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George throws down the gauntlet

As Asda unveils an aggressive George ad campaign, what do industry insiders think of the tactic?

Asda's new ad strategy for George, which pitches the clothing line against higher-priced collections from high street rivals, is common practice across food advertising, but is relatively untested among fashion retailers. The print ads, which kicked off last week, feature a comparison between its T-shirt bra and a similar bra at Marks & Spencer - the Asda version retails at £4, with M&S's at £9 (Drapers, February 24).

The supermarket says the M&S comparison is just the start - it has other high street retailers in its sights that it believes it can match on quality and beat on price. But is this a clever advertising move that will strengthen its quality credentials? Or will customers see straight through the ad tactic?

Russ Lidstone, chief strategic officer at ad agency Euro RSCG, believes Asda has gone too far. Lidstone, who launched Tesco's Cherokee TV ad campaign while he was at ad agency Lowe, says that while there has been a significant shift in how people perceive the price-fashion relationship, it could backfire for George. "Cheap fashion can generate a certain kudos, so the George ad is tapping into that mentality and doing it in a hardcore way," he explains. "But I don't think it's the right tactic to take.

"Essentially, consumers won't believe that George and M&S are comparable. In fact, the ad underpins Asda's cheapness and simply highlights a knock at M&S. Given that M&S is the beacon of British society, I don't think the ad will help Asda's image. With Tesco Cherokee we made an assertion about its cheapness, but also about its fashionability. We parodied Gap, but it was never a direct comparison."

Rita Clifton, chairman of branding agency Interbrand, agrees that Asda must tread carefully and picking an enemy in M&S could be a mistake. "This new strategy shows that the gloves really are off. The 'same but cheaper' tactic is a potentially strong one in that it will bite with existing George customers and encourage them to spend more. But I don't think it will cause M&S's customers to stray. Consumers still hold an emotional link to certain brands and retailers when it comes to fashion. George - and any retailer that follows suit - has to choose its enemies carefully. M&S is a difficult target because it is well regarded in the industry and among consumers, especially since its resurgence. Retailers have to be careful not to denigrate the competition."

Taking aim at the competition is undoubtedly a risky move. On a weekly basis, supermarkets take pot shots at each other, knocking pennies off the price of commodity items such as bananas or milk. But can the tactic transfer to more aspirational fashion purchases?

"A T-shirt bra is not that far removed from a tin of baked beans," says Mark Dickens, strategy director of marketing and design consultancy Astound. He believes that price is one of the few differentiators on the "clone-Britain" high street and that George's ad reflects the way consumers think. "George is taking its cue from food ads and I think we'll see more of it from other fashion retailers," says Dickens. "In some aspects, fashion is losing some of its aspirational values and becoming more about function. I'm sure that Asda has done research that shows this - it certainly corroborates with our findings."

Asda argues that a retailer does not have to compromise on quality to achieve low prices. "There's a misconception that if something is great value, then quality or design has to suffer, but the 'Why pay more?' ads put an end to this," says an Asda spokesman. "Customers can see that great value can be delivered at low prices by benchmarking core staples against some well-known high street brands. By offering the comparison, all we are asking is: why pay more?"

However, Lidstone is quick to point out that customers are wising up to the tricks of the ad industry. "Consumers will realise they're being marketed at - they're wiser than that these days," he says.

While low prices are a key footfall driver for value fashion, they are no longer the sole domain of the supermarkets. Carl McPhail, managing director of marketing, operations and international at New Look, says a brand should stick to its values and avoid direct comparison with a competitor. "I think the George ad is good for the shock factor, but it won't work in the long term," he warns. "Low prices have become a given, led by the value sector, but now the likes of M&S and Next are driving down prices too. Consumers aren't going to believe that the two products in the ad are comparable because they're not - there are many nuances that make them different."

In the coming months, Asda - and the retailers it targets - will be able to measure how the ads have affected sales of the featured products and therefore whether the strategy is valid for clothing.

As one advertising source close to Asda puts it, such "ruthless" tactics are essential in today's market. "George needed to do something new and aggressive in what is a cut-throat market. Looking at last year's winners and losers, the retailers that came out on top were those that weren't afraid to go for it."

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