25 Mar 2013

Waitrose signs up Phillip Schofield to promote its wines

Waitrose has signed up TV presenter Phillip Schofield to help promote its wine range, not long after its in-house magazine recruited Pippa Middleton as a food columnist.

The move got criticism from one or two wine writers, but I'm not sure it's totally justified. It is definitely annoying how a celebrity is seemingly attached to everything, whether you want one or not (Alan Partridge's Youth Hostelling With Chris Eubank is totally un-far-fetched now). But celebrity sells - and if nothing else, supermarkets are there to sell.

If wine's a big part of your life, I doubt you go to the supermarkets for your main inspiration anyway. Supermarkets are generalists. If Waitrose thinks a celebrity and experienced presenter who loves wine is the best man to engage mildly interested shoppers via some online videos, then fair enough.

To those strongly against the decision to hire him: Waitrose is a supermarket! It definitely is a supermarket. It sells mass-produced products, it does half-price offers, it sells ready meals, sometimes with celebrity chef endorsements. It has checkouts, it does meal deals. In general it sells better quality stuff than most other supermarkets, its wine range is good, it's usually a nice place to shop, and its ethics are arguably better than most (though not so much if you clean parent company John Lewis's Oxford Street store), but it's definitely a supermarket.

The clever bit about Waitrose though is its customers can forget they're supermarket shoppers. Whether it's good old English snobbery, or simply a desire for a quality shopping experience, it's true. Some of the Phillip Schofield criticism spoke of that illusion being broken.

Brands that manage to make you feel exclusive, or cool - even though you're one of millions of customers buying the same products - have to expand carefully. If Waitrose is opening more stores outside its heartlands and adding to its celebrity element, its profits might well go up as a result. But - big but - is there a risk it becomes any old supermarket? Good news for most supermarket shoppers - it might raise the bar for other supermarkets - but what about its core following who like to feel that their shop, and by extension them, is something different?

Apple's a similar example. I've sensed a few cracks in the sheen recently, a few murmurs that make me think it's not quite the flavour of the month it once was. Apple has enjoyed a cult-like following - even though, again, this is just mass-produced electronics we're talking about; albeit high-quality ones. Nicely designed and generally work very well, but mass-produced in not-so-glamorous Far East factories.

You might argue this is more to do with Samsung, Google and others catching Apple up in quality terms (we recently bought a Note 10.1 tablet and it's blummin' great!). But it's not just about quality - brands are vulnerable to the fashions that made them a success to begin with. Has Apple become too ubiquitous? You can buy Apple products in Argos, in Sainsbury's and in Tesco. When do the cool kids decide a brand has become too popular? A cliche?

I say fair play to Waitrose and Phillip Schofield though - I hope it gets more people into wine.