New agency, but Asda’s creative strategy will need to move beyond price

For all the optimism surrounding Asda’s return to Saatchi & Saatchi, its road to recovery is fraught with challenges and the beleaguered brand will have to accept that the modern supermarket needs to stand for more than just price and range.

Failure to adapt to that reality will only exacerbate the retailer’s sales woes despite the arrival of a new agency. Saatchi & Saatchi’s scoop earlier this week (12 April), while not surprising given Asda’s top marketer Andy Murray’s ties to the shop, does offer a glimpse into the ‘no man’s land’ the supermarket now finds itself stuck in.

Murray said he wants Saatchi & Saatchi to bring “creativity” back to the brand’s value play. But that’s exactly what his predecessors wanted from VCCP. And that’s what Asda got when it gave the agency the time and freedom to flex its creative chops, whether it was on its funky Christmas campaign or the ‘Giant Hen’ activity it credited for helping it to sell out of Easter Eggs. However, those opportunities were few and far between, and for the most part VCCP was asked to focus squarely on price.

That brand schizophrenia between price and representing something more is taking its toll on the business; Asda was the worst hit over Easter, according to Kantar Worldpanel, spotlighting a narrowing price difference between itself and the big four. The business is most at risk of its customers trading down to the discounters because that group have the least to lose in terms of quality, yet value the savings the most.

Historically, because Asda never had a price premium, there was never a need to justify one. But, perhaps accidentally, it does now. Asda’s 'Everyday Low Prices' proposition no longer resonates as strongly as it once did, given Aldi and Lidl offer even lower prices – and everyone knows they do.

For too long the supermarket has been reluctant to admit it is no longer the shopper’s low price store of choice and too often it has fought the German discounters head-on. Saatchi & Saatchi may already know how to shake the brand from that mentality, and that’s maybe why Murray thinks it’s the right agency for the job when it wasn’t three years ago.

With all the changes in the sector and competitors pulling off the value play with more character and verve, Asda and Saatchi & Saatchi will need to dig deep to build a more powerful and engaging story.

“Like so many brands we work with, who are caught in the dangerous middle, what Asda needs now is a clear reason to go there, based on a brand story beyond price that helps people feel good about paying a small amount more for something no one else offers,” said Julian Dailly, head of consultancy at brand strategists Morar.

Whether or not that creative flair is in Murray’s roadmap for the brand is still unclear. Highly regarded within Walmart, the marketer previously headed up its creative and customer experience and is credited with injecting emotion back into the brand’s ads. Yet it’s important to note that what resonated with the American shopper isn’t going to work in the UK.

It’s no secret that Walmart – on both sides of the pond – has been squeezing marketing costs so it can offer better prices. And while Murray teased a new era of “creativity” when announcing his new agency partners, the word “efficiency” wasn’t far behind, suggesting that’s where he really hopes to make the gains now that creative and media are under one roof.

Blue 449, part of ZenithOptimedia, will assume media responsibilities, able to offer savings that perhaps weren’t possible when creative and media were split between the VCCP and Carat business models previously. By bringing creative and media closer together it also paves the way for the retailer to understand new ways of marrying creative and audience without losing the efficiencies of media automation.

It’s a prospect indicative of the wider digital issues Asda will need to address. Prior to Murray’s arrival, the supermarket saw its digital future as a media owner and made big bets on programmatic last year, which meant it was never really intrinsic to the main thrust of its marketing.

That needs to change. Having founded, run and sold two successful startups – Saatchi & Saatchi X and Mercury 11 – Murray is no stranger to innovation. And he’ll need to call on all that knowledge to recalibrate the brand’s marketing for a world where shoppers are just as likely to buy goods online as they are to pop into a store on the way from work. Should Murray make digital a priority, it is something Publicis Groupe could excel at, with its ability to bolster the expertise already in place at Saatchi & Saatchi with insights from sister agencies such as SapientNitro and DigitasLBi.

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