05 Dec 2015

Tesco: When Great Slogans Bite You On The Behind

Even The Best Copywriters Can't Predict The Future

Tesco – a multinational monument of rampant consumerism – is in a precarious place. At the retailer’s height there was scarcely a civilised shopping street in England it hadn’t monopolised, while startlingly, one pound in every seven or eight was spent on Tesco groceries, fuel and cut-price merchandise. Today it remains the second largest retailer in the world. But profits are spiralling, supermarkets are closing and new stores have been mothballed.  

So what went wrong? Frankly we haven’t a clue. But what can be said with some surety is that much of Tesco’s ad copy – once so sharp and snappy – has come back to bite it on the behind. For kicks and giggles let’s have a look:

Every Little Helps

The famous tagline: pithy, memorable, and evocative of a crumbly old adage your grandmother used. It became synonymous with the brand – a piece of copy that positioned the supermarket as the avuncular grocer, sympathetic of the poor and conscious of good value. * Such is its enduring impact, Tesco tried dusting the slogan off recently for another outing in a major new TV ad campaign - either a canny piece of marketing or a last ditch resort to restore some trust.

The problem with the slogan is that the headlines, which have followed Tesco around over the past few years, conspired to upend it. Allegations of aggressive accounting stacked up against the chain in 2014. Its reputation had already been damaged by many years of wild expansionism and claims of child labour. All of which helped to paint a powerful picture of corporate greed. And so, for a great many, it was impossible to read Every little helps, without thinking: Every little helps Tesco.

Tesco Bank: Keeping money real  

What a spectacular misfortune for the copywriters behind this little slogan who couldn’t have known their employers would overstate half-year profits in 2014 by £250 million just as these adverts began to appear.**

Suffice to say they disappeared rapidly. When asked at the time to explain how such a colossal amount of money could go missing, Tesco’s Chairman, Richard Broadbent said: “Things are always unnoticed until they’re noticed.” Well sadly for him, millions of people noticed this slogan. Tesco Bank: Keeping money real except when it’s not might have been more appropriate.

We Apologise.

Few things can be so damaging to a grocer than for the world to discover you’ve been stuffing your beef burgers with horsemeat. The unfolding crisis, or the horsemeat scandal, of 2013 presented a unique challenge to Tesco’s marketing team and indeed, its copywriters: how best to rein back trust? (More puns here). When your reputation has been so thoroughly lowered, where do you even start? The answer? You take out a series of full-page ads in several national newspapers. You apologise. You promise to be better. And you do it… in the form of a poem. A Shakespearean sonnet even. Well not exactly, but the versification, the meter, the enjambment! It’s all there. Just take a look:

What Burgers Have Taught Us.

We know that all this will only work if we are

Open about what we do.

And if you're not happy, tell us.

Seriously.

This is it.

We are changing.

Credit where it’s due – this is wonderful stuff from Tesco’s copywriters, who managed to turn an apology into a new PR campaign. The problem however, was that for many thousands of people commenting online, the ad seemed disingenuous – it was laboured, a piece of spin and a lame attempt to appear heartfelt. But it also surreptitiously attempted to deflect blame. Indeed, What Burgers Have Taught Us was eventually banned by the Advertising Standards Agency, which said the ad featured words such as “we” and “our” to focus on Tesco but omitted them in the line “It's about the whole food industry” which “implied that all retailers and suppliers were likely to have sold products contaminated with horse meat”.

Whatever you felt about the advert, it became a talking point in its own right, and however briefly, distracted from the scandal itself.

You shop. We drop.

A straightforward clanger to finish. The You Shop We Drop slogan was, at first glance, a cute, quippy piece of copy to describe Tesco’s new home delivery service. But copywriters overlooked the opportunity it presented to be reinterpreted. And as one problem after another threatened to engulf Tesco, many people did just that. Initially it was used to poke fun at accusations of goods being returned as ‘damaged on delivery’. Later it would accompany the many hundreds of news articles and features documenting Tesco’s tumbling profit margins.

It’s easy to mock with hindsight. And more than a little schadenfreude went into writing this post. But I hope there’s an important point to take home. Copy can be dangerous. It can mutate under new circumstances, taking on a devastating unintended irony or a whole new meaning. What might have been an innocuous slogan can become a damning indictment.  Your company copy has to be as near a reflection of the truth as possible - even if that means predicting the future.    

* Speaking of value, After 20 years the “no frills” bargain brand, Tesco Value (which set a trend among the big supermarkets) was shelved in 2012 and replaced with Everyday Value.

** Whether conspiracy or cock-up this error cost the supermarket dearly, leading to a £4 billion drop in Tesco's market value and the suspension of four senior executives.