When rebrands go wrong

(And how to avoid the pitfalls)

Kill the weak: it's the marketing way

I’d forgotten how much I’d missed Terry Leahy until he turned up on Desert Island Discs this week.


Tesco’s former CEO is, as Sunday’s show confirmed, the quintessential working class boy made good. He grew up on a council estate in a pre-fab with a dad who was a part-time greyhound trainer and three brothers who all went straight into apprenticeships at 16.

His choices on his island were unmistakably Northern working class too. Homeward Bound by Simon and Garfunkel was picked, not because of its popularity in the 1960s but because it was written at Widnes railway station. Even when Leahy’s tastes strayed into more refined territory with Pachabel’s Canon in D it was prefaced with the explanation that it was the melody used for Everton’s 1995 Cup Final anthem. Superb.

Leahy’s radio appearance certainly made headlines, but not for his musical choices. Mid-way through the interview host Kirsty Young asked him if he felt sad at the sight of “boarded up little shops on the high street”, forced out of business by Tesco.

Leahy’s answer was a characteristic mix of bluntness and humility. He confessed to some sadness but then pointed out that their extinction was “progress” from a “medieval” approach to one that was superior and more attractive to consumers. No one, as Leahy pointed out, had been forced to shop at Tesco. “You don’t want a society that prevents the one that’s good at getting more customers and doing well,” he explained and then pointed out that Tesco was once a small store too.

His interview scandalised the usual Tesco-haters. Guardian readers, in particular, were hilariously critical of Leahy in the aftermath of the show, with many calling for (yet another) Tesco boycott. Despite this, Leahy was correct. The game he and other marketers play is called capitalism and it rests on simple, predatory logic - weak brands must die and strong brands must kill them. Only then will the consumer be served and the market improve or, to use Leahy’s term, progress.

Unfortunately, many marketers find this sharp end of capitalism unpalatable. We’re happy with the idea of deriving success from “delighting” customers but shy away from the side of that equation in which we “destroy” the competition.

Marketers are, for the most part, a liberal bunch so we confuse sticking up for the underdog with the protection of failure. We are more likely artists than assassins, so we fail to respond to capitalism’s insistent requirement for progress through a mistaken belief in preservation. Tesco destroyed the local butcher because consumers preferred the supermarket’s offer to the crap local butcher. It’s not sad. It’s not unfortunate. It’s capitalism, and it’s how we marketers roll.

One kind of marketing director is the friendly type who wants to grow share without rocking the category too much and comes up with tame, empty statements like “we are our own biggest competitor”. Fuck that. Our biggest competition is the brand crushing us because it’s led by a proper marketer who is wiping us out with a blistering strategy built from a winning combination of hatred and strong marketing.

The only good marketers are the ones who openly and proudly aim at the destruction of their competition, who plot and plan for this moment and who revel in the occasion when it finally occurs. I remember a meeting with my favourite chief executive who interrupted a debate on the impact of a proposed advertising campaign on a competitor’s business with the words “Fuck this. Kill everyone”.

Leahy was more subtle, but his sentiment on Sunday was the same: the weak brands must and should be killed for society to progress. As marketers we are the agents of this destruction. It’s what you signed up for. If all this talk of hate and destruction makes you uncomfortable, become an artist or work for the National Trust. Marketing needs killers.

Leahy does not have to be your guru, pick any of the great marketers and you’ll find that same killer instinct deep within. In Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple exemplifies the killer spirit when he proclaims he will spend “every penny of Apple’s $40bn in the bank” to destroy Android. “I’m willing to go to thermonuclear war on this” was Job’s chilling summary of his approach to competing with Google in the phone business.

Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary may not be everyone’s cup of tea but he is inarguably the most successful CEO in Europe. He too feels uncomfortable when executives avoid talk of their competition. According to O’Leary this is “all bollocks”. He is clear about his approach to competition at Ryanair: “Everyone wants to kick the shit out of everyone else.”

Leahy. Jobs. O’Leary. All phenomenally successful capitalists and legendary marketers to boot. And all with the unfettered aggression and naked hatred for competition that great marketers share.

