My mother was once a devoted customer of a supermarket called Stevenson and Rush. She seldom went in, though. She phoned with her order and they delivered it to our house. I think she had to visit occasionally to pay the bill, but otherwise, it was a thoroughly modern relationship.
Where is Stevenson and Rush now? I have searched the web for information, but incredibly, even Google can't tell me what happened to it. It does however record the deaths of Somerfield and Safeway, and the surprising resurrection of Kwik Save.
It just goes to show – you can adopt the very latest technology, and offer a highly personal service, but the endless war between supermarkets may still sweep you into oblivion.
Lidl recently unveiled its new strategy for avoiding this awful fate: TV ads, plus a social media campaign. Both Lidl and Aldi are relative newcomers to TV, and of course as soon as you set foot on TV you run the risk of seeding the thought in your customers' minds that you won't be a cheap place to shop much longer. TV just looks expensive if it's done at all well.
But of course Lidl is aware of this risk, and the ads are being positioned – at least in the marketing press – as a way of "propagating its #Lidlsurprises tagline to existing and prospective shoppers". Whether the TV audience will view them like that is another matter. But still, following the unveiling of the campaign, Lidl wrapped the Evening Standard in London with ads "featuring the authentic and unvarnished views of our customers".
Authentic and unvarnished they may be, but of course, carefully selected too. You know where this is going. Yes, exactly where Twitter campaigns like this always go. Here are some of the Tweets that won't be varnished, but airbrushed out:
'"We tried your Pork and Cabbage Trifle tonight and now there's puke everywhere and the wife is in a coma #LidlSurprises"
'"If you shop at the Southsea store there's an extremely rude woman called Donna waiting at the checkout for you #LidlSurprises"
'"#LidlSurprises That White Dee isn't stood in front of you in the queue."
"#LidlSurprises whores meat not horse meat"
I'm being selective, just like Lidl. There are positive tweets too. But the problem is, Twitter completely flattens out the brand's voice, so all brands sound the same.
"Just discovered xxxx cumberland cocktail sausages, only trouble is, an open pack is an empty pack!! #NomNom"
"Are your packed lunches the best? Tweet us a pic and you could be our #PackedLunchHero"
"Holy guacamole! Our exclusive giant #Avozilla is back & 6 times the size of a normal avocado! What will you make?"
"Feeling inspired to bake? Find all our brilliant homebaking products here:"
If you can tell which supermarket is which in the tweets above, well done. As far as I can see, there's one brand on Twitter, and it's Twitter. Same goes for Facebook.
What's a brand to do? You solicit tweets via a TV ad, and the Great British Public decides it's a chance to display its wit. Or you put out all your tweets yourself, and you make wallpaper.
The most interesting thing a brand can learn from Twitter is not how much its customers love it, but exactly how the brand is perceived. Because the way in which people mock the brand in their tweets will be differentiated by brand.
'I shop at Waitrose because Tesco doesn't stock unicorn food' is a precise comment on the Waitrose brand. And 'It's a dog-eat-dog world. Especially when you buy your pet food at Lidl' is the same for Lidl.
By the end of this campaign, Lidl will have learnt a lot more about how its brand is viewed, but I predict the campaign won't have changed brand perceptions at all. The jokes will still all be much the same. Valuable information for Lidl to use in future, perhaps, to create communications in other, more effective media.
Peter Souter from Lidl's advertising agency TBWA said of the new campaign: "Today you can't buy your way into people's minds, you have to find a way into their hearts." I'm not sure when it was that you could buy your way into people's minds, or why this campaign costs £20 million if buying is not being attempted. But I am sure Lidl is already in people's hearts. Just not in the place Lidl might want to be.
Better to be there, though, than in the place Stevenson and Rush is. A dim and distant memory, and not even on the internet. That really is death for a brand.