Asda: creating brand personality

As chief marketing officer at the UK’s second largest supermarket Asda, Stephen Smith is changing the retailer’s marketing from its functional focus to one that will help its every day low prices message hit home in a market currently mired in a price war. 

Stephen Smith

Walking into Asda’s Leeds head office feels exactly like walking into an Asda superstore. It is the living embodiment of the brand, with product promotions that mirror those in-store running within its atrium so that the 2,500 staff in the building are in touch with what customers are experiencing. It is this brand personality that chief marketing officer Stephen Smith wants to capture better in the supermarket’s advertising and marketing communications.

This week, the company announced a review of its UK advertising account, held by Saatchi & Saatchi since 2009.

Smith, a native New Yorker and former ad man, arrived in Leeds to take up the role of chief marketing officer a year ago, his career having taken him from East Coast USA to Leeds via Belgium and most recently China. He joined Asda from parent group Walmart’s China business.

Asda – the UK’s second largest supermarket behind Tesco with a market share of 16.9 per cent versus Tesco’s 30.5 per cent – is entering a new era. All its senior executive board are new to their roles, having joined in the past year. This, says Smith, provides an opportunity for a fresh look
at the business from a newcomer’s perspective.

Like its parent Walmart, Asda is a retailer staunchly dedicated to offering customers every day low prices (EDLP) rather than following the traditional high-low pricing structure found elsewhere in the grocery market. It is the commitment to EDLP that drives everything.

Asda was the first supermarket to offer a price promise with its Asda Price Guarantee in 2010, promising to beat rivals’ prices by 10 per cent. Since then, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose have launched initiatives to match the price of branded goods. Tesco followed suit with its Price Promise to match branded and own-label products.

With its rivals moving more overtly into its low price territory, Asda has to do much more to make its EDLP strategy stand out among the ‘gimmicky’ price messaging, explains Smith.

The two main challenges Asda faces from a marketing standpoint are communicating its EDLP positioning in a highly competitive market, and structuring its team internally to make the most of the talent within the business, he says.

“The challenges I came into a year ago are the same we have today, however they have evolved and my own awareness from being at Asda for a year has changed, challenged or cemented some of those first observations,” he says.

“The priority is communicating EDLP and getting it to break through into a cluttered, gimmicky market. I knew that coming in and I feel that very strongly right now. I’m excited about continuing to evolve and change the direction of our marketing to make sure EDLP comes through.”

Stephen Smith
“We’re trying to build in the Asda personality. We’re pedestrian in a good way – we’re accessible, not snooty, and we need to get that message across”

One differential is that Asda has remained committed to beating its rivals’ prices, while Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose will only match the lowest price. But the real answer, and the challenge, lies in creating more personality around the EDLP message and building more storytelling into communicating it, says Smith.

He believes that in the past, although Asda’s creative campaigns have been effective, they have been too functional and left a “bridge to cross” to engage people who do not shop at Asda and build a more emotional understanding of the brand.

Asda’s own shoppers, Smith claims, are loyal to the brand. To illustrate this, he talks about last December’s Christmas advertising campaign, which some people complained was sexist for portraying a mother doing all the work over the seasonal period. It became the focus of criticism on social media and attracted 620 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority, though the campaign was eventually cleared.

The supermarket’s PR and communications teams did not have to do much to quell the fury as its own loyal customers were quick to defend and support the supermarket and its message.

“Non-Asda shoppers don’t feel that same emotional connection to us and there’s a bridge to build to get non-shoppers and secondary and tertiary shoppers to feel the same way,” says Smith.

“My thinking has developed [in my first year at Asda] from thinking about emotion to thinking about personality. We have to find a way to infuse the Asda personality into our marketing so that we can engage more customers and we can show the part of our personality that is so attractive to our primary customers.”

The supermarket’s Budget Day Price Lock campaign to communicate Asda’s commitment to low prices on everyday essentials such as milk and bread ran this March. It was the first iteration of Smith’s approach of building creative assets to get across the brand’s “cheeky and honest” personality and do more than just talk about price.

It is something he admits Asda has not yet achieved in its advertising and marketing but believes Asda’s corporate communications and social media do it better.

“That is one of our biggest projects. We’re trying different creative approaches, it’s a process of trying to build in the Asda personality and what customers love about us. We’re pedestrian in a good way – we’re accessible, we’re not snooty in any way and we need to get that message across.”

The UK supermarket sector is arguably the most competitive to be in and it requires a relentless focus on what customers want, how they behave and the ability to respond quickly.

