How the Tesco brand lost its value

Tesco's decision to put its advertising account, currently held by The Red Brick Road, up for pitch puts the relationship between it and some of the agency principals that goes back more than 20 years into question. Campaign asked four senior creatives and a retail analyst to tell us where they think it seems to be going wrong.

Tesco ad by The Red Brick Road
Tesco ad by The Red Brick Road


Did Tesco go wrong? Or did they do what many successful brands do, albeit unwittingly: provoke the competition into being as good or better?

Over the last decade or so, Tesco has been the watchword for tough business operations, savvy line diffusions and a customer-centric approach. A veritable behemoth hiding behind the wonderfully understated "Every little helps".

And while they were stealing the limelight and the market share, the competition regrouped, learned at their knee and fought back.

In the advertising industry, we watched as the Dudley Moore and Dotty campaigns and the charming price/product newspaper ads seemed to drain away to be replaced by an altogether tougher stance on price and an all-too-familiar look and feel to the communications.

And all the while, if it wasn't one competitor stealing their clothes, it was another. Morrisons took on the mantle of fresh food supplier to the stars. Sainsbury's had a cheeky chappie telling us to be inventive with our food. Asda banged away at price. Marks & Spencer woke from its slumbers after years of silence. And Waitrose, that quaint brand for gentlefolk in the south, suddenly surged into the pack, somehow scooping the reverse chic that Tesco once enjoyed.

So how has this happened? How have some of the most talented people in advertising and the toughest retailers in the world been overshadowed or, even, outmanouvered? Perhaps, in chasing the best prices, the character of the brand became uninteresting and generic. Maybe the line in the brief that stated "brand personality"was left blank because they weren't sure what to write. One could also argue that simply having the best prices seems a bit thin nowadays. And is certainly not the new news we all want from big brands.

Sainsbury's, for example, wants us all to live well for less. Waitrose wants us to feel part of the management team (I love the poster in their stores that says "Everyone who works in this store is a shareholder in the store"). Not sure about Morrisons, but I believe they have an undying belief in the benefits of fresh food. And M&S has a conviction about quality that I know is true because I taste it in their moussaka.

So maybe Tesco just thought they could blast the competitors out of their path by fighting and winning on the generic of price - the brand leader is, after all, supposed to "own" the generic. But sometimes size can make you cumbersome, less adroit and sensitive than an upstart brand. Could Tesco ever run the Aldi campaign, for instance? Quirky, funny, but somehow lovable without changing the subject. Could Tesco learn from it and use its size to be a greater part of our daily lives? Shouldn't its ubiquity allow for a little more knowledge of our foibles, our British sense of humour, fair play and tolerance? Wouldn't it be refreshing if Tesco's budget wove it more intricately into our multicultural society in the way that the BBC does?

One thing going for Tesco is fame. We may not know what it stands for as clearly as we once did, but it is famous in a way that the rest are not. The Tesco name is the butt of jokes and synonym for many things, not all good, but it's a name on everyone's lips and, surely, that is something to build on.

I hope that Tesco regains the confidence in its customers that its previous advertising demonstrated. To trust that we all know Tesco's prices will be there or thereabouts but that the Tesco character is bigger than that and has a higher purpose. Rather like New Labour, when it accepted that caring and sharing was territory it owned and changed to be business-friendly and tough on law and order, Tesco should accept that we know that it is good at reducing prices and become the innovator it once was. And through that ambition, define a brand personality that once again places it closer to the nation's heart.


John Lennon was berated for once saying that The Beatles were more famous than Jesus. Well, I think Tesco is more famous than The Beatles. Sorry, Jesus. Third place for you.

The genius lies in the simple truth of their "Every little helps" line. Where did that line come from? Surely it was common parlance first? It does exactly what it says on the tin; it just makes sense. I can even imagine a pharaoh saying it to the slaves building the pyramids: "Come on lads, one final push - after all, every little helps."

You can also tell a good line from the amount of people who lay claim to have come up with it. Certainly, at the crowded bar of many a groggy ad hole, the softly spoken "yeah, I came up with that" can be heard through the clatter of glasses. Good lines always attract a healthy queue of would-be authors.

Companies such as Tesco often do a big brand campaign, then behave differently for more functional offer-based ads. It makes sense; you have the time and the money to spend on the big brand vision TV ad, yet, on the offer work, you have no time or money to spare (who knew there would be an onion famine or a baked bean war?).

Now, if someone was going to ask me what my favourite Tesco campaign of all time was, I'd know straight off: Fay Ripley and Martin Clunes breaking up and arguing over all the very reasonably priced household items. Brilliant slice-of-life advertising done in a lovely, irreverent but informative way. All of the boxes ticked.

However (and this is where it gets interesting), coming in a very close second is their offer work. I know ... shock, horror. But if someone was to describe the offer ads to me (white background, simple, functional voiceover and a soft, digestible soundtrack), I'd say: "You're talking about the Apple ads, right?" It is amazing how two very different brands have similar body language at their core. On the one hand, simplicity is the ultimate sophistication; on the other, it's the clearest sandwich board outside the grocers imaginable.

But therein also lies the problem: the coldness. It's all very well being clear, but making something clear, warm and friendly is the ultimate. A friendly guiding hand showing the most transparent lucid message would help reposition this brand in the heart of the nation.

It seems this approach is right at the heart of the ambitions of Philip Clarke, Tesco's new chief executive. He has recently talked about adding more staff, introducing a better quality and range, and making the stores warmer with friendlier service. The new approach will cover the "1,000 little things that Tesco is doing differently", and is born out of "a determination to do the basic things better".

