Tim Youngman - The Waitrose furore – a real lesson in brand management

One of the more amusing stories in recent weeks came from the middle class bastion that is Waitrose.

Last month it decided to ask its twitter followers to complete the sentence 'I shop at Waitrose because…#WaitroseReasons'. I am sure that some well meaning young marketing exec had been at a conference about social media and sat in workshops about engagement; brought that back and thought this was a great idea. The purist in me would completely agree with him, however the old cynic in me of 20 years' hard experience thought light blue paper and stand well back and duly the firework exploded.

This spread quickly, giving us another example of why this is the nation that gave the world Monty Python and the Goons. My favourite responses were: 'I shop at Waitrose because it makes me feel important and I absolutely detest being surrounded by poor people' and the all-time classic 'I shop at Waitrose because I was once in the Holloway Road branch and heard a dad say 'Put the papaya down Orlando!''

Within the storm of amusing asides there were positive as well as negative comments which would have pleased Waitrose, but most of the negative ones were based on the clear perception that Waitrose is expensive and middle class. I suspect the reaction was quite galling to key executives.

Particularly to Waitrose managing director Mark Price who announced in May that it was going to spend 'tens of millions of pounds' to price match Tesco and back this with a major television campaign in attempt to show its value compared with competitors. Many have argued that there is no such thing as bad PR, however there is if it reinforces a popular perception that you are trying hard, and spending good money on, to dispel.

For me, this issue is not about the gags or whether it's been good or bad publicly. It's actually about the bigger question of what is wrong with being perceived as middle class and expensive, if that is your core audience.

Let me give you an example from America of the fast food chain Chick-fil-A. You might not have heard of it, but last year it had sales in excess of �2.5bn. This year it also caused a major storm in the US when its president told a North Carolina Baptist website that the company supported the 'biblical definition of marriage'. Cue massive debate about its anti-gay marriage stance.

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To help understand why he said this, the company was started by the president's father to run on 'biblically based principles', donates millions to Christian charities and closes all stores on a Sunday. Although this stance made it universally unpopular with a vast majority of the US population, it gained massive support from its core audience of Southern Right Wing Christian Republicans, so much so that its restaurants struggled to cope with demand for the following month. There lies the example of one of the most important principles of brand management. It does not matter if you are not universally well liked by everyone, or if people have a different perception to reality. It's about making sure that you drive patronage and loyalty from your chosen target market and that might mean allowing certain perceptions to stay if the end result is keeping your profitable customer base happy in their choice of supermarket.

Tim Youngman is head of digital marketing for Archant – follow him on twitter @timyoungman