Morrisons marketing chief Angus MacIver is in high spirits, buoyed by recent growth rates that have outstripped its rivals. That said, he knows that standing still is never an option in retail.
The amiable Scot is fast approaching a year at Morrisons after joining from Prudential, where he was marketing director, in October 2007. He acknowledges that he has made the move into retail at a precocious time for the industry, but smiles when asked if he is feeling the pressure of marketing one of the country’s ‘big four’ supermarkets. After a short pause, he qualifies that he is “excited” about the challenges that lie in wait. And rightly so, given that Morrisons increased its sales by 9.4 percent in the 12 weeks leading to 10 August, a faster rate than Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose, according to TNS Worldpanel. The figures also show Morrisons increased its market share from 10.9 to 11.1 percent.
Despite its increasing popularity, Morrisons still feels earthier than the behemoths like Tesco and Asda with which it competes – and MacIver believes this underpins its success. “We’re not a global player like Tesco and we’re not American-owned like Asda,” he acknowledges. “But Morrisons is a long-standing British brand. We think our success in recent months has a lot to do with our fresh food offer, which is dominated by locally-sourced British produce. So perhaps consumers are coming to us because, in a tough financial climate, they’d rather root for their own than hand their money to global businesses.”
This sense of Morrisons’ roots occasionally punctuates the firm’s otherwise functional headquarters. In the downstairs foyer, nostalgic prints of early, humble Morrisons outlets adorn the walls; sepia snapshots of a simpler, bygone era. By contrast, the waiting area is lit up by the din of flatscreen TVs and futuristic motion sensitive lighting. This technological integration to spare electricity is all part of the business meeting its CSR requirements – a big part of MacIver’s remit. He promises that all new-build Morrisons supermarkets will incorporate such modern advances to cut the chain’s energy usage.
Despite this evidence of a business embracing the future, MacIver does not appear the sort to be swayed by fads. Through the purchase of Safeway in 2004, Morrisons inadvertently acquired sponsorship of the Scotland national football team – a deal brokered before MacIver’s arrival and one which has since run its course. “We’re always on the lookout for sponsorship opportunities, but football wouldn’t suit us now,” he admits, hinting that he never saw the brand and the game as ideal bedfellows anyway.
Then, there is the fresh food offer MacIver is so proud of. Incorporating the likes of fishmongers and butchers in-store, he insists it could not yet be compacted into a convenience store format like Tesco’s Metro. “You never say never, but we haven’t found a way yet.” Likewise, he adds that Morrisons has no immediate plans to sell online because of the logistical challenge of distributing the fresh produce.
While rivals are looking at ways to maximise the selling power of the web, Morrisons’ simpler approach of ushering consumers in-store seems to be paying dividends. Once inside, it is hard to ignore the way the supermarket has so readily embraced the credit crunch as part of its branding. Morrisons is not alone in referencing the bleak financial picture; its ‘price crunch’ message is not a million miles apart from Tesco’s ads talking up ‘inflation-busting prices’.
But with consumers bombarded by conflicting messages of where they can find the cheapest deals, is there a danger they could be inclined to shop around rather than show loyalty to one particular outlet? “There’s nothing to say consumers won’t look around, but with fuel prices so high it still makes sense to do the weekly shop all in one journey rather than hopping from store to store,” MacIver reasons.
While he admits that consumers are likely to be more frugal than ever, MacIver is consoled by the fact that food shopping is one luxury consumers cannot do without. “I think the credit crunch has made people look at their spending and seek ways to cut it back. So rather than go out for a meal, they might buy the produce with us and cook something at home instead for half the price. If it’s more expensive to go out now, it makes sense to make the home environment as pleasant as possible. So what we are seeing in-store, if anything, is our customers treating themselves to the odd luxury as a way of making themselves feel better rather than making huge cutbacks.”
Regardless of how consumers’ spending patterns evolve, there is no doubting that the retail sector will prove a challenging battleground for any marketer over the coming months. Despite this, MacIver insists it remains a sector where any budding marketer should aspire to test themselves. “You are making day-to-day decisions in retail and I find that immediacy fantastically rewarding. With a big FMCG brand, for instance, things are often a little more patient and you don’t see the impact of your decisions quite as quickly.
“Not only that, but retail is so diverse too,” he adds. “Yes, there’s branding to take care of, but on any given day I can be dealing with issues surrounding the stock of men’s underpants one minute to the packaging of a detergent product the next.”
Earlier in his career, MacIver spent 10 years at PepsiCo working on its beverages and Walkers snack foods products. He clearly retains great admiration for Walkers – admitting it is his favourite brand – and talks with fondness about the opportunities PepsiCo presented. “Through being there I got the opportunity to work abroad and encounter different business cultures, and that’s something I’d absolutely urge any marketer to do.
“Working in the ex-Communist countries, particularly, made for quite the culture change. I quickly found that people there didn’t like rules because they’d spent years rallying against such a regimented lifestyle. When I was working at Pepsi, we had this US campaign, ‘Drink Pepsi Get Stuff’. We were rolling it out into the Czech Republic and I remember going to look at the packaging: someone along the line had changed the message to ‘Pepsi Stuff is Shit Hot’. At the time you’re thinking, ‘how can I control this?’ But it’s funny looking back now and it was a marvellous experience being out there.”
Now though, MacIver is rooted in the less exotic climes of West Yorkshire. And given his love of traditional brands – his fondness for Walkers stems from what he calls “its classic British heritage” – the firm William Morrison conceived in 1899 as a market stall egg and butter merchant appears very much like home.