When Arnd Pickhardt headed up Lidl’s UK marketing team in 2011, the discount supermarket had a market share of only 2.5%. Fast forward to November 2015 – when Pickhardt left the UK to take control of Lidl’s marketing in Germany – and market share hit a record high of 4.4%.
This transformation and turnaround of perceptions are why Pickhardt was crowned ‘Visionary Marketer of the Year’ at the Marketing Week Awards in May, a category sponsored by Adobe.
It is fair to say Pickhardt has not had the most conventional route into marketing, however, having held various auditing and sales roles in Lidl’s international business before his transition to head of UK advertising in October 2011.
But he is grateful for the experience because it has given him a true sense of the business. “I still keep saying that I’m actually not a marketer, it’s really hard to believe,” he admits. “I was grateful to be given the opportunity to try something completely new.”
For many retailers, promoting a former auditor to head of marketing in a foreign market where its presence is not particularly high might sound like a risk. A potential disaster, even. History, however, will say Lidl made an excellent decision.
As well as increasing market share in the UK – Lidl reached a new market share high of 4.5% for the 12 weeks ending 17 July – it is also the fastest growing grocer with sales up 12.5%, according to Kantar Worldpanel data.
Together with rival Aldi, which grew 11% during the same period, the German discounters now control 10.7% of the British grocery market – the same amount as Morrisons, which along with Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury’s all lost market share.
A key reason for Lidl’s rapid rise has been its assault on the middle classes. Once seen as a retailer comparable to Netto, Lidl successfully enticed customers from the four market leaders thanks to its award-winning wines, lobster tails and wagyu steaks. A shift that was triggered by the Lidl Surprises campaign, produced under Pickhardt’s watch.
Taking members of the public to fancy foodie locations, such as street markets and gastro pubs, the Lidl Surprises campaign flipped expectations on their head by revealing that people had just eaten food sold by the grocer. Scoring brilliantly with viewers, the ads helped to transform Lidl’s brand from discounter to respected grocer.
Pickhardt says the intention of Lidl Surprises reached far beyond the middle classes. “Perception of the Lidl brand has absolutely transformed over the past couple of years,” he beams, before clarifying: “I know that the media liked to talk about the idea that we were aiming for higher income groups, but that was not actually the case.
“When we started Lidl Surprises, we simply wanted to target those who misunderstood us, those who did not want to shop at Lidl irrespective of whether they were from high, low or middle income backgrounds. We wanted to build a brand campaign that was strong enough to convince the toughest rejecters by talking about the quality of our products. Effective advertising should be easy and simple to understand.”
From the shop floor to marketing director
As well as being a former auditor, Pickhardt spent a year working as a trainee in sales and operations for Lidl, which he believes has given him a different perspective as a marketer.
“To have worked on the shop floor is a great advantage in many ways as you learn about your customer. You hear directly what they love and what they don’t like, which is absolutely vital.”
Rather than spending millions on customer research, Pickhardt believes the most effective approach to marketing can be to surround yourself with customers early on in your career.
“[Marketers] feel free to give their personal opinion to our managing director regardless of their position.”
“My career path at Lidl has always been focused around the customer. I started in sales on the shop floor where I was at the front line with customers every day. When moving to the audit department, my job was to look at our stores from a customer perspective.”
Staying true to your values
In the UK market, Lidl is currently embarking on an aggressive store expansion strategy as part of a long-term aim to move from a 630-store estate to 1,500. Not bad for a retailer that just recently hired a PR agency. However, brands that experience rapid growth must avoid steering too far away from their original purpose, according to Pickhardt.
“Lidl has changed massively over the past 10 years,” he says. “But we have always been true to our core promise to deliver the best quality for the lowest possible price by being highly efficient.
“What has changed is the way we communicate, internally and externally. We have opened up and strive to be a business that is not only leading in quality and price but also in company culture,” explains Pickhardt.
“Corporate responsibility has become a very important part of our communication and we see responsibility in modern society. We operate within a flat and open structure where you can feel free to give your personal opinion to our managing director regardless of your position, and that’s important.”
Stepping up to control Lidl’s marketing in its German heartland, where the retailer operates 3,000 stores, is a bold move. However, Pickhardt is in no rush to switch his formula as a marketer.
“The challenge in both [the UK and Germany] is to dive into the market and understand different consumers. With the launch of Lidl Surprises we aimed our message at the UK consumer and tried to identify what would increase trust and additional spend. The same principles apply in Germany: listen to the market, understand the consumer and be true to the brand and its values,” he says.
Many retail brands fail to grow because they fear taking a risk but Pickhardt’s advice is clear. “Love and live your brand, don’t stop thinking about your customer and don’t compromise on your expectations just because of the complexity of internal processes.”
When asked by Marketing Week what advice he would give his younger self he says simply: “I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m happy with where I am today.” And with Lidl’s dominance in both Germany and the UK showing no signs of fading, the discounter is not likely to be in a rush to change Pickhardt either.
Sponsored viewpoint: Sabina Strasser, senior brand marketing manager EMEA, Adobe
What does it take to be a visionary marketer?
When asked what it means to be a ‘visionary marketer’, I think it boils down to knowing what your brand means to your customer, but more importantly, understanding how the landscape is changing and how to evolve. This goes hand-in-hand with challenging yourself to be creative and, as cliché as it sounds, thinking outside the box. Keeping outside your comfort zone is often what leads to ideas that can break the mould and inspire others to follow suit.
Of course, having the idea is just the beginning. In order to get it off the ground, how you work with your team is crucial. Plus, with today’s culture of collaboration, you have to be able to convince the rest of the business to follow you down that route. While you might see things that others haven’t seen yet, going full steam ahead without integration and support from others just doesn’t work. You need to have the skills to convey the impact of your ideas beyond the data or numbers that support it, and sell that vision with confidence to the rest of the business.
Ultimately, it’s a case of bringing these ideas to life by taking risks. Those that succeed are the ones that embrace change and are not afraid to experiment.
Although it’s always good to have an academic foundation so you know the basic rules and theories of marketing, that alone won’t necessarily make you visionary. It’s about loving your job and being interested and intrigued about what your customers want and how you can help them. Marketing is no longer a defined job title, and there is no set ‘marketing qualification’ to get you there.
That said, to equip yourself to be visionary in the future, we need to constantly redefine what we’re doing and recalibrate where we want to go. You have to look left and right to see what others are doing; look at different industries and make brave decisions that might change legacy processes. Because while the sector might be different, the principles of running a successful and innovative business are the same.
That truly defines a visionary marketer – an instinct and a love for being in the marketing profession, but having the curiosity and ability to change traffic when you need to.