While Tesco attempts to soften the supermarket experience and Sainsbury's focuses on the quality of its food in the battle to increase their share of the £120 billion the UK spends at the checkout every year, Asda plays the value hand.
The supermarket is consistently the cheapest in The Grocer's monthly basket survey. With its pocket-slapping, change-jangling mnemonic, Publicis' long-running campaign for the brand underscored this message. Everything about Asda was "Asda price".
There seemed little likelihood of change under its new owner, Wal-Mart, a retailer absolutely wedded to value. So Fallon's new campaign for Asda, the first since it won the account in December, comes as a surprise and a refreshing change.
The campaign places well-loved celebrities in the store - Victoria Wood spends a week working in the bakery department; the comedian Paul Whitehouse will make an appearance behind the fish counter - and introduces a new endline: "There's no place like Asda."
According to the Asda chief executive, Andy Bond, the new ads are designed specifically not to announce anything new: "They're a reminder of the many reasons why people love working and shopping at Asda. People know Asda is synonymous with low prices, but are perhaps less aware we have craft bakers scratch-baking bread, which we sell hot, every hour. We've made a conscious decision to focus on some of the more hidden gems in our business and we think it will really give people cause to stop and reappraise our brand."
With Sainsbury's trumpeting the quality and range of its food with its "try something new today" positioning, and Tesco attempting to be synonymous with value, range, quality and service in its "every little helps" advertising, Asda had a clear need for more distinct and more emotional advertising. Add to that the growing demand for luxury and organic products and the need to move away from a purely price-based positioning.
Bond adds: "Over the past couple of years, customers told us that, while price is still crucial, they want to be able to buy more locally sourced products, be reassured products reach our shelves in a more environmentally responsible way and count on being able to get an indulgent treat or something healthy when they come to our stores. We've created initiatives to meet all those needs and we reckon they've played a huge part in our recent success. Value has always been important, but you've got to remember that value doesn't always mean just cheap."
The new campaign will undoubtedly have to retain some of the value promise, though: according to the market tracking agency TNS, Asda is the fastest-growing food retailer in the UK this year, with year-on-year growth of 9 per cent. That growth was all posted in the three months before the new campaign and positioning broke.
Asda's unique selling point is the regard with which its stores are held within the local community. The new advertising underpins that respect by focusing on the staff who work in the stores. "That strategy is a very obvious one, but also a very understandable one," one agency chief says. "The three things Asda is known for are the fact its customers feel close to the store, its prices and its George clothing line."
Such overt positioning has paid dividends at Sainsbury's, where the exhortation to customers to add a new product or two to their usual shopping baskets has led to an 8 per cent growth in sales for the three months to 25 March.
Quite whether the "try something new today" strategy will translate across the business remains unclear, however. While it may work with 21-day aged beef, it's more difficult to see how it will with home insurance, credit cards and DVDs - as much staples of the modern supermarket business model as sliced bread and baked beans.
SUPERMARKET ADS PUT TO THE TEST
CAROLINE VERNON - HOUSEWIFE
This was the first DVD I reviewed and I liked both commercials. Both have good close-ups of the food and got straight to the point, so you knew exactly what Sainsbury's had to offer. I particularly liked the flapjacks ad. As a mother with two young children, it's good to find healthy food that youngsters will enjoy eating, coupled with an activity that is fun for them to do. I think Jamie Oliver brings a young, "with it" appeal, and is a good face for Sainsbury's.
Some of these ads stand out more than others. I really liked the fruit and veg pledge - it gave a colourful and healthy message, as well as a money saving offer, so is an instant hit for mothers with children. I also like the carrier bags ad with the Green Clubcard Points and the Tesco Direct ad - both added a comic touch to a good idea. In general, I think Tesco ads do appeal to mothers with young children, and the half-price deals are always an incentive to shop in their stores.
Victoria Wood in Asda's bakery was a really good idea. As a comedian and a mother, she brought a human, fun angle to the ad. It was also more "in-store" than the others, so you got a real sense of the environment at Asda and the repartee among the staff in the bakery. It was good to see the bread-making process and the end product. The close-ups made it look very tempting; my son in particular would love it. I thought, however, the ads were a little "busy" at times.
STEVE HENRY - EXECUTIVE CREATIVE DIRECTOR, TBWA\LONDON
The boy Jamie is still going strong - in fact, he's beginning to feel like some sort of Peter (Frying) Pan. And it's good stuff as ever - speedy, cheeky feel-good material, like Arthur Askey on crack cocaine. Very watchable, very likeable. But I get worried by ad campaigns that look like they're repeating themselves. Or as John Cleese put it, consistency is the consolation of second-class minds. Of course, consistency is much prized in retail advertising. But then again, retail advertising is, with a few exceptions, pretty uninspiring.
"Used to be ... great. Now beginning to ... grate." You see, anyone can write this sort of stuff. "Used to be ... the cream of the crop. Now feels like it's ... scraping the bottom ... of the trolley." OK, that's grossly unfair for a campaign that is genuinely engaging and makes me feel good about the brand. But the original freshness of this campaign is, inevitably, starting to feel a little less original and fresh. Having said that, they've kicked off with a mildly spunky TV spot for a fashion label called F and F. Which could be Fred and Farid - or Frank and Farcallelse.
Top marks for trying. When I first heard about this idea, I was almost iridescent with envy. Celebs in the supermarket, taking us backstage to show us how it all works - it sounds like one of those crossover docu-comedies Endemol earns a fortune for coming up with, like Help, My Fat Dog's Having Sex With Andrew Lloyd Webber. But the end result is a tad laboured, and makes Asda seem like, well, Asda, really. But it's still an unrecognisably huge improvement on the bottom spanking of yesteryear. Doubtless it will have the British public queueing up to handle Victoria's bloomers.
RUSS LIDSTONE - CHIEF STRATEGIC OFFICER, EURO RSCG LONDON
Sainsbury's under the Justin King revitalisation continues to bring its truth to life through Sir Jamie. As man of the people, do-gooding food champion extraordinaire, Jamie continues to do what he does well - deliver a couple ounces of inspiration, a good pinch of quality, with a snip of colour and energy. The invitation to "try something new" is an organisational thought now fully integrated into the operations and body language of the business. A consistent and strong performance - when he's not compromised into playing a role, Mr Oliver still packs a good punch, and sells quite a bit of beef off the back of it I'm sure.
Now to Cheshunt, where the operational excellence of Tesco goes from strength to strength and the advertising has seemingly shifted to a slightly more sporadic mix of "humble product heroes" and "multi-celebrity" ads. Maintaining the balance of service, food and non-food initiatives in a way that doesn't make the brand feel too "Big Brother" is a challenge, and the humble product stories underpinned by value continue to achieve this really well. The "multi-celebrity" ads deliver fame, but seem to run slightly counter to the tone of the "humble product hero" campaign, but, then again, it's a brave retailer that turns its back on the power of celebrity.
For those that have tried to develop communications in retail, it's no surprise that retail brands often return to the notion of celebrity protagonists. A celebrity campaign can pretty much take whatever you choose to throw at it, as well as cut-through when it's done well. There's a sense of Northern, common-sense provenance, "grocer" craft skills with a bit of quality thrown in. Asda is starting to demonstrate it understands the changing nature of the value for money equation, ie. it's not all about just price. "There's no place like Asda" feels a little dissonant, given its assumptive nature, but like a good wine, these things need to breathe for a while.