Tesco to bag initial consumer goodwill in Unilever spat - but how long for?

As Tesco takes on Unilever in a dispute over pricing, PR professionals say the retailer will have won public support in the short term, but may struggle to maintain this if the spat with the FMCG giant goes on too long.

CEO Dave Lewis (r) in one of Tesco's stores last year (Credit: Tesco PLC via Flickr)
CEO Dave Lewis (r) in one of Tesco's stores last year (Credit: Tesco PLC via Flickr)

The BBC and various national newspapers have given prominent coverage to the news that Tesco had stopped stocking products including Marmite, Ben & Jerry's, Persil and PG Tips due to the falling pound making them more expensive both for Tesco itself, and its consumers.

Unilever declined to comment when contacted by PRWeek, while a spokesman for Tesco provided the same statement that has been used in response to a number of Twitter user's queries: "We are currently experiencing availability issues on a number of Unilever products. We hope to have this issue resolved soon."

The incident is seen as one of the first big instances of the EU referendum result having a widespread knock-on effect for the the lives of the man and woman on the street.

Tesco, whose CEO since 2014 Dave Lewis previously worked at Unilever for more than two decades, is by some margin the country's biggest retailer. It also took on a new comms chief just days ago.

James Gordon-Macintosh, co-founder of consumer agency Hope&Glory, said: "Regardless of how this plays out, you have to applaud the bravery of this move... Tesco has picked a tough battle.

"The challenge is that the media are reporting Tesco are 'on the brink of running out of these products', something none of their customers are likely to thank them for. And their immediate removal from the Tesco website may be seen as a trifle heavy-handed."

He went on to say: "Tesco's best hope has to be that they can rally the industry to their aid and can be seen as spearheading a crusade with support from the other multiple retailers."

Gordon-Macintosh also suggested that Unilever faced the challenge of leveraging consumers' love of their brands to "reposition the whole debate and make Tesco look the bully a lot of the public may still think they are".

Several other PR professionals contacted by PRWeek declined to comment on the grounds of client conflicts. One comms pro working with a major retailer agreed that Tesco's initial win might not endure as the situation evolves.

"I think it's easy for them to be championing the consumer in the short term - but in the longer term is this a battle they can win? It will be very difficult to manage if they have to back down," she said.

"It also presents an interesting dilemma for their competitors. Take out full page ads with all the products Tesco haven't got, or share the moral high ground? It's easier for the the cheeky discounters to do the former."

Initial results of a Twitter poll were split as to who would come out best from the quarrel - but other comments on the social network from comms professionals concurred with the idea that Tesco was the immediate winner.

It remains to be seen to what extent other brands will capitalise on this as a PR opportunity...

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