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September 21, 2005

Can Sainsbury's create a smarter conversation?

Several of us met earlier this week to talk about where we're heading with this experiment. One theme that emerged is this: we'd like to use this space to explore how Sainsbury's can create a smarter conversation with its customers and other stakeholders.

A lot of conventional thinking about branding doesn't really countenance the idea of conversation, preferring the apparent certainty of broadcasting. Brands are encouraged to adopt "positions" and put "propositions" to customers. This propositioning creates good income for ad agencies, but does it really engage customers? Does it create a climate in which brands actually learn from their customers?

Using one bunch of agents to do advertising, and another bunch to do market research, doesn't create a conversation. A conversation is much more than a surface level swapping of ideas and opinions. For me great conversations allow both parties to be influenced and affected by each other in a continuous, unfolding process.

Adrian here, and James here, have both recently encouraged Sainsbury's to create better relationships with the farming, especially organic, industry. Cynics would say that would be a waste of time; supermarkets have to squash their suppliers becuase the only thing customers care about is value for money, which they measure largely on the lowest price for a given quality.

I'd like to suggest taking a more optimistic view of human nature, one that recognises that people are not the selfish, hyper-rational creatures of the economists' imaginations. Admen have long prospered by selling their abilities to leverage our emotions... though often on the assumption that our motivation remains fairly narcissistic.

Actually, we're hungry for something to believe in beyond self-interest. In fact, vibrant communities, and thriving conversations, are much more likely to happen when people's higher selves are engaged, not just their pocketbooks or vanity. Not many marketers are willing to take the risk of taking a stand for something bolder, but some that have, have prospered. Pret a Manger comes to mind.

The new Sainsbury line is "try something new". Is this to be just another here today, gone tomorrow, slogan? Or can Sainsbury's bring it to life by creating challenging thinking for its staff, customers and the wider community? Will it risk the sort of thinking that might engage our passions? Can Sainsbury's make this theme about genuine innovation, involving risk-taking by itself as well as customers... or will it settle for being merely the peddler of the latest food novelties?

(One small straw in the wind is how they use Jamie Oliver. Is he bascially going to continue as a gimmick, or are they going to align more with the side of him that campaigns for something? I'm not a huge fan of celebrity marketing, but if they're going to work with Jamie, how are they going to work with him?)

(Credit: Hugh Macleod is the guy who - to my knowledge - first used the phrase Smarter Conversations in marketing)

Posted by Johnnie Moore on September 21, 2005 at 11:57 AM in Marketing | Permalink


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Any fundamental difference between Sainsbury using celebs like JO and Tesco (I think) bigging it up with Frank Lampard? You can argue that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Both JS and WPP claimed the JO campaign added £millions to revenue. And that's their aim. Surely 'gimmick' from that perspective is a tad harsh. Perhaps an alternative approach? How about getting celebs to subtly pout over the 'smart conversation.' The Alan Sugar ad for government savings bonds comes to mind.

Posted by: Dennis Howlett | Sep 21, 2005 1:10:19 PM

I have read Johnnie Moore's bit and then the reply by Denis Howlett.
Two things flit through this brain, one is you all sound very intelligent and could you just break this down into easy language for beginners, as I think if there is anyone out there apart from me who works for and is passionate about Sainsburys, they probably are suffering from the same thing as I am suffering from.
The second is that if you speak to the people who work for the company they are all 100% behind this new branding as for once they see that we are being proactive in the market place.
The concept and the conversation that we are being encouraged to use is not a fad it has always been part of Sainsburys culture, it has just been given greater emphasis. And we need this emphasis as it gives us credibility in the workplace.We are still a food retailer whatever opinion you hold.
Tesco's seem to be stepping away from food retail towards high street dominance.It will lose its identity and its roots if it continues towards non-foods as it is.
We are not going to be promoting the latest food novelties..when can you say that roasting carrots in olive oil and thyme is a novelty...it is trying to make customers experiment and broaden their tastes, not sleep shop..
I think that there are a lot of people like myself out there who find the total dominance of Tesco's as scary.
It is a sterile environment to shop in, there is nothing there. It is a big money making amorphous entity sucking in all that is interesting and popping out automatons...Sainsburys is trying to create the environment where food is still high on the agenda, which is what we still are, interested in food.

