Emma Botton Tesco

Most Creative Marketers

Most Creative Marketers: Emma Botton

Tesco group brand, proposition and marketing communications director talks Clubcard, creativity, cost-of-living, and customers

By Jennifer Small

For a retailer whose pre-tax profits have plummeted by more than 50 per cent over the past year, despite maintaining a strong sales performance amid the cost-of-living crisis, it might seem counter-intuitive for Tesco to help people spend less. But that is exactly what the UK’s leading retailer is doing.

“Helping people to spend less at Tesco is the big idea. For some people that might be through Clubcard prices with fabulous offers, but some just want to know they've got fair consistent prices – day-in, day-out – with everyday low pricing. And we've got hundreds of products we price-match against the likes of Aldi, so customers don't need to go anywhere else,” Botton says.

Although the supermarket giant’s pre-tax profits dropped to £1bn for the year to February 2023, down 50 per cent from £2bn the previous year, Tesco has extended its price lock on more than 1,000 everyday products until July, as families grapple with the cost-of-living crisis.

Botton highlights “the myriad of ways in which customers can use more of Tesco and save money.” Having seen people down-trade from eating out to eating at home, the supermarket has increased its range of ready meals and family meal offers. It has also introduced a way to use Clubcard points to pay for fuel and has increased availability of its scan-as-you-shop system to help customers on a tight budget.

“We created it for convenience, but most recently in this cost-of-living crisis, people aren't using it for convenience, because they've got exactly twenty-five quid to spend. So, you see them choosing to change brand or go for an own-label product. Now we’ve repositioned scan-as-you-shop, to highlight that it's helping people on a fixed income avoid embarrassment with their bill. It's a private and shame-free way to do your shopping, knowing what your budget is,” Botton explains.

In Tesco cafes, the Kids Eat Free scheme runs during school holidays across its 312 cafes, says Botton, so lots of parents who are reliant on free school meals during term time can spend as little as 60p at the till and get a hot or cold kid's meal worth £3.50, for free. Last year, the supermarket chain gave more than 418,000 free meals to families.

“What's lovely about Tesco,” she says, “is that we are pretty good in times of crisis. And that's where having a purpose really helps, because ours is about helpfulness, whether that's for our customers, our communities, or our planet, then our people step up to find ways of being helpful.”

“Necessity breeds creativity”

Botton’s roots are in production engineering. Having spent 21 years at Unilever – working across roles in brand innovation, global innovation, corporate strategy, category strategy, and sales – she relishes problem-solving, and factories.

“Engineering forces you to work things out; necessity breeds creativity and this is where creativity and logic come together. It's all about problem solving; how can we make the world better? How can we make the machine go faster? Unilever was an absolutely fantastic 21 years of my life, which included watching things tangibly being made. I love factories: from sitting in Port Sunlight on the soap night shift to watching detergents being made in Warrington, to deodorants in Leeds.”

However, during her time at Unilever, Botton was always frustrated not to be involved in the last ten metres of the of the purchase cycle, which she says, is “where the magic happens”.

“There is something again, tangible, in terms of retail. At Tesco, we're at that last little bit, enticing people to make that choice,” says Botton.

The Tesco and BBH love story

In 2015, Tesco had recorded the biggest loss of any retailer in UK history and former CEO Dave Lewis set Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH) the challenge to move “from running shops to serving customers.” Having joined Tesco in 2016 as part of a turnaround team, Botton’s role was to work with BBH to regain credentials and rebuild trust and reputation around the quality of the retailer’s food.

And it worked: five years after the retailer started working with BBH to create campaigns including Food Love Stories, the company reported 20 quarters of consecutive growth, with £4.3bn of revenue and £863m profit. It became one of the great corporate turnarounds in British history – and it was driven by brand.

“It was a bold play because nobody was doing anything like that at the time in terms of creating a voice which had human truth right at the heart of it, for a brand that had been through quite a troubled time. The bravery of it was rooted in specific context, specific stories for specific target audiences at specific times. Our most successful ads are the ones where we focus on those very authentic stories.”

