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Offer of the week: insights on retailer fightbacks from the IPA Effectiveness Awards

Offer of the week: insights on retailer fightbacks from the IPA Effectiveness Awards
When the IPA was last asked for examples of how communications had revived a struggling retailer, it was January and the retailer being discussed was Tesco.

Now it is April, the ailing subject is more likely to be –  take your pick – Sainsbury’s, Morrisons or the Co-op,  as journalists have already started writing about the Tesco  ‘turnaround’ , even after only a single quarter of improved performance.

You could not accuse the IPA Effectiveness Awards of such short term-ism. Most winning cases cover several years of results, and submissions for much longer durations are a distinguishing feature of the competition.

Following on from the IPA’s recent Staging a Comeback’ presentation, therefore, this is a brief tour of the longer-term strategies used to bring about recoveries at struggling retailers as featured in the history of the IPA Effectiveness Awards.

Broadly, these strategies fall into four groupings:

  • Disrupting shopper inertia
  • Getting consumers reinvolved in the brand
  • Staking out a clear retail territory
  • Removing obstacles to buying

There are two things to note at the outset.

First, this piece only looks at retailers where communications was used to reverse commercial declines or counter serious threats of decreases.  That focus excludes  the likes of Sainsbury’s ‘Christmas in a Day’ (Silver, 2014), John Lewis’ ‘Making the nation cry’ (Grand Prix, 2012) and, arguably, the best-known retail case of all, Tesco’s Every little helps(Grand Prix, 2000).

These are rightly celebrated as examples of strategic ideas, communicated via powerful creative and well-thought out media.  But they are instances of retailers seeking to extend or outperform track records of growth, rather than overcoming a serious challenge or deterioration in their businesses.

Second, grocer brands feature prominently in the discussion.  This reflects the strong record of grocers in the history of the Awards. (By contrast, despite multiple entries to the Awards over the decades, the DIY/homewares sector has never won an IPA Effectiveness Award. Come on home improvers, 2016 could be your year.)

Disrupting shopper inertia

To dramatise the idea that most consumers ‘sleep-shop’  - unthinkingly buying the same purchases out of habit, Sainsbury’s and its agency, AMV BBDO, once sent a man in a gorilla suit around a supermarket.  Film footage showed shoppers scarcely noticing the stunt.

The ‘Try Something New’ initiative (IPA Gold – 2008) was launched in late 2005 to tackle the sleep shopping phenomenon.  It was used as both an internal rallying idea to staff and management to innovate, as well as an advertising prompt to consumers to experiment with new food options.

At the time, the supermarket had launched a long-term recovery plan, with a target of growing revenues by £2.5bn in three years.  It was calculated that the group’s 14m customers would need to spend an extra £1.14 a week over three years to get the chain to its £2.5bn target.

Used in external communications, the ‘Try Something New’ line offered a potential solution to consumers’ perennial question, ‘What shall I cook tonight?’  and was flexible enough to be used across multiple formats from Jamie Oliver-fronted TV spots to press adverts, in-store promotions, recipe cards and online forums.  

Read the Try Something New  case study in full to see how AMV BBDO calculated the impact of its central, behaviour-changing brand idea as opposed to just the campaign’s advertising executions.

Getting consumers reinvolved in the brand

In 2006, a case won the IPA Effectiveness Awards Grand Prix for demonstrating how communications helped turn around a retailer despite a decline in the overall market.

By 2007, the client’s profit momentum was already on a downward trajectory (see chart above) from which the brand is only now showing the first, slight signs of recovery.

So what can this 2006 case  – This is not advertising by RKCR/Y&R for Marks & Spencer – still teach us?

Most people will remember the breathy-voiced food advertising  or  Twiggy-starring fashion ads used by the retailer at the time.  However, the case study itself emphasises that the overarching idea of M&S communications during this period was to encourage audiences to take back ownership of the brand by stressing it was ‘Your M&S’ in its advertising, packaging, brand identity and even in the way it communicated its pricing.

This strategy played on the vestigial public’s affection and interest in the fortunes of the struggling retailer, but used a modern design idiom and a renewed commitment to issues such as ethical sourcing to make the group feel relevant again to Britons.

Simultaneously, M&S also changed areas including product development and store layout, which had a clear impact on improved sales.

But the specific role identified for communications in this fight back story was to create a convincing idea that could be used to connect with different audiences – from City analysts to staff and the chain’s demanding customers – and would work in the different categories (food, fashion, financial services) advertised by the brand.  

It is no accident, therefore, that the fuller name of this case study is ‘This is not just advertising - this is Your M&S advertising: how confident communications helped restore public confidence in M&S’.  This is a tale of a retailer reconnecting with its consumers, potently if perhaps temporarily.

