Tesco has pulled ahead of Sainsbury’s and Safeway is closing in from
third position, but in the supermarket stakes the race isn’t over and
there’s room for some PR inspiration
If, as reported in the Guardian, supermarkets can hypnotise us into
buying groceries through a combination of colour, sound and lighting,
one wonders whether they are equally adept at manipulating their media
and public profiles.
A series of high level public relations appointments by three of the
‘big four’ during May suggests that they are making this a priority.
Last week Safeway hired Bill Hamilton and Ken Hunter to run public
affairs and internal communications respectively. And while Asda
replaced Alan Preece with Christine Watts as general PR manager,
Sainsbury’s moved in to poach Dominic Fry from Eurotunnel as its new
corporate affairs director. Tesco, on the other hand, remains aloof.
This realignment of generals reflects new strategies in the ‘trolley
Last year Tesco overtook Sainsbury’s for the first time in 15 years to
become the country’s biggest chain along with impressive profitability.
Tesco’s loyalty card was just the latest in a number of moves that has
transformed its ‘stack ’em high’ 1970s image into a retailer associated
with a forward thinking, customer-oriented approach.
And its spring recruitment of 4,500 extra packaging assistants and a
tier of customer relations managers resulted in bulging cuttings books.
‘Tesco has built a hugely powerful base with its customers’, says
Guardian retail correspondent Roger Cowe, ‘It has also benefited from
deputy MD Terry Leahy’s accessibility to the media.’
Cowe contrasts this with the more introverted style of David Sainsbury
whose company has been criticised for its ‘men in grey suits’ leadership
and anachronistic image.
This year Sainsbury’s saw its first fall in profits for 22 years. This
followed a year when it was frequently outflanked. David Sainsbury had
to back-track by introducing a Tesco-inspired loyalty scheme he had
previously slated as ‘glorified green shield stamps’.
Many feel Sainsbury’s middle-class positioning has become a weakness in
the 1990s and David Sainsbury conceded that it has allowed competitors
to catch up through more aggressive marketing.
As the top two battle for pole position, others are sharpening up their
acts. Both Safeway and Asda have increased market share in the last two
years. Safeway’s corporate affairs director Teresa Wickham believes
consistency in core brand values is the key to supermarket success.
‘Safeway now stands for innovation and service’ she said.
Behind the cliches, the company has put its money where its marketing
mouth is, launching a series of coups under marketing director Roger
The jewel in Partington’s crown is the ‘Harry’ commercial, achieving
hitherto unknown public recall for a food retail commercial and wide
‘Harry’, whose latest romantic liaisons with ‘Molly’ have been the
source of tabloid controversy, has succeeded in raising the profile of
Safeway as the family store.
The commercial and its PR fit into a wider communications strategy
‘Safeway 2000’ which aims to play down any yuppie image and build
loyalty among the highly lucrative young family customers.
Wickham’s other priorities are to improve internal communications and
retain the confidence of customers.
Asda, with more than 200 large stores but a fraction of the
communications staff of its competitors, takes a different approach. A
combination of a highly vocal chief executive Archie Norman and flat US
management structure, has given it the confidence to make more
adventurous PR forays. Positioning itself as representing the ‘great
British public’, Asda has adopted a campaigning stance on price-fixing
and recently announced its unilateral ban on non-British beef.
According to industry sources, on the day when Tesco launched its
packaging assistant initiative, Norman, not one to miss a publicity
trick, personally phoned broadcasters to say he was putting jugglers,
fire-eaters and clowns in the aisles.
Whether or not its competitors’ higher risk strategies eventually
backfire, Sainsbury’s has the most immediate image problem to overcome.
There are signs of moves in the right direction. Marketing director
Kevin McCarten, appointed in December, now has his feet under the table
and Dominic Fry joins later this summer.
Priorities for both will be to counter its potential over reliance on
own-label goods - as consumer preference swings back towards proprietory
brands - and to match Safeway’s family profile. New advertising which
broke on 23 May attempts to strike credibility into the store’s claim of
combining quality and value.
Head of press Diane Lamb says: ‘We never set out to become the biggest,
but we’re still a highly successful company and need to improve the
communication of our innovation and pricing.’
Individual jostling aside, the cosy oligopoly of the ‘big four’ now
seems to have fought off the threat of overseas discounters and it is
unlikely that price cutting will be as high profile this year.
Instead they jointly face the emerging issues of planning and ethics.
New stores are the prime opportunity for improved profitability and with
John Gummer’s planning curbs, the supermarkets are increasingly looking
to develop high street sites and convenience stories which will require
public affairs expertise.
Supermarketing’s editor Linda Pettit also identifies the area of food
quality: ‘Whereas the green issue has abated, supermarkets are now
recognising that consumer confidence must be maintained by more
attention to their own suppliers’ ethics and practices.’