How Carrefour beat the ‘big bad wolf’ syndrome


Carrefour, the French supermarket chain, successfully demonstrated how large brands – often depicted as the source of an industry’s problems by challengers – can use their scale to address big issues and shift consumer perceptions.

Sarah Lemarié, senior strategist at agency Marcel Paris, discussed the ‘Black Supermarket’ campaign it helped develop for Carrefour in a session held by WARC during Lions Live, an online event organised by Cannes Lions. (Cannes Lions is a sister company of WARC.)

As a leader in the supermarket sector, consumers frequently associated Carrefour with “everything that went wrong with the supermarket model, starting with the standardisation of our food system and agriculture”, Lemarié reported.

‘Black Supermarket’, however, saw the retailer campaign against overly restrictive limits on the types of seeds that could be used in growing produce in the European Union – rules which threatened biodiversity and lowered food quality.

Carrefour began selling this “illegal” produce in many of its stores, and supported that effort with advertising, the lobbying of political leaders, and a petition ultimately signed by thousands of consumers.

By positioning itself against the entrenched interests of the agro-chemical industry, Carrefour was not only able to change the law, but also to recast the brand in a new light.

“It was a way to reframe what it means to be a leader,” explained Lemarié. (To watch the full video session from Lions Live, click here.)

“What we did was we tried to spin the power of Carrefour into a positive, to show that only such a big retailer can take on such a big fight.

“Here, being a leader no longer means fighting for your margins, for your revenue; it means taking the side of the little guys, of the farmers.”

The ‘Black Supermarket’ campaign also became the starting point for a global “Act for Food” program that has seen Carrefour take a leading role when it comes to helping consumers eat better.

“I think it’s a syndrome a lot of big brands suffer from: not only the penalty of leadership, but this big bad wolf syndrome: ‘Okay, if you’re that big, you cannot be good’,” said Lemarié.

“And I think the challenge is to find a way to reframe what it means to be big, to be powerful, to be a leader.”

This campaign ultimately collected 14 Cannes Lions in 2018, and returned in 2019 to take the Creative Effectiveness Grand Prix Lion.

And Carrefour’s success, Lemarié argued, can be replicated by major players in various categories, as these organisations can exert substantial influence thanks to their size.

“I think it can be reproduced in a ton of industries. Because in every industry, there is someone bigger than you – a big Goliath that needs to be taken down. And you can use your leadership power to achieve this,” Lemarié said.

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