How Content Helps the UK’s Biggest Supermarkets Stand Out

25 years ago, the UK supermarket chain Sainsbury’s debuted a magazine. Even before the internet took over and made it easy for anyone to distribute content, Sainsbury’s wanted to reach customers outside of its aisles. So it created a glossy print publication that offered recipes, cooking tips, and feature articles. Eventually, other cornerstone brands like Tesco and Waitrose followed suit with their own magazines.

Since then, the supermarket industry’s approach to content has evolved dramatically. In 2012, Morrisons was the first brand to take its magazine onto the iPad. That same year, Waitrose became the first major UK grocery chain to launch a YouTube channel, which was also integrated into the company website. In 2014, Tesco even rolled out a beauty magazine to target a more niche audience.

The driving factor for a lot of this experimentation was competition—not just with each other, but with new challengers as well. In the 1990s, German discount chains Aldi and Lidl came to the UK, focusing on store-brand products. Today, they combine for about 11 percent of the UK grocery market, according to Kantar Worldpanel. Tesco leads with 28 percent, and Sainsbury’s is second with 16.5 percent.

“The big brands have been given a kick by the challengers,” said Andrew Canter, CEO of the Branded Content Marketing Association, a global advocacy and lobbying group.

All of the big UK supermarkets have blogs and multi-channel marketing strategies, but how they frame those strategies varies. Lidl has focused its advertising on products while Aldi has concentrated on price comparisons. To avoid being drawn into a price war, the established players have responded with campaigns that focus on helping and inspiring their customers. Tesco’s long-term brand positioning is “Every little helps.” Sainsbury’s retired tagline, launched in partnership with celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, was “Try something new today.” (The campaign drove additional spend by encouraging shoppers to experiment by making small tweaks to well-known dishes.)

The latest round in the battle between the traditional giants and the challenger brands began just after Christmas, when both Tesco and Sainsbury’s launched campaigns with new agencies.

The Tesco transformation

Tesco’s “Food Love Stories”campaign came from advertising agency BBH. Content focused on seven stories, each about the relationship between a person and a special dish. “David’s ‘Hot or Not’ Chicken Curry,” for instance, features a man who lied to his wife 15 years ago about liking hot curries but still cooks them for her while secretly adding yogurt to his own helping. The campaign appears on TV, radio, the company blog, outdoors, and social media. It’s also linked to in-store promotions. Stores now sell the chicken curry as a bundle at the end of an aisle or as a recipe card to take home.

According to Lilli English, BBH head of strategy, the starting point for the campaign was Tesco’s desire to improve customer perception of the quality of its food. “Food quality is one of the biggest drivers of supermarket choice,” she said. “Yet Tesco had the lowest quality image of any supermarket–despite performing better in blind taste tests than Sainsbury’s.”

So BBH set out to establish a personal connection with shoppers about the way food impacts relationships. “Our research also told us that customers first rely on friends, family, and peers for recipe inspiration before seeking out celebrity chefs or online experts,” English added. “We want recipes we know have been loved and proven to work by people like us. This told us that Tesco could be helpful as well as empathetic.”

The next stage of the campaign incorporated stories from food suppliers. Last month, Tesco published two new videos. The first, titled “The Bread Perfectionists,” profiled two bakers from Heygates Bakery in Northampton, who make Tesco’s white cob loaf. The second, “The Cheese Fortune Tellers,” looks at Rich and Tom Clothier of Wyke Farms in Somerset, who supply Tesco’s cheddar.

English told me the range of stories will continue to grow, with the brand looking to include partners, colleagues, and charities as well.

Sizing up the market

In January, Sainsbury’s unveiled “Food Dancing,” which came from Wieden+Kennedy London. The campaign focuses on the joy of cooking, and aims to “inject fresh energy into people’s kitchens” by highlighting “that personal moment when you’re in the rhythm of cooking and dancing along to your favorite tune with no inhibitions.”

The core of the campaign is a video, which ran on TV and online, showing people dancing in their kitchens. It now has over a million views. To build on its “Live Well” slogan, Sainsbury’s has also developed plenty of digital content to educate and inspire. There are scrapbooks full of healthy comfort foods and soundtracks for time spent in the kitchen.

As “Food Love Stories” and “Food Dancing” both demonstrate, things are also changing behind the scenes. Content marketing is no longer a cool experiment for UK supermarkets. It’s now an integral part of their advertising campaigns across channels.

Sean King, CEO of the content marketing agency Seven, which produces Sainsbury’s award-winning magazine, told me that customers are always going to be interested in helpful food-related content, and retailers are ideally placed to provide that. But King also believes that integrating content marketing into larger campaigns will affect the way brands think about tying their creativity to business objectives. “That means different challenges, different KPIs. As an agency, we’re becoming much more tuned into product sales than just content creation,” he said.

For BBH, content marketing plays multiple roles in the Tesco campaign. It allows the supermarket to amplify awareness by targeting at scale, but it also connects the campaign with the products by helping people make the meals at home.

“This connection via content enables us to guide customers from a Food Love Story to a recipe in a click, acting as the connective tissue,” explained BBH Strategy Director Damola Timeyin. “We use content to connect with people online, when it matters most, whether that’s when they are thinking about what to cook for dinner or on their way to a Tesco store.”

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