Of the Food Love Stories series, Botton particularly loved Birdie’s ‘Everybody Welcome’ Jerk Chicken, which features a foster mother who has helped more than 800 children settle into her North London home, ‘Not Quite’ Aunty’s Sumac Chicken, which features three brothers who couldn’t break fast during Ramadan with their family due to Covid – an ad which had to be shot on their own mobile phones.

“We all know how it felt at that time not to be able to be together. But we were brave and bold to keep doing the ads, we kept investing in showing real-life stories with authenticity in a way that was honest and heartfelt,” Botton says.

There was also Jon's 'Laid-Back' Easter Lamb, featuring “a slightly older couple of empty nesters who put their lamb on to cook for Easter but then go and indulge in something a little bit more exciting. We infer that they're in the bedroom having a bit more excitement than cooking lamb.”

It's this example that Botton says especially illustrates the resilience and creativity of Tesco’s relationship with BBH, because it involved “utilising footage that had already been made, using technology to re-edit so that we could show and put different words through the actor's mouth. It wasn't going to be sensible to invest in making completely new film at that point, but we had this film where the team at BBH knew that with a little work, it could be something really special.”

Repurposing assets may not be the most lucrative way forward for a creative agency, but as Botton points out, in a tight ship, the best way forward is partnership.

“At Tesco we believe, and I believe, in long-lasting relationships, where you invest in that relationship. BBH have been on the journey with me for the past six and a half years and I credit them as real business partners in all senses of the word. We don't just give them a creative brief; we give them the business problem. We share the problem, share the business challenge, and they come with us on that journey.”

Botton believes one of the keys to successful agency relationships is the quarterly 360° feedback sessions she runs with Tesco’s leading five agencies, BBH, EssenceMediacom, publishing partner Cedar, and PR agency Splendid.

“Every quarter we check in on how we’re doing. It's a little bit like marriage guidance. It gives me a really good early warning system of things that are going off the boil in particular areas, and it's full-service coverage in terms of how is the relationship doing, how are we doing on costs, conversations, innovation, digital presence,” Botton says.

Looking ahead, Botton is excited by “the power of big brave ideas”, which for her includes “the concept of unlocking a world of mass personalisation”, and “helping customers embrace and get access to more of the Tesco they love,” she explains.

BBH and EssenceMediacom are invited on that journey with Tesco and will share their enabling technologies, ideas and resources to help the retailer on its journey, Botton says. “And I think we're quite unstoppable when we when we put our mind to strategic rigour of it. At the heart of it all is a strong purpose, so we all know why we're doing it.”

For Botton, who describes retail as “intoxicating”, the world of possibilities and the opportunity to make a difference mean it's an exciting time to be in the Tesco orbit.

“You need energy, you need passion, to drive ideas that people can get behind and push them forward. And so, I personally think it's a space for really brave, courageous leadership, which is what I bring.”

The world according to Emma Botton

What’s been feeding your imagination lately?

“Necessity often feeds my imagination because I love solving problems, whether that's a crisis or drama, or simply a problem statement. For example, during Covid we had to teach people how to shop in news ways in line with all the new rules. And I never thought I'd be doing that. But literally overnight we needed to create a film that taught people; this is what the green light means, this is what two metres looks like, this is why we've got screens. The problem of necessity forces quick thinking and creativity.”

What inspires you?

“Music has the ability to transport me to places. Every month I listen to a different genre to try and change it up. And if I could have a superpower, it would be to live my whole life to a soundtrack which I absolutely love, so that I can have music playing all the time. Some people want to be invisible or fly or go back in time, but I if I could just have a soundtrack playing the whole time, I think it would be so amazing.”

What are the top items on your to-do list?

“Magical things don't happen without amazing people, so the first thing on my list will always be team and talent. The conversation I genuinely have every day, starts with ‘how are you?’ The second job is continuing to push the boundaries of ideas that will make people feel brilliant about the Tesco that they know and love.”

What excites you about the future?

“I personally believe the world is full of future possibility. I love bringing teams together to be able to achieve magical things that they didn't think were even possible. That's what drives me. And at Tesco the pace of change is intoxicating; retail is intoxicating.”


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