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Jason Stone: Challenges facing Asda's new advertising agency

Asda's decision to end its 23-year long relationship with Publicis Groupe has left two agencies in the running for its valuable account - VCCP and JWT.

The account, which shifted from Publicis to stablemate Fallon in 2007, has been handled by Saatchi & Saatchi for the last three years, which has managed Asda's advertising extremely well during a difficult period.

The key challenge for the new incumbent will be to create advertising which enables Asda to maintain its position as the supermarket of choice for price-conscious punters without allowing the negative connotations of 'cheapness' to deter other potential customers.

This is not an easy task, as Asda's biggest rival can testify - it took Tesco years to shed its 'cheap' image. The transformation owed a lot to a long-running campaign created by Lowe Howard-Spink featuring Dudley Moore as a hapless buyer determinedly travelling the world to seek out the best-possible commodities at the lowest-possible price.

The twin emphasis on 'quality' and 'cost' allowed Tesco to reposition itself as a reliable provider of decent food at a fair price. 'Value for money' replaced 'cheap' as the central idea associated with the brand.

Importantly, the advertising campaign was supported by changes within the stores which helped to press home the idea that the retailer had moved into a different league.

Asda has tentatively ventured down the same path from time to time but never with much conviction. The appointment of Fallon six years ago sent a signal that the supermarket was prepared to back creativity in a bid to shift perception of the brand.

Acclaimed documentary-maker Patrick Collerton made a series of films which showed what happened when celebrities such as Victoria Wood and Paul Whitehouse worked alongside Asda's staff. The aim was to create a different dynamic than you get from a scripted film but the need to distil usable edits stripped any sense that the films were out of the ordinary.

Had these films been the start of a process that was allowed to continue, they might have worked but it wasn't long before the more traditional aspects of the brand's advertising were shoehorned into Fallon's executions and it never seemed likely that the relationship between one of London's most exciting agencies and Asda would survive the latter's insistence on including the infamous pat on the bum - long used to signify the money customers can save.

It was also said that Fallon's infrastructure struggled to cope with the workload that comes with an account like Asda and the move to Saatchi & Saatchi in 2009 didn't only ease the tension between agency and client, it provided the supermarket with a more conventional arrangement.

From the outside, it seemed probable that Saatchi & Saatchi's job was to steady the ship and provide Asda with their its of advertising. Over time, the agency managed to introduce more creativity and much of its work in the last year has been first rate with a clear but measured effort at shifting perception of the brand.

Asda's Christmas ad divided opinion, with many suggesting that it reinforced sexist attitudes. It was a strange criticism as the ad clearly championed the put-upon mums who are able to take on the demands of a busy family Christmas. But critics determinedly interpreted a candid description of male laziness as an approving endorsement and a well-organised social media backlash put the supermarket on the back foot.

2013 brought further challenges for the big supermarkets as the horse meat scandal revealed a worrying lack of accountability and oversight. The British public's resistance to shopping at big out-of-town retailers has been bludgeoned with convenience but the response to tainted meat has reminded retailers that trust cannot be taken for granted and customer loyalty may be more fragile than they imagine.

Against this background, Asda's numbers don't look bad but with Tesco having an even worse time of it over the past few years, there may be a feeling among Walmart executives that the green-liveried supermarket ought to be doing better.

With Chris McDonough at the marketing helm, Asda appears likely to seek a new approach and it seems probable it will renew the effort to discard its 'cheap' image without discarding its reputation for being 'inexpensive'.

What its executives need to understand is that it's not possible to shift perceptions overnight. It takes time. If it backs its new agency to the hilt and resists the temptation to resurrect iconography that brings the brand into disrepute then perhaps Britons will finally be persuaded to love Asda.

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