The ‘Let’s Grow’ case (IPA Grand Prix, 2009) by Mediedge:CIA for Morrisons is a more obviously participatory initiative. Taking the top prize in one of the IPA’s small budget competition years, this case details how a grassroots-driven promotion encouraging schools and shoppers to grown their own food became a nationwide TV campaign.  Increased footfall, growth in shopping visits and econometrics on the TV advertising are all adduced in the case study to estimate a £10.5m payback on this £2m campaign.

The Good with Food  case study by McCann Erickson for the Co-op (IPA Bronze, 2010) is perhaps closer to the M&S experience as an example of an over-arching brand idea used successfully to win back lost customers by reminding them of a retailer’s core values. Soberingly, given the subsequent troubles at the Co-op following its purchase of Somerfield stores, it is also another reminder of how short-lived retail turnarounds can be.

Staking out clear retail territory

It is something of a surprise that the Designers at Debenhams  case study entered by WCRS into the competition in 2002 did not win an IPA Effectiveness award.

Any reservations that the judges had about how well this case proved communications had supported a 15% sales rise at the department group are lost to history.

But what is less debatable is that the ‘Designers at Debenhams’ idea  –  which communicated the group’s affordable designer ranges  –  gave the chain a distinctive, long-lasting positioning when it was in danger of being squeezed between high-end outlets and fast fashion providers such as Primark. The initiative translated into improved brand perceptions and increased propensity to visit Debenhams stores, as well as the aforementioned sales figures.

In a similar vein, Waitrose: David versus Goliath, the rematch by MCBD (IPA Gold, 2007) describes how, when faced with competition from a resurgent M&S and four bigger supermarket rivals, Waitrose managed to carve out a territory where food quality and ethics overlapped  as “a highly motivating territory where the bigger players could not touch us”.

In a series of TV, print and radio ads, Waitrose talked about the quality of its products, framing these stories within the bigger one of how the group conducted its business in relation to food growers, other suppliers and its staff.

Brand tracking research showed the campaign helped improve perceptions about the chain’s food quality, pricing and fairness. Over the 2004-6 period, household penetration and sales visits to Waitrose rose. The payback on the TV advertising alone was estimated at £5.57 per £1 spent.

Removing obstacles to buy

The most significant retail trend of recent years has arguably been the rise of ‘hard discounters’ such as Aldi and Lidl.

Judging from the Aldi cases Like Brands (IPA Gold, 2012) and Swap and Save (IPA Silver, 2014), from McCann Manchester, one of the prime motivations for the discount chain has been to dismantle the perceptions that have historically prevented shoppers from spending more with Aldi and others in the discount sector.

These barriers included beliefs that the chain only sold a narrow range of lower quality goods and the feeling among some shoppers that whilst Aldi stores could provide a useful  top-up, they were not patronised by ‘people like us’ for their main weekly shop.

The 2012 campaign tackled the former by humorously communicating that Aldi products were like ‘branded goods’, only cheaper.  

In the 2014 follow-up, consumers were encouraged to swap their weekly shop to Aldi and save money.

The ads showed consumers who made the swap and had enjoyed significant savings. In a bid to to address the 'people like us' reservations, the ads showcased relatively affluent Aldi shoppers filmed in their well-appointed homes, talking about their plans to spend the money saved on city breaks and other perks rather than pocketing the cash because they needed to cut their spending.

The Essential Waitrose case (IPA Gold, 2010), by MCBD and Manning Gottlieb OMD, is a similar dilemma, seen through the other end of the telescope, as it were. With the UK in recession in 2009, Waitrose was experiencing a decline in shopper numbers and sales.  Analysts speculated that with consumers putting greater focus on price and increasingly buying own label products, Waitrose – which did not have a consistently branded own label range  – would see sales ‘fall off a cliff’.

The group opted to launch such a range, using a paired back visual identity and a name, Essentials, that suggested necessity and vitality whilst avoiding connotations of ‘value’ or ‘basics’.

The range was effectively a repackaging of 1,000 existing Waitrose product under a consistent brand with an additional 200 new products. It was communicated with press and outdoor media placements that were unusual for both the sector and the brand.

The full evidence that this worked can be found in the case study. But to cite only two components from its results section:  the move successfully encouraged more people to move their main shop to Waitrose, and brought in more new customers to the chain.


The above instances do not claim to be a comprehensive or even representative set of recovery case studies from the retail sector.

However, taken together, they suggest the power of central brand ideas that offer a tangible and distinct benefit both to the shopper and the retailer, increase consumers’ sense of ownership or participation with the brand, or are simply intriguing enough to break through the routines that prevent people from changing shopping habits.

Retail may be one of the fastest-changing markets, both in terms of its analysis and its reality. But some brand truths do not appear to change as much as people think.



Last updated 15/04/2015

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