Given that, and the fact that Tesco is looking for a new agency home, how do you move a brand forward that spans 2,700 stores, 290,000 employees, 14 countries and has multiple product and service offerings?

Easy - keep it simple. In a world increasingly saturated with Twitter hashtags, Facebook likes and Pinterest whatevers, it's pure, straightforward, warm messaging that will make Tesco the nation's best-loved grocer.


If someone from a distant planet were to arrive in the UK and be told that Tesco was one of Britain's most trusted and loved brands, he'd probably ask: "Don't you mean John Lewis?" As it happens, I come from a distant planet and one of the first things I learned here was that Tesco was cheap and John Lewis was highly esteemed as a member of the family.

I think an array of different things contributed to Tesco losing its lustre. Every little bit helped - from the production value of the ads to the actual shopping experience and the overall focus of its business. I took it to be a heartless giant that would sweep every local business off the high street in the name of low price. Service seems to be a flashing green dot on other brands' radar, but not for Tesco. Tone of voice? Lost amid the priorities that a massive corporation has to deal with if it wants to remain massive when the competition is at its heels and recession threatens its margins.

But it's not just the economy and the Sainsbury's of this world that are challenging threats. The heart of any person is a tricky place to call home. It shifts with the wind, it's got too many windows to prevent cold drafts and it's subject to flooding. Tesco did its fair share of changing to keep the good momentum going through the years. Two thumbs up. But routine, or simply an erosion of the emotional connections, finally caught up with it. Like many a marriage, things slowly but steadily drifted.

Despite the profit warning issued in January, which showed the strained relationship, there is an opportunity for a turnaround. The big question to ask is what made Tesco so successful in the first place. Whatever got it there can do the job again, albeit not in the exact same way. Which leads to an important question that I hear or read whenever the subject is raised: will ELH die? If it took you more than a second to figure out what the hell ELH is ("Every little helps"), it's a sign that the famed tagline isn't as strong. If the meaning behind ELH can be tapped into, and it is still intact, that may still be the path that leads to the hearts of Britain. But Tesco will need massive doses of little things to overcome the inertia.

It's not an advertising problem, and we all know that. It's an identity crisis. Every decent middle-aged person has gone through one, and every proper marriage too. If everything goes right, we come out better on the other side. Tesco is a family brand and, from such an advantage point, it has witnessed quite a few honest, one-on-one kitchen conversations between lovers after the kids are in bed. Pour yourself some tea, luv. There's something we need to talk about.

If they get the audience to care and listen, they stand a strong chance of kindling their fire again.


Until very recently, Tesco was the undisputed juggernaut of the retail sector, mowing down the competition, sweeping up market share and, all the while, delivering enviable profit growth.

Seemingly, this juggernaut has now come to a halt and, in its stationary state, many have started to take a closer look, to lift the bonnet and inspect the internals. What they've found is a vehicle in urgent need of maintenance. For the mechanics poring over Tesco, the question now is what exactly has gone wrong and how can it be put right?

An obvious starting place is the lack of investment in Tesco's UK operation. In an effort to eke out profit growth, and because capital has been committed to new store expansion and overseas growth, Tesco has not looked after its core UK proposition.

Intensively used stores look shabby and bland; its ranges, once the envy of the sector, have not been developed and seem tired; its customer service, a vital part of retailing, has suffered from insufficient staffing levels. Of course, this didn't happen overnight - it's something that has occurred gradually and was unnoticeable at first. But years of neglect have ensured that these things are now palpable. Customers have witnessed them and have voted with their feet.

How could such neglect have been allowed to happen? The answer lies in another central problem for Tesco: its culture. In scale terms, Tesco is an impressive business, but scale has created a corporate environment too focused on the quantitative - on volumes, metrics and operations. Critical as these things are in retail, they are not the be-all and end-all. Retail is as much about the qualitative as it is about numbers: it's about how consumers feel, the emotional connection a brand makes with them, the aesthetics of shops, the packaging and so forth.

Here, Tesco has been found wanting. The result is a brand that looks increasingly sterile and faceless, a shopping experience that is too industrialand warehouse-like, and products that fail to excite. It is probably also the reason Tesco focused too much on price and forgot about the more important, and much wider, notion of value.

All of these problems have been brought into sharper focus as Tesco's rivals are now firmly on the front foot. Sainsbury's has refreshed its own-label products, Asda has balanced its low-price message with quality ranges and Morrisons has innovated across formats and products.

What comes next? By any standards, Tesco remains a phenomenal business and, even with its problems, it will be the number-one player in grocery for a long time to come. However, to maintain that position, it needs to spend money in getting things up to scratch and to start to shift the culture to one that's more innovative and experimental. At the same time, it needs to communicate these changes, both actively and passively, to the shopper. The mechanics will certainly have their work cut out.


Tesco, or "Tescos" as it was known in my house, is one of those brands like BT and Heinz that have been around my whole life. Growing up in Northampton, I don't think anyone did their weekly shop anywhere else.

I've always respected that it produced good price promise ads without resorting to smug arse-tapping. I still remember liking Dudley Moore chasing after chickens. I always thought the "Every little helps" line was excellent and the simple white background work with Britain's favourite voices was great, while the red price dot annoying the actors and presenters was both funny and memorable.

The latest work with Fay Ripley, however, seems a bit light. It's a bit too much like BT from the 80s for my liking. With the ever-strong Sainsbury's, Waitrose, Morrisons, Iceland, Asda and the weird, but fun, Lidl all offering much more than they ever did, Tesco's job is getting harder.

It seems a good time for a refresh, with or without "Every little helps". Then, hopefully, they can get back to creating the world domination Chris Morris once envisioned.