The end-of-year trading results of the supermarkets were entirely predictable. You didn’t have to be an expert in the economy, retail or even in flood prediction to see what was coming. You just needed to look at the strategies they have for their brands.
Sainsbury’s just scraped through with a 36th quarter of growth. Predictable. Because it just scraped through with a brand strategy. Live Well For Less is a well-executed marketing campaign but hardly sets pulses racing as a holistic brand idea.
“Spending millions droning on about value is not the best response”
At least Sainsbury’s read the public mood well in its advertising and has been consistent in its messaging. But the biggest advantage it was afforded was arguably not from its own efforts but from the mess its competitors made of their own brand affairs.
Tesco’s results sharply declined in health. Predictable. Its brand strategy is in sharply declining health too. Actually, it’s worse than that. It’s stopped breathing. They keep talking about trying to blow some air into its lungs - we’ve heard much about a billion pound investment - but I fear that all Tesco is doing is inflating a corpse. Perhaps the wrong corpse, at that. It’s not Every Little Helps and tweaks to store design that need reviving, it’s the customer-centric, data-driven innovation Sir Terry Leahy relentlessly championed.
Morrisons is all over the place and no one’s quite sure how to interpret its results. Predictable. Its brand is all over the place too. It can’t decide whether it wants to be a middle-class marketplace or a working-class hero. While it procrastinates, a unique proposition around which a coherent strategy could be built - a vertical supply chain that keeps costs low and quality high - is going to waste.
We haven’t had Asda’s results, but my prediction is it will avoid spectacular failure while being outperformed by others. Because that’s the story of its brand. It does have a brand strategy: lower prices. But it’s the same one others have and they are doing a better job of it. Aldi and Lidl make Asda’s claim look stupid in the same way Ford would if it claimed to make the world’s fastest car. Asda should move on to something it can uniquely own. The longer it takes it to do that, the further it will get left behind.
What astonishes me is the glacial pace with which the supermarkets seem to move in brand terms. Their issues didn’t just materialise over the festive period, they have been obvious for a couple of years. Yet it seems no one has sought to address them. We all know times are tough, but spending millions on TV ads that drone on about value is really not the best response.
In 2014, supermarkets need to focus on more compelling and differentiated ideas. They need to identify brand strategies that bring innovation back into the customer experience, business model and product lines. They need to get customers - and staff - excited again. They need to get a better sense of who they are, what they stand for and how they are different to and better than the others. They need to think and act more decisively.
For those that follow this advice, I predict a year of significant success.
Jim Prior is CEO of brand agency The Partners