Tesco's expression of gratitude to rival supermarket Waitrose and its 'advertising gurus' for prompting a 'soaring increase' in its rhubarb sales raises a key question about the value of content-driven advertising: could these 'infomercials' harm the brands that create them?
The ad, which was created by MCBD and stars chefs Delia Smith and Heston Blumenthal, is the latest example of a trend among retailers to shy away from hard-sell, product-led activity in favour of campaigns that focus on individual dishes and ingredients.
It has prompted claim and counterclaim from Waitrose and Tesco; the former said Smith's recipe for rhubarb and ginger brulee caused its rhubarb sales to double in just one week. In reply, David Croxon, rhubarb buyer for Tesco, said: 'We'd like to thank Waitrose for boosting our sales.'
Disputes over whether competitors have benefited more from advertising than the brand that paid for it have arisen before, for example between M&S and Sainsbury's. According to some commentators, while a stand-out piece of marketing always runs the risk of prompting sales of rival brands, agencies are focusing too much on content and not enough on advertising.
'In this case, this is where the point of difference between rival brands is in its weakest territory, as you are relying on the celebrity to sell the product,' argues Marc Sands, marketing director of audiences and media for Tate galleries. 'This is not about price or a big brand campaign, but I do think this is about Tesco being mischievous.'
Other observers view Tesco's response as a recognition of its rival's canny advertising. 'Historically, this happens when someone does something smart and, in these cases, there will always be a halo effect,' says one. 'This is no more than a compliment to Waitrose.'
However, Carl Ratcliff, planning director at MCBD, takes issue with Tesco's claims. 'The fact is that this is rhubarb season, so you would expect a bit of uplift in sales,' he counters. Indeed, it is notable that Tesco did not mention a rise in sales of other products used in the recipe, such as ginger and Jersey cream. Ratcliff is also adamant that MCBD has made the ads 'as uniquely Waitrose as possible' as part of a wider through-the-line campaign.
Graham Hales, managing director at branding consultancy, Interbrand, argues that the retail sector is susceptible to driving rising category sales, as its ingredients are particularly commoditised. He points to the Jamie Oliver-fronted activity for Sainsbury's, which he says pushed up rivals' sales, forcing the retailer to 'get smarter' and tailor its ads to include ingredients available only in its stores.
While received wisdom suggests that the stronger the brand identity, the less chance that its marketing will be misappropriated, even megabrands cannot escape the halo effect. Last year, Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz credited McDonald's with helping his brand's performance through its big-budget McCafe campaign.
A spokesman for Starbucks also claims that its UK sales have been boosted by Costa Coffee's recent push for its Flat White product. However, he also admits that the chain has previously been on the other end of this process.
Ratcliff, meanwhile, points to examples in other sectors, such as ads for BMW aiding sales of Audi.
Nonetheless, even when a strong advertising campaign has sprinkled its stardust across the category, this is not necessarily to the detriment of the brand running the advertising. 'This claim by Tesco does not mean it is bad news for Waitrose,' says Sands. 'I think it would be a surprise if Tesco had not benefited from advertising for such a generic product.'