Anthony Hilton: Asda keeps away from great ‘satan’

Among the supermarkets, Asda appears the nicest place to work. Tesco is terribly serious, Morrisons a bit northern and brash, while Sainsbury’s is no fun at all.

There is a sense of humour about Asda, which comes partly from its advertising and partly from the comms culture instilled by Allan Leighton and Archie Norman when they ran the group. 

Add in the simplicity of its proposition of  low prices and its chutzpah – for example when  it knocked out replicas of Camilla Parker Bowles' engagement ring at £19.99  – and it adds up to a pretty good public image.

Yet Asda is owned by Wal-Mart, which is rapidly coming to be portrayed as the satan of retailing. Even in the US, Wal-Mart has been forced to take out full-page ads in papers in a bid to counter the perception that its sheer scale wipes out local shops and destroys communities.

So how can Asda keep its good image intact and separate from its parent? It cannot do it by reporting financial results separately and professing independence because its figures are rolled up and hidden inside those of Wal-Mart.

It has got to hold on to its perceived virtues – its sense of humour and team values – and make sure these are continually made obvious to the public, thus distancing itself in image terms from Wal-Mart. 

In a subtle move last week, Asda chief executive Tony DeNunzio appeared in a Financial Times interview saying that he thought it would be 'extremely difficult' to close the gap with market-leader Tesco. But why would he resign himself to second place? Because in doing so he sends a clear message that if the public are worried about supermarket dominance then it is 'Tesco the juggernaut' they should fear, not 'brave little Asda' struggling to keep in touch.

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