‘Political supermarketing’ sweeps into British aisles

Want the latest on the election campaign? Then head down to your local supermarket – but should groceries and politics mix?

Does your supermarket determine how you vote? Apparently so, if the tactics of the British political parties are to be believed. Gordon Brown is to post an election broadcast on Asda’s website next month. And David Cameron, Nick Clegg and the leaders of the SNP and Plaid Cymru are set to do the same.

What’s the logic behind what I am calling “political supermarketing”? Apparently, it’s down to the demographics of “Asda mums”. The retail chain claims to draw in 18 million consumers each week and 80% of these are women. More than 14 million women are interacting with the brand and, as a result, the Asda website has become a legitimate platform for political campaigning.

It doesn’t stop there. The parties are taking part in live question-and-answer sessions for Asda, alongside special election diaries from real-life families. The brand is even launching a special election website to host all this material and get fully entrenched in the political scene.

Asda is, of course, trumpeting its new place in the heart of the political world. It has released research suggesting that 70% of mums would be more likely to contact their MP if they held regular surgeries in their local supermarket. But just 44% are planning to vote in the upcoming election.

It’s easy to see why the politicos have been tempted by Asda’s reach and access to customers. Just as its big sister brand Wal-Mart claimed to hold a vital role with its access to “Wal-Mart moms” in the US election, Asda is selling its credentials to Whitehall.

But hold on a minute. This suggests supermarkets have become legitimate outlets for party political broadcasts. Will the politicians now have to be fair and work their way round each of the big retailers so as not to be accused of favouritism? Are we going to see Alistair Darling Tweeting about the latest Tesco offers on Twitter? (“Every little helps!”) Or perhaps Vince Cable’s picks from the Aldi range will be flashed up on Martin Lewis’ Moneysaving Tips.

The politicians aren’t just offering themselves virtually to the supermarket masses, they’re turning up in person too. David Cameron has twice visited a Morrisons distribution centre to spread the word in just two weeks. Perhaps he hopes the workers will not only pass on their thoughts to friends and family but customers too.

After all, supermarkets have become more than shops to many people. My mother-in-law, who is not involved in the business world in any way, is a mistress of supermarket marketing jargon. She uses it in her everyday conversation. She recently brandished a shower gel at me with pride and announced: “I’m not sure it’s any good but who cares? It was bogof!”

It could prove dangerous ground for politicians in the long term. Picking one supermarket brand over another could be an issue. Supermarket buyers tend to be tribal. People say they are ’Tesco people’ or ’Sainsbury’s shoppers’.

Last year, Marks & Spencer was voted consumers’ most trusted brand by more than 5,000 consumers in a Reputation Institute study, with Morrisons in fourth place and Sainsbury’s in seventh. Compare that to the 74% of people who, according to Asda, believe politicians don’t listen to them.

I’m not surprised this alliance with the supermarkets seems alluring to politicians at this moment. The marketing power held by these companies is so immense that it must seem like the solution to seeming out of touch or unlikeable. If you don’t like Westminster, perhaps you like the Westminster branch of Asda.

Yet it could prove dangerous ground for politicians in the long term. Picking one supermarket brand over another could be an issue because supermarket buyers tend to be tribal. People say they are “Tesco people” or “Sainsbury’s shoppers”. They know the own-brand ranges in one particular retailer and usually stick to it.

By linking up with Asda, the politicians may be missing more than 16 million people using Tesco’s Clubcard scheme. They might miss out on targeting those vulnerable people who have been seriously hit by the recession at Aldi and Lidl or the upmarket shoppers at Waitrose.

The “political supermarketing” may also cause problems down the line when the relationship between politicians and retailers needs to be less cosy and more critical.

The Conservative Party announced in January that it would force supermarkets to fund a body with the power to name, shame and fine any brands engaged in unfair dealings with suppliers. And retailers’ buy-one-get-one-free marketing schemes have been heavily criticised by the incumbent government for promoting food waste.

In the tense run-up to the general election, Asda’s marketing muscle looks like an effective, cheap way to reach people. But it also places politicians uncomfortably near a set of businesses already seen to have enormous power over the population.

I’m already looking forward to the next general election in a few years, where perhaps the supermarkets and politicians will have shared their data on how political preference affects purchasing habits.

A survey by website Hunch last year revealed that Conservative voters claim they prefer Italian food and like pizza and macaroni cheese. Conservatives are also more likely to buy a cake ready-made while liberals will make it from scratch. Liberals also express a preference for Thai, Indian and Japanese food, while Conservatives eat less fresh fruit than their left-wing peers.

Perhaps in future my Clubcard data will be cross-referenced with any knowledge of my political habits and offers for fruit served to me on that basis. Or if I buy too many ready-made cakes, I’ll be put down as right wing. Ultimately, “Yes we can” may simply become a slogan on the shelves of tinned products.

Ruth Mortimer is associate editor of Marketing Week

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