Tesco’s marketing boss on rebuilding trust and why people need brands more than ever

Just over a year into the role, Tesco’s chief customer officer Alessandra Bellini shares how she plans to bring the UK’s biggest supermarket back to full health.

Going to work knowing that she has the ability to be close to customers and make a difference is what gets Alessandra Bellini out of bed every morning.

Her mission as Tesco’s chief customer officer is simple: build the Tesco brand in a way that makes it “warmer and more loved” by its customers.

She makes it sound easy. And for somebody with more than three decades of marketing experience – with two-thirds of that spent at FMCG giant Unilever – perhaps it is.

But Bellini was brought on last year at a crucial time for Tesco. While the supermarket entered 2017 with profits and sales on the up, consumer perceptions have been damaged following a spate of issues.

From overestimating its profits by more than £250m and short-changing suppliers, to inadvertently selling horse meat and a hygiene scandal at one of its chicken suppliers, Tesco has often found itself hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons in recent years.

Despite this, it remains the UK’s largest supermarket with a 28% market share, according to Kantar Worldpanel figures. And since Dave Lewis took over as CEO in 2014 – when its YouGov BrandIndex score (based on a combination of metrics including quality, value and recommendation) had plummeted to an all-time low of almost zero – perceptions of the supermarket have been on a steady upwards trajectory. It now has a score of 23.6, although it is still behind all of its major competitors.

Consolidation; changing consumer behaviours; the threat of Aldi, Lidl and now Amazon; as well as inflation and the proposed merger between Sainsbury’s and Asda, are all making the grocery sector increasingly competitive and hard to succeed in.

One thing, however, has remained consistent since Bellini started her first job in the marketing industry at JWT in the 1980s. People still need brands.

“I genuinely feel while everything is changing, nothing much is changing at the same time,” she tells Marketing Week in her first major interview since taking on the role. “What fundamentally ties people with brands is even stronger today. People need brands; we are surrounded by them all the time, every day. Branding is important because it helps people navigate.”

We always say at Tesco you don’t talk yourself out of a problem, you behave yourself out.

Alessandra Bellini

However, in 2018, with consumers more savvy, informed and inundated with choice than ever before, Bellini knows rebuilding the Tesco brand and regaining trust with its customers is going to take more than just a lick of paint.

“Rebuilding trust in a brand is something that takes a long time and we want to do everything we possibly can to earn and deserve that trust from our customers,” she says.

“We believe we’ve made very good progress in three years given where we started. However, we are incredibly conscious that we have a long way to go.”

Putting the value back in ‘value’

To kickstart this road to recovery, Bellini – who sees marketing as an essential part of the customer role – has embarked on a strategy she hopes will ultimately “re-establish the quality and value perception of Tesco through its products”. But she acknowledges she and her team are going to have to go beyond advertising to change people’s minds.

Tesco’s ‘Food Love Stories’ campaign, which launched just before Bellini’s arrival, is part of this strategy. She calls it a “humble” effort to get people talking about the brand so they “remember and trust” it, as they would a recipe book.

The supermarket has just launched the next iteration of the campaign, which focuses on the quality of the food it offers.

Bellini has also taken to the shelves and started the mammoth task of reorganising the architecture of Tesco’s brands and own products – its everyday, core and upmarket ranges – to make sure they are much clearer in their positioning when it comes to quality and pricing to really “benchmark” them against competitors.

While the ‘Everyday Value’ range once worked well – the first iteration of it was introduced in the early 90s in the midst of the recession – it now looks and feels cheap, Bellini says, and “nobody trusted the quality”.

Its latest range of entry-tier products “more or less” align with Aldi and Lidl on price, but Bellini claims she is not focused on competing with the increasingly popular German discounters.

“We have those ranges of products for people who want to feel savvy that they have taken home a deal,” she says. “Not that they are cheap or that they can’t afford something.”

Tesco currently ranks fourth among the major supermarket brands for value, according to YouGov BrandIndex, behind Aldi, Lidl and Asda; while it ranks fifth for quality, with M&S, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Asda taking the lead.

Growing for the future

Tesco’s £4bn takeover of food wholesaler Booker earlier this year suggests it is a business that is all too aware of the challenges the retail sector faces – with mergers and consolidation becoming an increasingly viable ways to compete and grow audiences. The proposed merger between Sainsbury’s and Asda, the UK’s second and third biggest supermarkets, is another prime example.

The deal with Booker is significant because it gives Tesco access to a wholesale market that is growing at a much faster rate than retail, while also allowing it to reach customers in contexts other than just buying groceries for the home – in pubs, restaurants and other types of franchise stores, for example.

READ MORE: Sainsbury’s and Asda to operate ‘dual-brand strategy’ in merger that creates new supermarket leader

And if Tesco decides to combine its 16 million Clubcard holders with Booker’s customers, it will give the combined group one of the biggest customer databases in Britain.

However, Bellini is coy about this. And although concerns around the impact of GDPR remain front of mind, she knows Tesco’s loyalty scheme is one of its biggest assets.

tesco clubcard

“Undoubtedly Clubcard represents a big opportunity for us to move forward and we’re looking at all of the areas that may be of interest,” she says. “We’ll see what that will unveil in the future.”

What Tesco will definitely be using Clubcard data for is ensuring it is “as relevant and personalised as possible”, with customised offers, mass-scale communications and one-to-one personalisation at scale all on Tesco’s to-do list.

READ MORE: Tesco readies more changes to Clubcard as it looks to get back to ‘rewarding loyalty’

Beyond the customer

Although Bellini’s main job is to look after Tesco’s customers, her influence extends across the business.

Following the brand safety scandal last year, which brought to light the fact ads were appearing next to extreme content on YouTube, she says Tesco has had “very strict and serious” conversations with the big tech players and that she wouldn’t hesitate to pull ads from Google or Facebook if it compromised the quality of the context and meant protecting the brand.

She is also responsible for making sure Tesco is “very connected” with its two main agencies: BBH for creative and Mediacom for media.

“If you work in retail, the agency basically lives with the retailer; it’s very tight, it’s not a classic cycle of handing out a brief, waiting for it to come back,” she explains.

“We work very closely, involve them in the business and are very satisfied with the way we’re working together. We trust the strategic partnership and the creativity and thinking they can bring to how we see our brand and how we can interact with our customers. That is the added value they have for us.”

However, Tesco is open to new ways of working – and hasn’t ruled out bringing its media and creative in-house.

“Potentially one day, who knows?,” she says. “We are always looking at different ways of doing things and ways to be more efficient and effective and we will continue to do so.”

READ MORE: Unilever’s Keith Weed urges agencies to ‘reinvent’ themselves or risk being made redundant

Second chances

Bellini has a long road ahead of her, but she believes customers are willing to give the supermarket another chance.

“I think if you do a good job, are humble about it and walk the walk rather than talk the talk – we always say at Tesco you don’t talk yourself out of a problem, you behave yourself out – [trust will return]. So the attitude will always be about behaving differently and demonstrating that we care,” she says.

“Having to persuade your customers every day to choose you is the best job there is for a marketer. What else would you do otherwise?”

Alessandra Bellini will be speaking at the Festival of Marketing, which will take place on 10 and 11 October at Tobacco Dock in London. Visit the website for more information and to buy tickets.