A year on from an agency and marketer overhaul, questions remain over Asda’s advertising

Asda's marketing fails to deliver on sales

It’s been a year since Asda appointed a new marketer in the shape of Andy Murray, who was quick to overhaul the retailer’s agency roster and promised to bring “leadership, creativity, and effectiveness” into its advertising. But, with sales now down for the 10th quarter in a row, questions remain over Asda’s marketing plans.

Murray was flown in by Asda-owner Walmart – where he had been senior vice president of creative - after five consecutive quarters of negative sales. His immediate solution was to bring in a new creative agency, ditching VCCP and hiring Saatchi & Saatchi, the group he had spent a nearly decade at as the founder of its shopper marketing arm.

But, as The Drum reported at the time, for all the optimism surrounding the shake-up, the road to recovery was always going to be fraught with challenges.

The issues fell on the fact that price, for a long time, had been what Asda differentiated itself on. Amid the rise of Aldi and Lidl, however, the long-running 'Everyday Low Prices' proposition struggled to resonate as strongly as it once did and it desperately needed to define itself beyond being the cheapest supermarket.

As sales slid 5.7%, the first piece of work to bring Asda out of this no-man’s land was the James Martin-fronted summer campaign. It didn’t stray far from highlighting its low prices – something industry commentators had urged it to do – but did feature the celebrity chef showcasing recipe ideas.

“This ad marks the beginning of an exciting campaign that is designed to emotionally engage with our customers,” said Murray at the time.

It didn’t. And that August, sales hit a new low – down 7.5%

The next quarter seemed to show some improvement as the sales decline slowed to 5.8% and with the all-important Christmas period upon it, Asda ploughed ahead. The traditional blockbuster Christmas campaign was shunted in favour of 22 shorter adverts which reflected the shopper mood at any given point.

“Our price points, our range, and high quality offering underpins our whole campaign - ‘Christmas Made Better’,” said Murray.

Although Walmart’s earnings update yesterday (21 February) for Asda once again pointed to a slowing rate of decline for the quarter covering the festive period, sales were nonetheless down 2.6 per cent. And, against competitors, Asda was the worst performing supermarket over Christmas, according to Kantar Worldpanel.

“Whilst the new chief executive Sean Clarke is investing in a turnaround plan focused on fixing the basics, including service and availability, it does also feel like marketing has been put on hold,” said Catherine Shuttleworth, chief executive of shopper marketing agency Savvy.

Asda has stated that recovery means volume uplift and sales spikes through events such as Easter and Valentine’s Day. However, as its competitors - including the discounters – have eaten into that and Asda needs, more than ever, to take a unique view for its shoppers.

To its credit, it pushed through a humorous take on the classic V-Day ad, showing a single woman treating herself to a night in and another spot tugged on heartstrings with the plight of a little boy and his many girlfriends. The next big test will be whether its seasonal marketing push for Easter cuts through the noise from dozens of other retailer's fighting for shopper attention.

But it doesn't seem to have hit on a cohesive strategy that connects one campaign message to the next.

“Shoppers aren't seeing the Asda message anymore - where have Asda's advertising and marketing campaigns gone?," continued Shuttleworth. "With the retailer’s history including some of the most iconic supermarket marketing ever in Asda Price and the pocket tap Asda needs to get back to the bold marketing activity that it was famous for."

But underpinning all of this is Walmart’s increasing desire to bring Asda closer. Where Asda is flailing under 10 quarters of poor sales, Walmart is celebrating 10 quarters of continuous growth.

The new team at Asda have been following the same steps to recovery as the US business, leveraging the parent’s purchasing power across the business to drive down prices and costs.

Under the Walmart influence, stores are less cluttered and there is more in the way of fresh produce while investment in product innovation has bolstered its frozen and chilled departments as well as the ‘Extra Special’ brand.

“Walmart is Asda's greatest strategic strength - the biggest retailer in the world that has potential to really challenge Amazon. Leveraging its buying power will be key in Asda’s ability to maintain its ‘Everyday Low Price’ strategy - and, no matter what broader changes Asda could make to its marketing strategy, EDLP has to remain it its centre,” continued Shuttleworth.

But it needs to do more to protect its market share and Murray must go further with customer communications. Despite murmurings that another review could take place, Asda has denied its agency roster is under the microscope. And asked to comment on how it feels marketing is performing, a spokesperson said it takes a ‘one team’ approach.

“It's time that Asda takes a fresh look at their marketing and puts in place a team of marketers and agencies to put them back in step with the shopper," surmised Shuttleworth.

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