With its widely-panned Ant and Dec advertising campaigns and consistently diminishing sales, many had doubted the very future of Morrisons. However, since taking on former Tesco man David Potts as its CEO in March 2015, it has defied expectations.
Most recently, the Bradford-based supermarket chain revealed a pre-tax profit of £217m for the year to 31 January after suffering a £792m loss in the previous 12 months.
For the crucial Christmas period, meanwhile, Morrisons’ like-for-likes were up 0.2% – its first quarterly growth in 16 quarters.
Atkinson, perhaps understandably given the unpredictable nature of British retail, doesn’t want to get carried away. After all, Morrisons saw its market share drop to 10.6%, compared to 11% a year before, in the 12 weeks to the end of February, according to Kantar Worldpanel.
“It is a long journey; the revival of Morrisons won’t happen over night,” he concedes. “But there’s huge momentum around the place at the moment and that’s because we’ve undertaken the biggest customer listening programme in our history. Customers are now in our blood stream.”
Building marketing around customers
After serving a year as interim marketing director, Atkinson, who has been with Morrisons for more than five years in roles including head of own brand, was finally given the role on a permanent basis in January. The move completed Morrisons new streamlined board of directors.
He’s got off to a busy start. At the beginning of the year, he appointed Publicis London as Morrisons’ ad agency while Atkinson is also behind a planned four-year rollout of a new “more confident” tree logo across the brand’s 499 stores.
But it is customer insight that now leads all of Morrisons’ marketing activity. He explains: “Perhaps before our marketing was guess work to an extent but it is now grounded in real customer insight.
“We now listen to 5,000 customers a week and they give us feedback on absolutely everything. Once a month I now go shopping with a customer. I spend two hours just walking around one of our stores and living their shopping trip at Morrisons. One told me we didn’t have enough free-from products so we’re relaunching that category at the moment. I want to ground all our advertising on these experiences.”
While it is perhaps unusual for the marketing director of one of Britain’s biggest supermarkets to spend his working hours wandering down the frozen pizza aisle, the strategy is already heralding results.
Changing price tactics
Last October, Morrisons scrapped the price matching element of its ‘Match and More’ loyalty card and changed it so shoppers will earn five loyalty points for every £1 they spend, with the minimum transaction falling from £15 to £1.
“The reason why I made the decision to change the card was customers had no idea how the thing even worked. We would explain it in the simplest terms and it was still too confusing. It was also too exclusive as you needed to spend £15 to get any real benefits. We’ve realised you can’t exclude people on price. Towards the end of the year, Match and More will be completely rebranded and even more simplified.”
Price remains a key battleground for the big four supermarkets, with each embarking on deep price cuts to close the gap with the German discounters.
And according to the latest Which? report, Morrisons has overtaken ‘everyday low prices’ pioneer Asda as the cheapest big four supermarket. This is largely due to Morrisons cutting the price of 1,000 everyday products earlier this year.
But in order to truly differentiate, Atkinson is keen to talk up Morrisons’ role as both a food maker and a shop keeper.
Its latest Easter TV ad, the first of its “chemistry-heavy” partnership with Publicis, highlights Morrisons’ role as a food maker for family occasions through the ‘Morrisons Makes It’ slogan.
And by focusing on quality, Morrisons has an edge over the likes of Asda, claims Atkinson.
He adds: “Price isn’t our only fixture like some and that’s important. The whole market has been labelled as samey and homogeneous due to the price wars so you can try to be the cheapest but you can’t do that in isolation. Talking about the quality of our food and abilities to create food in-store, such as the 40 types of different bread we make, will make us truly stand out.”
Talking up food quality
Morrisons, however, has tried to focus on its food making qualities before to questionable effect. Its Ant and Dec ads, under previous boss Dalton Phillips, didn’t exactly resonate with the public despite showing off the fish mongers, butchers and bakers at Morrisons’ disposal. Its in-store mist-machines, that were designed to make its food halls more theatrical, were also panned and eventually scrapped altogether.
So if Market Street failed to ignite then why will ‘Morrisons Makes It’, which looks to be a long-term strategy, fare any better?
“The work with Publicis isn’t a risk. Customers tell us they love that we are food makers, so it’s quite logical. This is us,” answers Atkinson.
“Before, perhaps it was just ‘here, come and meet our butcher’ – it was a functional way of storytelling and there wasn’t any emotional connection but there is now. The execution of Morrisons Makes It isn’t just about us making food, that’s too obvious. It will be about the emotional connection of food and the brand loyalty that creates with a food maker such as Morrisons. Before the Market Street ads worked on one level, now it works on multiple levels.”
Historically, Morrisons has been the slowest big four supermarket to embrace change. It was the last to introduce an online offering, for example, and Atkinson admits it only really started to delve into digital marketing 18 months ago. Digital marketing, he says, is used as an engagement tool as the retailer wants to avoid the “mistakes” of rivals who use platforms such as Twitter purely to sell products.
In a bid to be more forward-thinking, Morrisons recently signed a deal with online retail giant Amazon, offering its Amazon Prime Now and Amazon Pantry customers the opportunity to buy ambient, fresh and frozen products from the Bradford-based grocer. As part of the deal, Morrisons will give up control of prices and Atkinson admits that he will surrender his grip of the brand’s marketing to Amazon as well.
But ultimately, he says that Morrisons has to take risks in order to aide its turnaround.
“Amazon will market the partnership in whatever way they see fit. People could say that’s a risk but we have 3.8% share of the online market Tesco has 46%,” he adds.
“The more people who eat my food, the easier my job is as a marketer. To get to millions of people who couldn’t access the Morrisons brand via Amazon is wonderful.”
Andy Atkinson, Morrisons’ marketing director
Despite Morrisons’ size – it is the UK’s fourth biggest supermarket – Atkinson says it still feels like a small company internally and not just because it has cut 700 jobs at its head office in a bid to streamline operations.
He concludes: “Me and David [Potts] will have face-to-face conversations. We will all discuss the advertising across our desks. This isn’t a situation where a CEO is approving an ad from another wing of the building or another part of the country. That’s important. The fact the CEO and board of directors are visiting the stores weekly is important.”
So the next time you see Atkinson buying spuds down your local Morrisons, don’t bother him. He’s just doing his job.