Why centenarian Tesco needs a new cultural strategy to compete with Aldi and Lidl

By Archie Heaton

This year Tesco celebrates its 100th birthday, a gift in of itself for their marketing team. Opting for the strapline “Prices that take you back”, the anniversary has been used to try and engage consumers with a mix of nostalgia and sweeping discounts. However, for such a momentous achievement, the campaign feels bizarrely underwhelming. More bizarrely still, the blame can be placed squarely at the feet of their two German rivals, Aldi and Lidl.

Significantly, while we have come to expect better performance on price from these discount stores, their ability to take the wind out of a brand campaign focused largely on heritage highlights how much more complex the decline of traditional supermarkets has been.

While much has been written about the changing nature of the retail market from a financial point-of-view, the shift in cultural authority that has enabled it remains relatively under-explored. Yet it is this aspect that is perhaps most interesting of all, concerning the story of how two recently unknown German brands managed to wrestle the cultural momentum from a British success story; overtaking Tesco not just on price, but on metrics such as brand affinity and loyalty.

Fascinatingly, for foreign owned companies, much of this success stems from Aldi and Lidl’s ability to engrain themselves in British culture, a strategy in turn that is enabled by a deep cultural understanding that many of the bigger chains appear to have lost. For example, Tesco’s centenary campaign (above) aims to leverage its legacy by drawing upon the interwound nature of the brand’s and the nation’s history. However, it simply misses the mark.

Painfully superficial, the stock-image representation of different eras trivialises periods in time that defined people’s lives; presenting Tesco as a lazy brand and striking little resonance with the targeted generations. On the other hand, Aldi’s award-winning Christmas campaign delightfully pits Kevin the Carrot against an evil parsnip within retellings of classic fairytales; aligning their brand with a treasured British institution and paying homage to classic literature through a modern twist. In this way, the campaign acts as public declaration of the brand’s affiliation with the nation while managing to avoid the transparent clichés of Tesco’s effort.

Crucially, the generic nature of Tesco’s creative does little to invoke nostalgia; a point that is made glaringly obvious when compared to a successful attempt, such as Apple’s characteristically charming evolution of music. Here, the company beautifully captures the nuances of each age; turning up the volume on the car radio with your foot in the 60s (below) or the stack of blank disks ready for burning in the Noughties. Most importantly, this makes the advert feel like a real trip back in time, triggering memories of the company’s involvement in customer’s lives that Tesco’s attempt simply fails to do.

Yet Tesco has not always felt so septic and corporate, with previous partnerships with national treasures the Spice Girls (below) and Alan Partridge demonstrating that, once upon a time, they understood where the cultural momentum was. Significantly, both of these executions drew upon the popularity of icons that had managed to transcend their industries, allowing Tesco’s brand to align itself with human institutions whose universal appeal helps tie this diverse island together. Accordingly, the brand, in contrast to its recent efforts, managed to resonate with viewers and tap into the social currency that is so key for a company that exists to do something as intimate as filling the nation’s cupboards.

However, it would be disingenuous to claim branding alone can explain the hijacking of Tesco’s cultural clout. Alastair Cliff, Flamingo’s Head of Semiotics, believes that the nation’s inherent desire for fairness has played a key role. Born out of a historically rigid class system, this value chimes well with the discount retailers who have long paid a living wage, eschew manipulative offers in favour of transparent low prices and whose treatment of suppliers surpasses much of the industry.

Additionally, the British working class’s unique distaste for authority, forged under Thatcher, has cemented a desire to support the underdog – a characteristic Aldi and Lidl have both unapologetically exploited; both successfully framing themselves as Davids to Tesco’s Goliath. This has helped re-write the narrative surrounding Tesco from that of an iconic pillar of modern Britain, to that of an impersonal anachronism as the country’s values increasingly appear to be embodied by the discount stores.

Furthermore, original research carried out by Flamingo showed that, even in ‘Brexit Britain’, consumers care little about the origin of brands and are instead concerned about the extent to which they embody British values such as community. This more sophisticated barometer highlights the flaw in Tesco’s arrogant assumption of cultural affinity based solely upon their British roots; especially as it has grown far too big to feel rooted in such communities as well as fostering a media persona of constant waring with local residents.

But Tesco’s size does not excuse this aloofness as Morrison’s, for example, has, through its in-store resurrection of the Great British “market street” and partnerships with modern national icons like Ant & Dec, repositioned themselves brilliantly to exploit consumers’ increasing values-led shopping. Furthermore, Waitrose has even manged to evolve into a modern community hub, using free coffee and customer-chosen local donations to give their stores the feel of a market square. Tesco’s stores on the other hand feel tired and beige, lacking the soul that is required to bind a community to their brand.

Overall, Tesco’s centurion has offered another angle with which to view the changing landscape of retail, highlighting the importance of cultural authority as a source of competitive advantage in an industry that is so often talked about only through the lens of price.

This fresh approach helps to explain Tesco’s decline much more richly and, while it does not cast the retailer in a favourable light, it also reveals its path to redemption. It is clear that Tesco needs to acknowledge the importance of cultural resonance as a supporting component for its overly discount focused offensive, leveraging its history and scale to resurrect their identify as the company that proudly feeds Britain.

To do so, it will need to rediscover the values that were sacrificed in the name of growth: supporting local communities, working on behalf of their customers and treating suppliers fairly. If successful, this shift in mindset could begin to challenge the narrative so successfully hijacked by their discount rivals. If not, Tesco’s sheer size will sustain it for now.

But a cake with two hundred candles, no chance.

Archie Heaton is a brand consultant.

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