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Netherlands: Marketing makes Aldi more relevant and self-evident'

Discount Retail Chain Aldi Netherlands (German family owned) is back. While other supermarket chains advanced and the German super was overtaken on all sides, in 2019 it was time for a plan of attack. Aldi Netherlands marketing director Nienke van de Streek has been the inspired leader of a marketing team of more than 50 people at Aldi for more than six years now. A conversation about the love for retail, boundless ambitions, the pyramid of Giep, the pleasure of budgeting, the German mother, the internal marketing mission and the competition. 'We will never do funny plays with celebrities. With us you will find real life.'

At the same time, it marks an important moment in the history of Aldi that for a long time was known as a simple box pusher without any recognizable positioning. Van de Streek and her team are now bringing out the best of 'the Sailor among the supers' with marketing. In addition to the well-known action commercials, Aldi is now also visible for the first time with brand films on TV, with the necessary humor on all social channels 'Aldi on Instagram? Of course it is!' and with remarkable activations such as recently with a real 'Pieper' paradise at Hoog Catharijne.

Aldi and marketing, so that wasn't a natural combination for a long time? "No, not exactly. Aldi is a family business that has been around for 100 years and has in fact always been run by operators who were mainly concerned with the logistics operation. In that process, attention has always been paid to increasing efficiency: what can be improved in the chain? Marketing was a strange word for a long time. When I came here there were two people who were involved in leaflet promotion and now there are 51. All top people, make no mistake, but marketing is really still in its infancy here. I am working on an internal mission in which you explain in all layers, from HR and Finance to logistics and store staff, why marketing, customer research, target group determination and positioning are essential for your long-term strategy. That requires a lot of energy and sometimes the necessary discussions, but everyone is now convinced that we need this.' It was also badly needed given the declining market share of Aldi? 'Aldi stood at a market share of 5.9% in 2019 and that percentage fell to 5.2 in the corona years. During corona, we were severely bothered by online and the fact that we are not a primary supermarket in the eyes of the customer. We currently have a market share of 5% and we are heading fast towards the 6. The stated ambition is to become discounter number 1 in the Netherlands again, because that's what we once were. The cause is difficult and has several sides, but the main reason is that we have continued to focus too much internally. With full courage we continued to raise the bar, but in the meantime, everything was happening outside and new formulas came up that customers took away from us. It was a huge wake up call for us. Did we wake up too late? I find it difficult to say, as a company you also have to be ready to take the next step. Also internationally. We have that much better on track now. There is much closer cooperation with Germany and other European countries and we are making immense strides in the field of marketing. To give an example, our customer service has recently become completely centralized. Previously, the six regional companies had their own customer service, including phone number. We can now respond much better to all kinds of customer questions and wishes. Anyway, the fact remains that perhaps we should have acted earlier. In the end, it was now or never.'

Just about the German mother, how big is her influence? 'There is always the idea that we are strictly controlled from Germany, but that is absolutely not the case. We really have a lot of freedom of action. Together with the CEO, my fellow directors of Category Management, Sales and Supply chain, I have a solid position in the MT as marketing manager. Together we form the commercial heart of the company. There is no checkout culture here, but of course we all have our KPIs. Even more important is the overall felt ambition in all layers of the company to become the best discounter in the Netherlands. Aldi International in Germany supports us in this. The collaboration with them has intensified and recently I sat at the head office with all marketing directors in Essen and there we learn a lot from each other, from best practices to how we deal with topics such as sustainability, pricing policy and the improvement of quality.' How did the marketing plan ultimately take shape? 'We started with the marketing booklet, so to speak, together with advertising agency Indie, which we selected after an extensive pitch. The starting position was that if we wanted to achieve our ambition, we really had to start from scratch. We are a fan of Giep Franzen, professor and advertising strategist, who builds the strategy from the pyramid with substructure and superstructure or first the functional description and then the emotional promise. Functional factor was important to remove the prejudices about us in particular. We had to clearly explain what Aldi is and does and why. Our philosophy is no frills, no fuss, we want to show real life. That means very concretely: we are cheap, but we do deliver quality and offering a limited range means no choice stress. The fact that you, as a customer, take out boxes yourself means that you are cheaper. Offering one kind of ketchup and not ten, that creates clarity and keeps things simple. Overall message: you get value for money, always and you eat just as well, but cheaper.' And after the functional, action-based TV commercials came the brand films in early 2022. 'The fact that we came on television with commercials was already a big step, but the introduction of branded films at the beginning of this year meant a revolution for us! After research with customers of Aldi, it turned out that they now understood the functional message. The reason for going to Aldi was clear, but what set us apart from the rest? The brand needed to be given more emotional relevance and a clear positioning. The brand films with glimpses into the lives of ordinary people struck the right chord. No fun plays with celebrities, but everyday life, such as the life that continues after the holidays and everyone gets back to work. In that life belong groceries, affordable and nothing fancy. The action communication always goes hand in hand with the brand film and is therefore butter with the fish. The pay-off 'Of course yes' was an instant hit, certainly also in combination with the voice-over of actor Diederik Ebbinge. You can put so much into it and it is the wonderful self-evidentness that we want to convey, the core of the brand, namely simplicity, responsible and reliable.' Indie as an agency I find quite remarkable, I had not directly linked to you. 'The funny thing is that Indie has no real retail experience. Real retail agencies such as TBWA were on our longlist, but they quickly dropped out for understandable reasons such as competition clauses. We got a sympathy for Indie because they were on the right approach route very quickly. We also learn a lot from each other. As I said, we as a marketing club are also very searching and they are new to retail. In this way, we bring out the best in each other.' As a real 'retail animal', how do you look at the competition? 'The nice thing about retail for me is that it's never boring. Everyone is fighting for their percentage point of market share extra. Of course I look with a lot of attention at what they do and why and how it fits the brand or not at all. We look at it, sometimes we learn from it and sometimes I'm glad that Aldi is not on that particular course. In that respect, I am happy with our underdog position! You have to guard against exaggeration, they are basically just groceries. On the other hand, people, especially now, bring a lot of money to the supermarket and every carton of milk they buy from us, they do not get from market leader Albert Heijn. The game is to pull out all the stops to entice the customer to come to you. With the immense inflation at the moment we are doing good business, yes, you can say that. We see a lot of new customers who realize that our peanut butter is just as tasty.'

