Safeway Asda Branding

Staying true to your brand is as important to you personally as it is to the company you represent


By Dom Burch, managing director

February 10, 2016 | 7 min read

I read an interesting piece this morning that got me thinking.

It argues that retailers must constantly adapt to stand the test of time, but also importantly they must stay true to their essential brand promise.

The same could be said of us as marketeers.

The fundamentals of marketing, public relations and social media remain relatively constant, but how we communicate, gather insight, target customers and influence their behaviour is ever changing.

In that context it is also extremely important to remain true to who we are, not losing sight of why we do what we do, and mindful of how our individual actions impact our personal brands.

Our own reputation, what people say about us when we leave the room, is inextricably linked to what we do, not what we say. And our future success as individuals is built on it.

But it's easy to lose sight of that in the melee of our daily slog.

Steve Barr, PwC's US retail and consumer leader, told Retail Dive: “There are brands that know exactly who they are and they never ever try to be anything more than they are."

It's an important point. We all recognise and can name brands that have lost their way. Forgotten who they really are, and what customers expect of them.

When I joined Asda in 2002, it was on average 25 per cent cheaper than Safeway at the time.

Safeway had fallen into the trap of becoming highly promotional, slashing prices every Wednesday, driving huge spikes in volume on a small selection of products hoping customers would add other more expensive items to their basket at the same time.

It didn't happen. Over the months it inadvertently trained consumers to wait for the weekly door drop, study the offers, then fill their boots midweek with more Nescafe Gold Blend than they could ever dream of drinking. They didn't go on to do the all important full weekly shop.

My uncle Jim loved them for it. But my cousins thought it was hilarious that his garage was full of half-price groceries, as if storing up supplies for Armageddon.

Core customers deserted them and Safeway's sales started to tank. The writing was on the wall.

18 months later, this once proud retailer, first established in 1962, was consigned to the memory banks following the successful acquisition by WM Morrison.

Retailers are a funny breed, and have a special place in our hearts.

I remember shopping at Safeway each week as a student in Leeds. The Headingley store served us proud. I cry a little inside when I walk by occasionally and it's no longer there, like a piece of my formative years has been wiped away.

Asda too has left a big imprint on me, and not because I've worked there.

I grew up in Earley, Reading. In the mid-1980s Lower Earley was created, 10,000 new houses built on greenfield land between Reading and Wokingham.

In a typically shortsighted town planning sort of way, the new population of 30,000 people were provided with one little district centre which housed an Asda store, a novelty in southern England back then, and a leisure centre.

No restaurants, pubs, youth clubs, skate parks or other stuff do to. Just lots of new houses with their cardboard interior walls and an Asda.

As a result my (underage) mates and I hung out on waste land drinking cider, kindly purchased for us from Asda by Bob Skin, a local skinhead who introduced us to the concept of the BOGOF. He buys us a bottle with our money, and gets one free for himself for his trouble.

Anyway, I digress, according to Retail Dive there are key traits that enable retailers to stand the test of time.

Retail experts point to the likes of L.L. Bean, founded in 1912, and Nordstrom, founded in 1901, which at their core have protected their reputations for excellent customer service.

Both retailers have liberal return policies and are among the few that offer both free delivery and free returns on all online orders.

The other key traits are relevancy and trust.

PwC's Steve Barr adds: “I think, from my perspective, it’s less about history and more about relevancy, and even the best of brands, if they don’t maintain their relevancy, will lose their way with the consumer.

“The great thing about the classic brands is there really is a tremendous amount of trust. So when those brands do change, even as they’re constantly reinventing themselves, they’re always staying true to their purpose.”

Staying relevant, harnessing technology, while staying true to yourself as a brand, or a marketeer, are the key ingredients to sustainable success.

When I returned from my career break in January 2011, I spent the next 12 months making the case for Asda to invest in social media. And managed to carve out a new head of social media role.

My appointment coincided with Asda bringing on board a new marketing director, Stephen Smith.

And my first encounter with him was in a meeting with our CEO, as I took him through our social media strategy.

Steve was an immediate advocate, a huge supporter of me personally, a man of immense stature (he's 6ft6 I think), but also extremely humble, honest, and inspiring.

He single-handedly lifted me up, filled me with confidence, and helped shape my career taking it to the next level.

What's all the more staggering as I look back four years on is that he was only my age then. A mere 41, yet already having achieved so much, and seemingly so wise.

So what is the connection?

In January this year Steve took up his new position as president and CEO of L.L. Bean.

Smith is only the fourth president in L.L. Bean's history, and the first "outsider" to lead the company.

Shawn Gorman, L.L. Bean's chairman of the board, was quoted at the time that initially he had wanted to hire someone from within, but very quickly after meeting Steve started calling him the 'internal external'.

"His values were so in line with the Bean values it was as if he worked at Beans in a former life."

Steve's brand is clear to see. He's a massive people person. Down to earth. An inspiring leader. An innovative marketeer. With a hugely impressive track record belying his age. Someone who is willing to change with the times, and gives others the platform they need to thrive and succeed.

L.L. Bean is in very safe hands. And whoever follows in his footsteps will literally have very big boots to fill.

My advice to marketeers is take a leaf out of his book. Constantly innovative, harness technology, but stay true to who you are and be protective of your own essential personal brand.

Follow Dom on Twitter @DomBurch

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