The real story of the ASDA Price campaign

It may come as a surprise to some, particularly those in London and the Home Counties, to learn that Asda Price has been with us for three decades. I say this because those of us north of Watford had the pleasure of, or were subjected to (whichever is your point of view), several years of the campaign before it appeared in the South. It has therefore outlasted such revered campaigns as Heineken and Hamlet, which, like ageing actors who have entertained us for years, have become national treasures. While it may struggle for support among the creative cognoscenti of today to achieve this kind of status, Asda Price certainly made its mark over the last 30 years and left plenty of interest in its wake.

For example, it is probably one of the most visible campaigns to come out of the regions; unusually for a retailer, it was, in its early years, a consistent winner of creative awards; it was probably one of the first campaigns to use price strategically as well as tactically; it was the main reason behind JWT buying an agency in Manchester; it was dropped in the mid-80s when Asda came close to financial disaster; it was re-introduced as a part of Asda’s successful recovery plan in the 90s.

For these reasons, as well as sheer longevity, the campaign deserves a closer look.

The first task was to gather together some of the original work from the 70s and 80s. For all sorts of reasons this proved to be not so easy. No matter, Stephen Johnson and I, who in our youth were both part of the team that created Asda Price, searched garages and lofts for Sony Umatic reels and 35mm slides from yesteryear the results of which you can see here. We were also helped by David Bell of CB/JWT kindly providing us with a reel from his agency’s archive.

There was a strange cocktail of circumstance and luck surrounding the development of the original Asda Price idea, all of which had a part to play in its success. The most enduring memory being the sense of excitement and adventure that surrounded a client who was pioneering a way of shopping that we all now accept as the norm – superstores. These were heady days for client and agency, with ad spend rising almost weekly in line with the phenomenal growth in sales and new stores as Asda swept south from its Yorkshire stronghold.

Environment can play its part in the creation of ideas and there is little doubt that the adrenaline of these times fuelled a desire to create something unique and lasting for a client who was as driven as any I have ever seen. It also fuelled a demand from both client and agency to settle for nothing but the very best, along with the willingness to go to any lengths to achieve it. The list of film directors chosen for the early TV campaigns reads like a Who’s Who of the top directors of the era.

So, out of this highly charged entrepreneurial environment came Asda Price, which had its roots in something a little more prosaic. The term was first used on in-store price tickets and posters before its advertising potential was spotted by Gordon Taylor, then the head of Asda’s agency, Yeoward Taylor and Bonner, later to become JWT Manchester, now Cheetham Bell JWT. Quite what the originator of the term had in mind when omitting the apostrophe \"s\" from Asda or, indeed, who the originator actually was, we shall probably never know. What we do know is that Stephen Johnson’s pocket-tap was the masterstroke that did for Asda Price what Morecambe did for Wise.

Reviewing the original work again after many years, I was reminded of the simplicity of the campaign. TV was used to make Asda Price synonymous with low price. Press to substantiate the claim. The TV commercials, featuring stars from popular sitcoms of the day, were an instant hit with consumers bored to tears with TV grocery advertising, which until then had only ever told them the price of a loaf of white bread or a jar of instant coffee.

The formula couldn’t have been simpler. One personality appears to be surprised because of another’s apparent extravagant spending. Smug response, \"Asda Price\", tap tap, \"Asda Price\".

Oh, and the music of course. Those simple but irritatingly memorable bars from Roger Greenaway also became an indispensable part of the campaign.

The substantiation in the press took two forms. Product and price advertising, which was carefully crafted to differentiate it from the split shopping bag approach of others. And, wherever possible, advertising that featured the results of research proving that Asda did indeed have the lowest prices.

It was also interesting to be reminded of how the campaign continually evolved throughout the 70s and early 80s, with new personalities and new ingredients added, like \"Pocket the Difference\", to keep it fresh.

During this ten-year period, Asda Price became part of the folklore of the era. Comedians introduced pocket tapping jokes, footballers sold at bargain prices were reported in the sports pages to be sold at Asda Price and market traders as far away as Morocco were found to be selling their wares at Asda Price to British tourists.

Throughout this time, both client and agency enjoyed considerable success; so much so that JWT bought the agency for a foothold in the rapidly expanding retail sector that many London agencies had struggled to come to terms with.

In the 80s, Asda Price went into hibernation as a new management team arrived who were long on theory but short of the instinct of their predecessors. They changed direction to follow Sainsbury upmarket, ditching the agency and

Asda Price en route. A few years later, with Asda on the brink of collapse, Archie Norman arrived with Allan Leighton to put the company back on course, re-introducing Asda Price along the way.

It would be ridiculous to suggest that Asda owes its success to Asda Price. There is, however, an eerie relationship between Asda price and Asda’s two periods of success and, perhaps more importantly, the fact that it was dropped during their period of failure. Has it therefore attained some kind of mythical untouchable status within Asda that is stopping the development of the idea since its re-introduction?

There are, I think, many reasons why the first era of Asda Price advertising was so successful and so popular. It was based upon a truth. It accurately reflected the character of Asda at the time, in that it was simple, confident, original and competitive but also retained a sense of fun. And, whilst I am delighted to see that the idea is still alive and that Asda’s success continues unabated, today’s work lacks some of the qualities that made the original work not just memorable but also hugely popular. But then I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Michael Barrington and Stephen Johnson are founding partners of Manchester Agency Barrington Johnson Lorains.

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