In face of extraordinary operational pressures following the onslaught of Covid-19, most of the UK supermarkets have been sticking to the go-to maxim for brands in a national crisis: “if you haven’t got anything supportive to say, don’t say it.”
As panic buying set in during the week before lockdown, the supermarkets needed to manage astonishing demand – similar to sales levels in the run up to Christmas – and the way they communicated since then has attempted to avoid being crass or opportunistic. Some comms has landed better than others. Morrison’s brand video take, for example, focusing on the fact that ‘it’s more than our job’ to ‘feed the nation’ came across as self-congratulatory.
Most of the initial comms in the middle of March highlighted educating and reassuring the public about product availability by explaining what they were doing to ensure shelves were stocked. Later, this developed into explaining the new priority hours for health workers and vulnerable customers – measures taken to ensure employee and customer safety and social distancing. Frequency of communications has been active, with blasts across a plethora of channels.
Asda has struck a particularly strong tone in being both informative but, unlike Tesco’s ‘public information’ broadcast style, personal, with messages coming directly from CEO Roger Burnley. Mike Coupe of Sainsbury’s did the same. Waitrose, in contrast, has been risibly bureaucratic in the lack of empathy it has displayed in customer messages. With news emerging that staff were being asked to refund any time taken to self-isolate, it has been squarely on the back foot.
That said, Waitrose’s efforts didn’t quite match those of Iceland, which scored a spectacular own goal last week when it brought out guidance insisting NHS workers had to buy any food they touched. The backlash was swift and relentless. Iceland back-pedalled, but the damage had been done.
Food retailers know they will be judged on their wider efforts. Morrisons has ignored Sunday trading laws and opened at 9am last Sunday for NHS workers and launched a Ramadan Essentials Box; testing kits for those in key roles are being provided by Tesco; M&S, Lidl, Aldi and Southern Co-op are partnering with charity Neighbourly. Sainsbury’s and Waitrose launched volunteer cards to support those shopping for self-isolators. These examples illustrate the wide array of possible initiatives that supermarkets are undertaking.
None of this should mask the fact that they are doing roaring business: supermarket purchases counted for 23% of essential spending in March according to Barclaycard, double the normal amount. But arguably the reason we have all managed the uncertainty is that, in lockdown, access to food and essential items has been largely unaffected. There was a point in mid-March when that did not seem so certain. On the whole, the supermarkets have stepped up, and some have really nailed the national mood.