What does Aldi’s price comparison ad ban mean for the grocery sector?

The news that an Aldi Christmas dinner ad was banned by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) after a complaint from rival grocer Sainsbury’s hit the headlines this week, garnering national attention.

But it is certainly not the first time that one of the nation’s supermarkets has been pulled up for its liberal interpretation of fair price comparison – on January 31 it was reported that UK supermarkets are collectively under investigation by the CMA (Competition and Markets Authority) over what is in danger of becoming a pattern of misleading labelling and deals.

The Aldi ad in question was a four-page wrap around published on December 6 2023. It featured the phrase ‘The home of Britain’s cheapest Christmas dinner. Why go anywhere else?’, with a separate breakout that read ‘2022 price locked’.

It also featured the Which? logo, as it used the consumer watchdog’s price comparison data to highlight that buying a typical Christmas dinner was more than 20% cheaper at Aldi than at Sainsbury’s.

Sainsbury’s took umbrage against the ad and complained to the ASA on a number of grounds – one of which was that the ‘2022 price locked’ claim was misleading and had not been verified.

The ASA upheld Sainsbury’s complaint about the price lock and whether it was verifiable on the grounds that the small text could easily be overlooked, and because Which? didn’t take the weight of each product into account.

It also pointed out that the direct comparison claim was misleading as it related to prices set between November 6 and November 27, despite consumers being likely to do their Christmas shopping nearer to the event.

The decision will have sent waves of unease through supermarket marketing departments, but what does it really mean for retailers making these claims in the future?

Why Aldi’s claim wasn’t ‘specific enough’

“In this instance Aldi wasn’t specific enough with the claim. They showed a picture of a Christmas dinner with the words ‘2022 price locked’. While this claim was true for some items within that dinner, it wasn’t the case for others,” says ASA operations manager Emily Henwood.

“We judged that a customer would assume that the price lock claim applied to all the items. There was a lack of clarity that we determined to be misleading,” she continues.

One of the issues raised by the ASA was that supermarkets change their short shelf-life products especially regularly – and therefore it is only fair that price comparisons should reflect the same time frame between supermarkets.

Not only that, but where the ad showed a whole turkey, the actual price comparison related to a turkey crown. The ad also featured a Yorkshire pudding and stuffing which the ASA said was not included in the costing comparison at all.

The Aldi wrap-around as it appeared on The Mirror. Credit: ASA

A Which? spokesperson told Marketing Beat that they were “disappointed” that its logo and research were used in an advert that has broken the regulator’s rules on marketing. They said they have “sought assurance from Aldi that it will not happen again”.

This level of scrutiny over an ad meant to ramp up golden quarter sales comes as no surprise.

“The Christmas meal is one of the most fiercely contested prices of the year. Supermarkets want people to switch to them for their Christmas dinner, that’s why this is particularly important,” says Savvy Marketing CEO and founder Catherine Shuttleworth.

Really Good Culture retail specialist Philip McMahon also highlights just how tough the industry can be at this time of year.

“Perhaps under the commercial pressure of the competitive environment – they test the limits of what is acceptable,” he says.

“I think in this case Aldi interpreted its position in a way it felt it could justify, but the ASA’s interpretation was clearly different. It’s important to hold supermarkets accountable for the claims they make but equally important not to be too quick to condemn them for one slip-up.”

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Can anyone keep up with supermarket pricing?

The precedent set by the ASA’s ruling in this case is particularly significant to the grocery sector, where price locks and price matching are part of a fiercely competitive landscape.

Henderson says the message to advertisers is clear.

“Any comparisons need to be accurate and not misleading. They should be comparing equivalent items, and make any difference between size or quality clear. They mustn’t exaggerate the length of time prices have been lower than a competitor, and they need to state if prices are competitive.”

How realistic this is in the fast-moving world of supermarkets is a different matter altogether.

McMahon asks, “Can anyone keep up with how often supermarkets change their pricing? Supply chains are very complex and in a globalised world, supermarkets and suppliers cannot reasonably predict all events that might impact costs.”

“I don’t think Which? can keep up either, and I don’t imagine any of the supermarkets are about to prioritise supplying price change information to them in advance,” he continues.

As Shuttleworth highlights: “Each of the retailers has a price team watching what goes on in the market. They’ll be watching the prices every hour, never mind every week!”

At the same time, she points out that it’s easier than ever for people to check prices: “People like me used to have to go into the shops and look at the prices on the shelf,” she says.

Shuttleworth also adds that Which? has been campaigning for pricing clarity at the shelf edge, and highlights that while it should be rightfully called up for its errors, it is also part of the solution when it comes to transparency.

Ad scrutiny is key to self-regulation

The role of the ASA is particularly crucial in such a fast-moving and competitive market, where ads are placed under such scrutiny. This self-regulation means that if a supermarket does play fast and loose with the rules it’s a fairly safe bet that one of the others will pull them up on it.

Sainsbury’s was naturally pleased with the outcome on this occasion, saying: “It’s really important to us that customers are able to make fairly informed decisions about where they choose to shop. We are glad the ASA has recognised the misleading nature of this ad.”

As Henderson points out: “Businesses are at liberty to complain about ads from competitors, and that includes supermarkets. We treat their complaints the same as those from the public; however we name the business that complained as part of our commitment to fair, open-handed dealing.”

Shuttleworth highlights that accountability is rightly unavoidable: “Aldi has been active in making comparison complaints against other people, so they can’t expect it not to be done to them.”

Bluntly, in the cut-throat world of grocery there is simply no avoiding your ad being scrutinised if it is misleading.

Ultimately though, everyone’s a winner, as while supermarkets clearly have business motives to complain about the marketing follies of their rivals, it is clearly in the public interest that they do so  – even if that is just a happy side effect.

BrandsFeaturesMarketing Strategy

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