Safeway leans on the national press

With the supermarket wars at their zenith, why is Safeway rethinking strategy and threatening to switch all its budget to television ads?

Have Safeway’s Harry and Molly TV ad characters been put in charge of the supermarket’s media strategy?

That was the incredulous response to news that Safeway was considering pulling out of national newspaper advertising (MW March 14).

Marketing director Roger Partington has decided to review national newspaper advertising and has pulled ads from The Mirror.

There have been hints that this review was coming for some time. In 1994, the chain spent 23.5m on advertising compared with 28m in 1996, according to Register-MEAL figures. Of that, 71 per cent went on TV advertising and 29 per cent on press. This compares with the 1994/5 figures of 67 per cent on TV and 33 per cent on press.

But even if they could have seen it coming, the decision will send a chill through national newspaper ad sales departments. One advertising director says half his newspaper group’s advertising revenue comes from retailers.

The decision to drop newspapers is particularly remarkable as it comes at a time when the supermarket wars are at their zenith with Asda’s Operation Cannonball is in full swing.

Last summer, Tesco reaffirmed its commitment to tactical, that is press, advertising and this week the supermarket multiple has unveiled its latest press campaign – a series of spoof election posters.

James Walker, joint managing director of J Walter Thompson’s Advanced Techniques Group says he was shocked to hear of Safeway’s decision. He has been researching the effectiveness of press advertising and has come to the conclusion that whatever the budget it should be spent in the most diverse way possible.

“Even if you only have a budget of 2m you should be in the press and on TV. A multimedia strategy is absolutely essential,” he says.

He adds that according to his research 400 TVRs (TV ratings are the percentage of a defined TV audience) bought in 1997 would give 82 per cent coverage, but that because of fragmentation, the same ratings in five years’ time would only give 75 per cent coverage. In other words, TV advertising is becoming less effective.

Newspapers have been a particularly important weapon in the supermarket wars. Media planners and buyers need to be able to respond immediately when a pricing shot is fired across the boughs and there are only two media flexible enough to do this – press and radio. In other words, by turning its back on press altogether, Safeway would be leaving itself vulnerable to tactical advertising from other supermarkets.

Rocket media director John Harlow, formerly head of media buying on Sainsbury’s account at Abbott Mead Vickers.BBDO, says: “Unless it has a huge budget to pay late booking fees and a huge bank of creative work, I don’t see how it can do this.”

He adds that if Safeway has found that press advertising has not worked, then the problem lies with the creatives rather than the medium itself. Ask any below-the-line agency running a direct response press campaign and it will tell you press ads can be effective.

It could be that Safeway has decided not to compete with Sainsbury’s, Asda and Tesco on price. Press ads give more scope for detail than TV ads. But if Safeway wishes to emphasise mass-market branding, rather than its prices, then TV, and nothing but TV, could make sense.

The successful Harry and Molly campaign has built the brand as a family place to shop. Perhaps Partington will use this, rather than price, as his point of difference.

Certainly media watchers have criticised the Safeway Product of the Month campaign – created by Bates Dorland and running for the past year – for failing to pick up on the brand strengths identified in the TV ads.

Harlow says: “Safeway has always been a bit of a Tesco and Sainsbury’s me-too. Harry and Molly made the chain different.”

Safeway could also argue that its in-store TV system can be used to communicate pricing offers. But this will only be seen by people who have already decided to step into the store.

There are precedents for advertisers dedicating their budget to one medium. Heinz pulled all product advertising from TV and press and put it below the line with its Heinz at Home campaign. And in the early Nineties all the national newspapers axed TV campaigns because it was seen as a competing medium.

But neither stuck with the strategy in the long term. Heinz’s latest TV push centres on its core products, however much Heinz protests its a generic brand building campaign. And the newspaper embargo on TV ads was quickly broken by The Times, with other papers following suit.

Sources agree any decision to stick exclusively to one medium cannot last and Safeway will have to go back into the press in the long term, especially as TV fragmentation increases.

Safeway media manager Mark Trinder says media planning is done on a quarterly basis and claims planners look no further than the next quarter. But playing tactical when your competitors are playing strategic is a dangerous game.

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