Readers' comments (13)

  • Fantastic article.

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  • Eminently sensible and fabulously angry. Was thinking much along the same lines about the crocodile tears being shed for HMV...

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  • Great article, but maybe change your language. Being competitive or being a good marketer doesn't mean you have to swear. At least star out the words or something.

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  • Did Cadbury, or, Leverhume think like that ? I wonder if the Coop do now ? As a founder member of one of the first media agencies, I know it was not the 1980s muscle power of big buying that built the sector, but the art of planning and insight. And that is what Tesco forgot to do in recent years, when it lost it's dominance. 'Killing the opposition' is only part of strategy, not all of it. As is what you kill them with.

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  • I can safely say I am not anti Tesco (and certainly not a Granuaid reader), however is it a level playing field? With scale they can squeeze suppliers which leads to lower prices and a forward momentum.

    May be the surge in popularity of Waitrose and Whole Foods (against Walmart) can continue if customers want their supermarket to stand for a different set of values.

    It will be interesting to see how the Starbucks and Amazon story develops too. Would the perceived advantage they gain by operating in offshore jurisdictions put off customers in 2013? I wonder if anyone would be able to operate a small butcher, baker or a café in Blighty anymore.

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  • Fabulous comments as usual but if I may...

    Alex, yes the swearing is totally fucking necessary. It fits with the piece. And its only a word. Only a word....

    Vic, you are probably right about Cadbury, the Coop and Leverhulme not thinking this way. But that's why Cadbury is now owned by Kraft (stone cold killers), the Coop has only 7% share of the grocery market when it was once 40%, and why only me, you and a couple of librarians from Sussex even know who Leverhume was...

    All too soft IMHO

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  • Interesting article. Great read! Some contentious statements but ultimately the truth. It's no wonder we hate them.

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  • Leverhulme?? I was curious and just had to look up. Found this para on erm Wiki -

    The Victorian businessman and entrepreneur, William Hesketh Lever first brought his creativity and energy to the manufacture and marketing of Sunlight soap which was being sold in 134 countries only a decade after its launch. In order to produce the soap so cheaply, and so as to ensure he could undercut competition and be so prolific, he controlled large concessionary areas in the Congo. These were granted to him by King Leopold with whom he was a close friend. Millions of Congolese were exploited for use in forced labour in these areas, "a program that reduced the population of Congo by half and accounted for more deaths than the Nazi holocaust." (Marchal J, 2008, 'Lord Leverhulme's Ghosts: Colonial Exploitation in the Congo', Verso Books)

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  • Another good article Mark, and I'd thought of Cadbury and Kraft before I even got Vic's and your comments. But surely even you must admit that the likes of Tesco only tick the customer box in certain areas such as price, availability, range etc whilst lacking in other areas such as genuine friendliness, a sense of community and trust. The friendly butcher who knows everyone's name who is put out of business by Tesco at least offers a friendly service and is a valued part of the community. He will look out for the little old lady who lives on her own and if she doesn't turn up knows something's amiss. I'm not trying to talk John Major's 'warm beer and cricket' but surely SG has a point? Also, Tesco will have a supply chain longer than the M1 motorway enabling all sorts of shenanigans (or is it Shergars?) to occur along the chain. My friendly butcher is less likely to put horsemeat in his fresh beefburger methinks.
    I’m reminded by another story of competition killers – Stagecoach. A few years ago I read a story about how they opened up a new local bus route in Bristol to compete with the incumbent, long-serving company. Stagecoach dropped prices to 10p a ticket, forcing the familiar and long-standing incumbent out of business. As soon as this happened Stagecoach increased prices back to the former level (or higher, I really don’t know). And people lost their jobs as a result and I’ll bet they weren’t all taken on by Stagecoach or if they were, at lower pay! So yes competition is great and on balance totally necessary but it’s not as f**cking healthy as you say it is.

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  • Interesting article, clearly intended to illicit a response. The language is cheap but for me the disappointment is in the notion that the winner always represents progress. Being number one is a legitimate objective, however, obliterating the competition should not be the main focus. Designing and taking better products to market for the advancement of society is a better objective.

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