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Last week, market leader Tesco saw its UK sales rise 1.3% (on a like-for-like basis) for the six weeks ending 9 January despite the City forecasting a fall of up to 3%.

Sainsbury’s, meanwhile, saw sales fall by 0.4% over the 15 weeks to 9 January – the drop more positive than predictions of a 1% fall. Morrisons also reported a surprise rise in sales of 0.2%, its first increase in four years.

“It seems the worst of the erosion [from the discounters] is now over,” says Neil Saunders, managing director at Conlumino. “However the evidence suggests that shoppers are still using Aldi and Lidl in increasing numbers and although LFLs are back in positive territory – they are still weak by historic standards.”

Saunders may well have a point. Aldi and Lidl persuaded an extra one million Brits to shop with the discounters over the 12 weeks to 3 January [Kantar Worldpanel], with Lidl becoming the UK’s fastest growing grocer as its sales rose 18.5%.

And if you forget its Christmas performance, Tesco’s third quarter figures for the 13 weeks ending on November 28 were not so positive, with group like-for-like sales down 1.5% in the UK.

Is the marketing improving?

Christmas_Tesco_ad
Tesco’s festive “Every Little Helps” campaign focused on in-store improvements

But even if it’s too early to expect a full return to consistent sales growth at the big four grocers, following a difficult few years of trading, it does appear that their marketing is starting to hit home.

According to YouGov BrandIndex, Tesco has bounced back from a low of -11.8 (on 3 November) on its buzz score, which is a balance of the positive and negative sentiment Brits feel towards a brand, to a current statistically significant high of -0.4 points. This suggesting its BBH-created ‘Every Little Helps’ Christmas campaign has helped to boost brand perception.

Speaking to Marketing Week, Sainsbury’s chief executive Mike Coupe called its festive ‘Mog’ the cat campaign its “best ever ad” and on 17 December its Buzz rating grew to highs of 11.9 points. This is nearly double the score Sainsbury’s had a day before launching the Mog campaign on 12 November.

Morrisons, much like Tesco, decided to switch its focus to colleagues and store improvements with its Christmas campaign. And it has similarly turned a negative into a positive, according to YouGov BrandIndex. Boosted by its Christmas campaign, Buzz has risen from -1 points to a statistically significant high of 5.3 points over the last 90 days.

Retail analyst Steve Dresser has been reasonably impressed by the efforts.

“Marketing efforts were mostly focused on colleagues but Sainsbury’s had a fantastic campaign and outdid John Lewis at their own game,” he says. “I felt the Tesco adverts were interesting, although the messaging was good but the execution was quite weak. Free From is a good message, but never a leading one for Christmas.

“Morrisons was a solid enough message around craft in store, with the Asda ad also getting the business back to its roots in being a ‘fun’ brand.”

Learning from the discounters

Lidl surprises ad
A continued marketing focus on its quality credentials helped Lidl to lead sales growth at Christmas

Dresser, however, says that an improved brand perception must fall in line with an improved customer experience. He adds: “A compelling point of difference is only one half of the battle, it’s no good being different without being relevant.”

In order to further boost brand perceptions, supermarkets such as Tesco and Morrisons must aim to right their wrongs according to David Gray, retail analyst at Planet Retail. He says worrying too much about Aldi and Lidl is not the right strategy.

“As a percentage of sales, Aldi and Lidl are spending by far the most on marketing and as they are private companies they have bottomless ad budgets,” he explains.

“Rather than trying to match them on activity, the big four must instead see the beauty in what Aldi and Lidl have done to promote their food quality – an area that previously was lacking. Marketing should be about reinforcing your brand credentials in areas where the public think you are poor.”

Gray credits Sainsbury’s, in particular, for recently focusing on price: “The public know it has good food quality so promoting price cuts on essentials has changed brand perceptions that were previously lacking.”

So what about Asda?

Starting the year with £500m in fresh price cuts, Asda has also launched a major restructure of head office jobs, with senior redundancies expected across marketing, merchandising and planning.

Asda isn’t due to update the market on its third quarter and Christmas figures until mid-February. And, almost unanimously, analysts expect its recent challenges to continue.

“Asda is likely to produce a much more dismal set of results than its rivals.”

Neil Saunders, managing director of Conlumino

“Asda’s focus on price is correct for its audience, however, it leaves it more subject to erosion from the deep discounters. In other words, Asda’s message has been blunted. If Asda wants to retain its price leadership then it really needs to take a more aggressive stance towards the deep discounters.”

Moving away from price-based messaging could be key for Asda, according to Gray.

He adds: “Its biggest problem is even though it just announced £500m more in cuts it simply isn’t a price leader anymore and hasn’t properly talked up its food quality.

“There is a perception of own-brand quality at Tesco and Sainsbury’s but that’s still lacking at Asda as Extra Special isn’t as well known as a sub-brand.”

And with another “brutal” 12 months ahead, Bryan Roberts, insight director at TCC Global, says that marketing cannot just be more of the same even if Christmas was relatively successful.

He concludes: “My message would be hats off for a decent Christmas, but the supermarkets will continue to trade in a fiercely challenging arena over the next 12 months.”

“In 2016 the big four must push their advantages over the discounters – depth of range, fresh, service and multichannel [in their ads].”