“I’m a believer that the better you plan, oddly, the more flexible you can be,” explains Smith. “Retail needs to be flexible and react to market pressures, but the only way you can make smart decisions in a short period of time is to understand what you’re trading off. Then, as markets, customers and dynamics change, you can be smarter when you’re reacting.”

It is this demand for flexibility in its approach that led Smith to restructure Asda’s marketing department. He has created a “sustainable organisation” that is able to respond to the rapidly changing dynamics of the UK retail industry but that also makes the best use of the creative talents within the business and develops them for the future.

The restructure, which began in February and is halfway through, aims to end what Smith says were previously siloed divisions, with in-store and advertising teams reporting to different people, each with a different approach. 

He introduced a planning and strategy function at the front end of the marketing process and all the specialist teams now report to one person who heads up the creative and campaign team.

“We still have specialist teams,” says Smith, “but now they are all linked together from a campaign perspective and are better aligned across all media so we can be more compelling.”

The restructure included the appointment of Chris McDonough, former Molson Coors managing director of brands, as marketing director.

After Smith’s one-year stint at Walmart in Shenzhen, China, he knew he had an “incredible” team of marketers in the UK because Asda is seen as the “jewel in the crown” of Walmart’s global marketing capability. 

Since joining the business, Smith has turned his attention to getting the most out of the team and individuals.

“When I was in China, I would be looking at Asda thinking ‘what can I take and execute in this market?’,” he says.

Stephen Smith
“Retail needs to be flexible and react to market pressures. To make smart decisions, understand what you’re trading off”

Smith’s predecessor Rick Bendel set up Walmart’s global retail marketing academy within the UK business four years ago to help the organisation’s other international divisions learn how to become marketing-driven businesses.

Within Asda, marketing sets the agenda for the rest of the UK business, its customer proposition and its themes, which is why he says Asda is “a truly customer-driven organisation”, while its rivals are “driven by other business pressures”.

Smith visits Asda stores every week, both formally and informally, and visits competitors every two weeks, in order to stay in touch with what customers are thinking about and doing in-store.

“I wish I could be in stores more, I get stuck in this building too much. Any retailer that tells you differently is lying. I prefer going in the evenings and weekends as myself in jeans and a hoodie.

“I walk around, talk to customers, ask them questions. I tell them I work for Asda and I’ll walk with someone as they’re pushing their trolley. Or I’ll go with my family – it’s a good way to observe human behaviour.”

Just as important as asking customers about products, what they are buying or what they think about Asda stores, is finding out other seemingly “random” bits of information.

“I have a habit of asking customers random questions. In the supermarket I’ll ask ‘what’s on your iPod?’, ‘what radio station are you listening to?’ ‘what conversation are you having with your friends?’. You can always use those nuggets at a later date.”

One benefit of being part of Walmart is that Asda is able to tap into its parent’s resources and take advantage of the network of digital start-ups the group has acquired. These include social media firm Kosmix and mobile agencies Grabble and Small Society. The global ecommerce division also known as Walmart Labs, develops the digital platforms, mobile and tablet apps used by Walmart’s global businesses and allows the retail giant to stay cutting edge by having an entrepreneurial unit.

Asda’s mobile shopping app is the highest rated UK retail app on both iTunes and Android platforms and more than half the supermarket’s online orders are made with mobiles.

Despite having its start-up division Walmart Labs, the success of Asda’s mobile strategy is not driven by applying the most hi-tech solutions to appeal to early adopters. The technology has to make everything easy and quick to use, so the ‘Asda mum’ can shop on her smartphone during any spare time.

Generally, UK consumers are time and cash poor and Asda’s customers are especially so, says Smith. Therefore, all the developments Asda makes into multichannel are designed to address this challenge and hand back control to consumers. 

That premise is behind the launch of Asda’s first Click & Collect Drive-Thru store in York, which opened in April. It lets customers collect online orders at a specific time and the trial store is likely to be the first of many. Tesco has also rolled out nearly 170 drive-throughs in the UK, which has helped boost the performance of its online grocery business. 

Although Smith will not be drawn on Asda’s plans for its drive-through business, he is excited about the prospect and its potential to grow the supermarket’s share of the UK grocery market.

Asda has maintained its position as the UK’s second largest supermarket despite its rival Sainsbury’s (with 16.7 per cent of the market) being hot on its heels, registering consistently stronger growth over the past year. Smith’s personality-driven strategy could be the approach to help Asda pull ahead and put distance between it and Sainsbury’s and gain some ground on market leader Tesco.