What do you think of the level of advertising in the Netherlands? 'Let me first say that I always enjoy advertising, I'm really a fan of the commercial break. Yes, level? Bad advertising can also work well, I often think. If it has an effect, who am I to say it's bad advertising? Aldi is also on TikTok. What is the rationale behind that? "Aldi as a brand needs this, the medium can really add something. Customer surveys showed that we have quite an old-fashioned image. One of the comments was: Did you move with the times? With our arrival on TV and on TikTok, you show that as a brand you are moving with the times. The logo? No, not at all. But that remains very strong. We recently refreshed it with that red line and strong A. Leave everything out and the logo still stands like a house. No, never arrive!' Where does the marketing profession go? 'I'm not a seasoned marketer, I've only been dedicated as marketing director for three years, but what strikes me is the breadth of the profession. In the past, advertising campaigns, say the creative side, were the core of marketing for many. In 2022, marketing is so comprehensive, it concerns the entire company in all its facets. From sustainability to responsible entrepreneurship and from your position in society and what you do in it. You are constantly under the scrutiny of the consumer. Do I hit the string right, am I not going to stand on toes? As a brand, you want to do it all right. The profession is therefore becoming more and more interesting, gets more dimensions.'

And the customer is becoming more and more critical. 'Yes, that is an extension of this. I certainly welcome that and as Aldi we can respond smartly to it. Take sustainability and the fact that we are a discounter as an example. For many customers that does not go together, while we do very well in that area and often better than other supers. Nobody expects that and that is something that we have to propagate much more. This is our story and we have claimed this position. It is a matter of continuing to repeat our core values and making it clear that it is good if you take a critical look at your own buying behavior. It may well be a notch less, there do not have to be 21 pancake mixes in the store. Two is also fine. That is better for the chain, for society and the world itself and ultimately also for the customer.' What else is a challenge for you as a CMO? 'We are in the middle of the discussion about price, which is really a current topic. As a consumer, you have little to spend and where do you shop? We offer the lowest price compared to the competitor and quality is not always comparable, while our peanut butter is also of the level A brand. The challenge is to get that story clear to the customer, because cheap is unfortunately still synonymous with poor quality for many people. I think that's a real challenge, especially because it's becoming more and more relevant.' What success and blunder can I note? 'In fact, Aldi is my only marketing success for the time being (laughs). If it's a success at all, then. I was always on the formula side and that's really different from marketing. The advantage of this is that I have always understood the business side of a company very well. How is your revenue model and what contribution do you make to it? Every marketer should. If you as a marketer do not have that sharp, then no one takes you seriously. You are much more involved in the daily business.

The blunder took place when I was just working at Aldi. At the opening of a pilot store, I enthusiastically told a colleague/former colleague about the plans we had with the concept. It turned out that a shrewd journalist was listening and he obviously wanted to publish this whole story, but the matter was then very sensitive within the company and we were still very closed to the media. I really had to move heaven and earth to make the journalist refrain from publication.'

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