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Meijer Campaign Throws Retail Advertising Into Spotlight

Meijer Campaign Throws Retail Advertising Into Spotlight

Can a small supermarket player in a big market gain wide notice with a bold advertising campaign? At what point does such a campaign become so nontraditional as to risk turning off consumers?

Those are just two questions raised by a novel initiative launched by supercenter operator Meijer Inc. in the Chicago area, which is dominated by food retailers Dominick's and Jewel-Osco. The humorous campaign, developed by ad agency DeVito/Verdi, New York, brings a breath of fresh air to the Windy City, but it may result in some turbulence as well.

Here's a look at the program as chronicled in the April 14 issue of SN. Meijer, a large operator based in Grand Rapids, Mich., launched its promotion to raise the profile of its 11 stores in the Chicago market. The package includes ads for television, radio and the sides of city buses. The ads contend that Meijer is a “better store than the other guys” and play up superior prices, produce selection and meat quality, among other attributes. The messages incorporate sophisticated humor, including a TV spot that shows a clerk in a traditional supermarket directing a shopper to leave the store and head to Meijer for improved selection.

The campaign received critical praise by columnist Lewis Lazare of the Chicago Sun Times, who said the ad agency avoided the temptation to take a typical, generic approach. “Thankfully, the agency has instead delivered some sharp — and dare we say funny — work that made us immediately sit up and take notice of Meijer.”

That praise is justified, and Meijer deserves kudos for embracing innovative marketing. However, I would argue with the implication that supermarket advertising tends to be mundane. In fact, in recent years it has greatly improved, shifting from tedious, price-focused messages to marketing that plays up a range of retailer attributes.

But the story of the Meijer campaign doesn't end here. The reviewer's column avoids mention of the radio part of the initiative, which turns out to be the most controversial. One of those spots has two men talking, possibly at a barbecue, as steaks are grilling in the background. “We switched supermarkets when we heard Meijer carries better meat — only Choice grade or higher. The other guys don't,” said one man.

The second responds, “The other guys. What other guys?”

“Ah, forget it,” says the first. “I don't like saying anything bad about anyone. Just go to Meijer for your meats.”

“Come on, give me a hint,” says the second.

“All right, it rhymes with Whewel,” says the first.

Which leads to a humorous guessing game from the second man — “Gewel, Smuel, Duel, Cool” — drawing responses such as “No” and “You were so close!”

These references obviously point to Jewel, and another radio ad, which uses a similar rhyming routine, targets Dominick's.

All of which opens a can of worms for grocers. While political advertising circa 2008 has gone negative, supermarket campaigns generally have not. Typically, the only direct mentions of competitors in supermarket ads involve price comparisons. When an ad directly questions the quality offered by a rival, it runs the risk of blemishing all food stores, creating jaded consumers and sparking retaliation from competitors. That's not a road anyone should want to travel.