not helped by the inconsistent quality of its stores either, says Joy.
However, the multiples could all do a lot more to improve their retail environment and in-store marketing, suggests Martin Fawcett, group creative director at in-store marketing company Bezier. "An important part of how their brands are perceived is how shoppers experience the shop. Examples of in-store theatre and 'retailtainment' are few and far between."
John Graham, MD of retail design consultancy Ad Creative, agrees that the multiples need to pay more attention to the shopping environment if they are to avoid undermining their brands. "The supermarkets need to be thinking about what they're selling. Better engagement with brand owners would help. The other thing they have overlooked is customer service."
It is an inevitable side-effect of promoting price above everything else, he says, but warns: "If you trade on price alone, the only way is down."
The multiples should also be wary of how they develop the own label ranges that have until now largely reinforced parent brands, says Simon John, managing partner of Roundel. "Their reputations have been based more on the products they offer - not just the service. But consumers are more cynical than they were 10 years ago and more knowledgeable."
That goes for the parent brands, too. The multiples dismiss the survey findings at their peril, warns George Terhanian, president of European operations at Harris Interactive. "If I were any one of these retailers I'd look at where my stores aren't so strong, ask why and adjust the marketing accordingly. Take customer service. This is a high priority for everyone, except Waitrose. Why?"
The answer is that poor customer services and low prices tend to go hand in hand. If consumers are shifting away from price, the onus will increasingly be on the multiples to rethink not just service but everything that underpins their brand values. Maybe their collective mantra should be 'Try Somerthing More Real'.
Liz Hamson reports
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