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Actions not ads – How Tesco can repair its relationship with customers

Matthew Charlton is the CEO of Brothers and Sisters. He was a founder of BETC London, has run agencies in London, Amsterdam and the US and has worked on brands including Johnnie Walker, PlayStation and Sony Ericsson.

Tesco needs to rebuild trust. So it has given some of its 43 closing stores to the local community. Genius and powerful.

And sadly, as of now, totally made up by me.

The issue is this: most supermarkets are no longer popular. Markets used to be an important part of the local community. For hundreds of years the role of a market evolved from some canvas-clad stalls to brick shops to eventually large megastores to serve the surrounding area. Everyone knew each other and supermarkets were popular. Tesco’s Jack Cohen, the Sainsburys and Morrisons were all families and shopkeepers who really knew their customers.

Somewhere along this merry way our supermarkets started to feel like banks. Maybe they got confused. Maybe they got greedy like many businesses have. Instead of helping local farmers they appeared to destroy them. They became distant and cold. They posted huge profits and got richer and richer. And they seemed to stop knowing what their customers really want.

People are fickle fiends. We were happy to turn a blind eye to concerns over the attitude of some supermarkets because we needed them and enjoyed the benefits. But now people are wondering if they can’t shop at Lidl, online at Amazon and in local high-quality produce shops and get what they need. And the moment we don’t need you, we realise that we really don’t like you.

Tesco now finds itself not a million miles away from where the banks have ended up. It feels in many ways like Barclays Bank did. Too big, too powerful and too full of itself. I’ve never seen so many people delight in a brand’s problem as when Tesco’s financial scandal broke. The local bully had finally punched itself on the nose. Barclays has worked hard to try to change its image and Tesco is going to have to embark on the same difficult journey.

If you need to genuinely repair a brand you’ve got to do so much more than run some nice ads and offer some good deals to buy back customers. You can buy back custom but you can’t buy back popularity.

There is a catch 22. Ads that tell everyone that Tesco has the cheapest-housed brands versus anyone else unfortunately come across as arrogant. Look how big and powerful we are! When you are the biggest by such a margin it’s very easy to reinforce negativities. It does nothing to shift the emotional needle because it’s just more big ugly business. Of course it’ll bring in some shoppers in the short-term, but that won’t last.

It’s not just Tesco; all of the supermarkets need to get back to being genuinely popular with their customers. That means creating new powerful positive myths and conversations in people’s streets. Not ads.

I would love to see Tesco get on the front foot and lead the sector emotionally as well as commercially. Become part of local communities again and donate the empty finished stores to childcare centres or other worthy enterprises. Don’t mothball them. Do don’t say.

Matthew Charlton is the CEO of Brothers and Sisters. He tweets @mjcharltonesq

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