Asda (Walmart UK),
chief marketing officer



Walmart China, chief marketing officer and senior vice-president for Sam’s Club and new formats



Food Lion (Delhaize Group US/Belgium), senior vice-president strategy, marketing, communications; executive vice-president brand strategy, marketing and merchandising



Sweetbay Supermarket (Delhaize Group US) vice-president marketing; senior vice-president merchandising/buying



Hannaford Bros Co (Delhaize Group US), marketing director



Resort Sports Network, vice-president sales and marketing






JWT New York


My last 24 hours

I have a [fortnightly] listening meeting with people from my team at all levels, where I ask them, if they were me for a day, what would they do. What frustrates them, what would they focus on.

Last night I had a really good conversation
with Nandini Sethuraman, chief marketing
officer of Walmart India, about how to build a brand one store at a time. She has around 10 different projects [in India] she would love to have Asda people work on. Some on secondments, some potential full-time roles
and some to help figure out in-store environments. It was fantastic and will unlock huge opportunities for my team.

This morning there was an activity planning meeting from 7.30am to 9am with Asda’s trading director and operations director about how our teams work together and modelling the behaviour we expect from our teams.

And then there was a Pepsi sampling event
as part of an annual ‘top-to-top’ business review our trading director holds with each of our top 10 suppliers. All their brand and marketing managers come in and we share our plans.



Stephen Smith

Chief marketing officer


Marketing Week (MW): What is the relationship between marketing, trading and operations at Asda?

Steven Smith (SS):  [Marketing] sets the customer proposition and is the voice of the customer into the organisation. We work with the trading team and they populate that proposition with offers and content to bring the proposition to life. We work with operations and the service team to make sure the execution and experience for customers online and in stores is consistent with what we want to be delivering as a brand. We work back and forth on everything.

I’m collaborative-minded and I want [the marketing team] to be better partners to the trading and operating teams and work together at the very genesis of ideas.

MW: Asda does not have a data capture loyalty scheme like Clubcard. How does Asda use data?

SS: Walmart is obsessed with being an every day low prices (EDLP) retailer but we get data from Asda Price Guarantee, from home shopping and click and collect. There are lots of places data can come from. [Everything Asda does] is customer driven. It’s about speed and convenience for a customer and data comes second.

There’s no ‘evil’ motivation to find more ways to get data – it may sound surprisingly altruistic but it’s about being able to give our customers more control. Yes, data is of interest to everyone, every part of retail is run by data. [Not having a CRM scheme] is not a drawback. You make that decision when you build your business on EDLP to give all your best prices to all your customers. 

MW: How can retail marketers learn from other industry sectors?

SS: We are tactical and fast and try to be thoughtful and strategic. There are other brands like Starbucks, Apple, Nike and Virgin that are really good at building brands and they think about building a brand for the long term. [Retail marketers are] great at driving traffic and business and then we spend time thinking about how to build a brand. We need to do more of that. 

MW: What is the biggest threat from your rivals and which of them do you admire most?

SS: From our competitors, Aldi is actually the one I’m most intrigued by in that the proposition is clean and clear and its marketing is very good. It’s got a nice personality and good clarity of message. I find it inspirational from a marketers’ perspective. I learn a lot from the big three [Morrisons, Tesco and Sainsbury’s] – both the mistakes and positives of what they’re doing but I won’t say too much more – I’m highly competitive and have strong feelings about all our rivals.


How the supermarkets stack up


UK stores: 572

UK sales: £22.8bn (total 2012)

Market share: 16.9%


UK stores: 3,146 

UK sales: 43.1bn (year to 230213)

Market share: 30.5% 


UK stores: 500+ 

Turnover: £18.1 bn (year to 030213) 

Market share: 11.6% 


UK stores: 1,063

UK sales: £25.6bn (year to 160313

Market share: 16.7%

Source: Kantar


Secret Marketer

Striking the balance between standard and bespoke

David Coveney

I am always intrigued by the dilemma between standardisation and bespoke customisation in product delivery. As marketers, we like each customer to feel that they are the only person in the world that we are talking to at any one time – the emails that start ‘Dear John’, or the promotional offers that lift transactional data to try to pretend that you know their shopping habits better than they do. Naturally, our finance people want us to do the opposite – to mass produce a solution, and ‘cookie cut’ it as many times as possible to keep the cost down.