Freshness, service and value. Morrisons’ new brand advertising that tells us to follow Denise Van Outen while she pushes her trolley, stocking it with fresh food made and prepared in store, to the soundtrack Shine by Take That. Watchable stuff indeed. The only trouble is that some of us may be put off by the news that a 66-year-old woman died and five other people are seriously ill following an E.coli outbreak caused by suspected infected cold meat bought from two Morrisons supermarkets.
A statement from Morrisons says it is deeply saddened to hear of the death and other cases. The supermarket’s advertising agency Delany Lund Knox Warren says no decisions have been made about the supermarket’s “Fresh Choice For You” ads launched in July. This is not to suggest there will be a widespread E.coli infection traced back to more Morrisons stores. The big question for the retailer is whether its brand evokes strong enough trust among consumers to survive this scare untarnished.
Coca-Cola continues to struggle in its efforts to launch a water brand in this country after failing to recover from the Dasani disaster three years ago. The branded water had to be withdrawn after a cancer scare, soon after its brand of “pure” bottled water was discovered to be simply tap water taken from the mains.
Others have suffered from health scares – Bernard Matthews lost half its core customers following the avian flu crisis. On the other hand, Cadbury sales held up after the salmonella outbreak last year. Cadbury has, however, suffered a string of embarrassing mishaps. Remember the deeply embarrassing Get Active promotion, axed in 2003, criticised for promoting obesity under the guise of encouraging health. Then there was the problem of the Cadbury Easter Eggs distributed without proper allergy advice. And its misadventures continued in Africa when it was hit by a fraud crisis in Nigeria last year. Most recently it was caught in a racism row when the regulators pulled its ad for Trident gum with a black man speaking in rhyme in a strong Caribbean accent.
Undoubtedly Morrisons executives will already be huddled together to work out a PR strategy to deal with the crisis. But timing is key. For the moment a statement from the supermarket on the BBC website says that it does not take liability for the current outbreak. But any lack of communication can feed rumours and therefore a balance of timing and message is vital.
For Morrisons this was the time to start concentrating on brand building, having put the messy Safeway takeover and the ensuing boardroom battles well behind it.
For now it can be under no illusion that an incident such as this could turn into an unmitigated PR disaster. The charms of Denise Van Outen may not be enough to entice consumers into Morrisons world of freshness.