Dave Lewis (pictured, above) can leave with his head held high. Looking back at his five-year tenure at Tesco, it’s possible to see him as a bit of an anonymous chief executive. And given some of the bravado of previous incumbents, this is, I think, very unfair. He just got on with the job without the charade. To call him the man who saved Tesco is no understatement.
He has looked at the whole of the business – its infrastructure, partners, staff – and turned it around against a backdrop of Lidl and Aldi in ascension, chewing up Tesco’s market share. From the sad man of supermarkets to reporting better-than-expected first-half operating profits of £1.41bn in five years.
Tesco chairman John Allan was right to laud Lewis’ "deep commercial, marketing and brand experience within retail and wholesale businesses" upon announcing his departure. It’s much harder to get one thing right without understanding its position in the entire puzzle. Lewis did this on a massive canvas.
It’s often said that marketers make the best business leaders for these reasons – and Lewis is a case in point.
Consumers view every interaction with your brand not as a discrete event, but in terms of one overarching, total experience. One bad experience undermines your entire brand, not just with the consumer who had it, but for everyone they tell too. Your entire business, in all its complexity, is let down by its weakest touchpoint. Lewis’ success grew from focusing on what matters.
By understanding that Tesco had an image problem and that it was haemorrhaging money to overseas projects and assets such as its streaming service and mortgage portfolio, it is clear that Lewis focused on providing a solid core experience of the Tesco brand that was consistent across all touchpoints. A cloud hangs over Jack’s, the Brexit-themed discount arm of Tesco launched last year, but hey, nobody is perfect.
Brands, whether troubled like Tesco or not, need to flip the lens and look at themselves as their consumers and employees do, and they need to be ruthless in weeding out weak links. What Lewis created is a brand consistent across the whole ecosystem, from servicing Tesco’s customers to empowering the employees who service them to ensuring that the organisation is structured in a way that supported his vision. Clearly, it has paid off.
Ironically for a former marketing man, the advertising during his tenure was certainly nothing to write home about – certainly not in a creative sense. But where Lewis succeeded is where someone less in touch with the disciplines of brand and marketing would have fallen short. Lewis chose to ramp up Tesco’s advertising spend significantly after measures of the brand's public perception improved considerably, while its main rivals froze or reduced theirs.
It’s fair to say the advertising and marketing is hardly stellar stuff – even the tie-up with Jamie Oliver falls far short of the chef’s work with Sainsbury's. Tesco’s total rebrand – I believe the largest number of SKUs to ever be rebranded at once – was certainly a task. But I think this shows that consumers, like Lewis, also look at the brand as a whole. A great advertising campaign won’t do anything if folks aren’t convinced by the product; they’ll vote with their feet and likely won’t come back for a good while. People are convinced by Tesco and its profits show this. That said, I really struggled to remember an ad that stood out for me in the past year. Something to do with Mr Blobby, perhaps?
Lewis was almost lucky to have carte blanche when he arrived. The only way is up and all that. And given the competitive landscape, it could easily have gone a lot worse. By slashing costs (and unfortunately staff) along with smart acquisitions such as Booker, Britain's biggest wholesaler, it has given the business the best possible chance of success for the next chief executive, Ken Murphy.
Murphy is blessed to have been handed a business with a solid foundation that is making profit and offers a consistent experience across the board. It is a base from which he will grow. He certainly has big boots to fill.
David Balko is chief client officer at Tribal Worldwide London
Picture: Getty Images