Tesco: Where’s the love?

Brand New

In his new book, 'Brand New: The Shape of Brands to Come’ (coming out 7 April 2014) Wally shares his thoughts on how Tesco, a truly remarkable brand, came to be deeply unloved by so many:

There are organisations, which may appear on the face of it to be much more aware of their brand, much more concerned about their reputation, are in real life much less sure-footed, much more tentative.

The supermarket Tesco is a business that tries to get it right, and quite often fails. The legend of its origins is a bit like a fairy tale. Jack Cohen, a Cockney Jewish ex-World War I serviceman (Tesco is nearly 100 years old), started out with a barrow and the motto ‘pile it high – sell it cheap’, and that’s what Tesco has been doing with a few variations ever since. It became a truly remarkable business, the world’s third largest supermarket chain, operating in fourteen countries and with a powerful position in many of them.

For all its success, however, it’s a brand that many people seem not to like much. In the UK, its home market, it’s the No. 1 supermarket chain by a long way, but nobody loves it because the myth is that it destroys small traders and the local economy. It makes small towns and city streets look and feel the same. It turns everything into a faceless commodity.

Tesco is deeply unlovable. Although in the rational factors that influence choice – quality, variety and price – it is excellent, its stores lack almost all the emotional factors that we love: warmth, charm, any kind of empathy. Tesco’s graphics are hideous. Its fascias are a blot on the landscape. Although the strapline ‘Every little helps’ is strong and persuasive, much of the advertising is feeble. And everywhere it goes, quite regardless of where it is, Tesco looks the same: there’s absolutely no sensitivity to place. Somewhere, right in the back of its mind, it still says: ‘pile it high – sell it cheap’.

But the strange thing is that, when you look really closely, Tesco is perhaps rather more thoughtful and better behaved than it appears at first sight. For example, it seems to have a lively, interesting and in many ways well-considered CSR policy. Sustainability, environmental issues, Alzheimers, reducing the carbon footprint, meals for schoolchildren, cancer research – there’s hardly an area that Tesco doesn’t, one way or another, contribute to. But, strangely for such a high-profile organisation, and one that should be so sensitive to public perception, it hardly talks about CSR. You have to look quite hard on its website to find out what it does, and there doesn’t appear to be much at all in its stores – at least if there is, I haven’t seen it. Why? Does Tesco not make the connection between social responsibility and public perception?

What should Tesco do to align itself with the changing mood of the times? Here are some thoughts. Why doesn’t Tesco introduce small, local brands and shops into its stores to show that, when Tesco comes to town, it helps the locality thrive and doesn’t dismiss and ignore it? Why doesn’t it turn parts of some of its stores and car parks into farmers’ markets on a regular weekly basis? Looked at from a commercial point of view, that would be headline news, worth millions in advertising and public relations. It would help Tesco to get even more sites. It would also alter the way in which Tesco was perceived by the communities in which it operates. Why doesn’t it modulate the design of its fascias and interiors according to local environments and encourage staff to be more active in local community activities? In other words, why doesn’t it embrace the communities in which it plays such an important part?

Tesco has the rational factors right but it doesn’t seem to have understood that, in a world where public scrutiny is so ubiquitous, it needs to sharpen up its practice and demonstrate that underneath its cold, calculating exterior, it has charm and warmth; that it cares – about customers, suppliers and the community as a whole; that it is authentic. That happens sometimes with big corporations. Well, Tesco needs to start taking notice or it will learn the hard way, because the brand is tainted. It still has the opportunity to get it right. But will it?

This extract is from Wally Olins ‘Brand New’ book, published by Thames & Hudson on the 7th of April 2014. Pre-order your copy here.