Posted by: Materfamilias | Sep 21, 2005 8:50:10 PM

Thanks for the comment Materfamilias. It's great to get some robust criticism here and like you I want to get a lively discussion going, not just be a talking shop.

It's good to hear that you're finding the staff are enthusiastic about this campaign. I also share some of your concern about the Tesco approach.

But I'm not part of the Sainsbury culture (although I did work there 20-odd years ago). I'm writing as a customer, looking out for the outward signs that the people there are enthused. I wonder if there are ways to get the staff themselves talking about their passions?

What's going to be different about my instore experience beyond the new posters and flags? I don't expect a miracle change, but it would be great if over the coming weeks I felt a difference.

I've just returned from my local Sainsbury's and have seen the new slogan there for the first time. It might be my imagination, but the shop feels less cluttered - soemthing I've noticed in the Local version too. That's something I like.

But as a shopper, I'm not sure that just reading hints about different ways to cook carrots really does it for me. I am bombarded with messages by shops... I'm hungry for something that goes beyond the slogan.

I'm excited by your passion for challenging Tesco's dominance... Do you think there are ways Sainsbury's can do this more dramatically and passionately?

Posted by: Johnnie Moore | Sep 21, 2005 9:36:53 PM

Try something new. After putting in my comments today, I went home from work and went into the Sainsburys local for tea ingredients. Specifically broccoli. Try something new? Not if it is green and you want it at 6. Empty basket after empty basket. I hopped the bus down to Waterloo to catch the train, and there was a Sainsburys local there as well. Aha! I thought, I'll try again.

Yeah, right. If it was green, it was sold out. A lot of people were coming in and going right back out.

Still in need of my broccoli, I went into Marks & Spencers Only Food at the station. Produce, produce produce as far as the eye could see. Got my broccoli, picked up some excellent fruit as well, the line of shoppers was literally out the door (but moving incredibly quickly). I'm not even vaguely tempted to try Sainsbury's again after yet another let down like this.

As for the new branding, the slogan may be all right, but the logo, typeface and kerning is all cartoonish and childish. It makes it difficult to actually take it seriously in response to food. Go into Waitrose, go into M&S only food, see how the food is presented. Note first that there is actually food available. Then note that pictures, etc are slick and almost food porn. I *want* to learn to cook that, I want to buy it take it home and eat it.

So much for the new campaign.

Posted by: Louise | Sep 21, 2005 9:52:15 PM

The Jamie Oliver idea was brillaint... on paper. In execution they come off as staged and phoney.

I think having Jamie walk around a Sainsbury's with a vidcam following him, talking to customers, squeezxing the occasional vegetable etc would work a lot better than these slick, groovy "films" the ad agencies insist on making.

Just my opinion.

Posted by: hugh macleod | Sep 22, 2005 12:55:29 PM

The other thing about the JO adverts is that I think they're more an ad for Jamie than Sainsburys. I have no proof to back it up, but I bet a lot of people couldn't name the store he's promoting even if they could name him. And the produce he's promoting, etc isn't only available at Sainsburys, it is available at every major super market. So what's the benefit of JO?

Posted by: Louise | Sep 22, 2005 1:15:37 PM

What I genuinely love about this campaign is that its not about the stuff, its about the people.

It is an overt effort to change the nature of the relationship between the people at Sainsbury and its customers. It makes a new offer to us, and its own staff.

It hints at an opportunity to be one single brand community, rather than them & us.

It also takes a step beyond that assumption that customers are all lazy idiots.

I love its optimism. I want to be inspired like this.

What should have happened to Louise is that someone spots that you are looking empty-basketed and offers a suggestion...

It creates what the gurus at Pell & Bales call the NOMAD effect - NO MArketing Department - just empowered employees.

Of course there's tons more they need to do to follow through on this overture, but it makes me interested again at least. Thankyou WPP.

Posted by: Tim Kitchin | Sep 22, 2005 5:12:26 PM

No, what should have happened was that a store, a commercial entity that is attempting to sell food, should actually have had some food to sell instead of loads and loads of empty baskets. I did not want something else - I wanted broccoli. This is not a wildly exotic ingredient. I couldn't even get frozen broccoli - there was no frozen food section in either Sainsbury's local store. A suggestion from a staff person would have been met with a suggestion of my own, namely "why don't you get some food in this food store?"

There's plenty of marketing in this strategy and nothing else. Cartoons to try something new today, but nothing new to actually try.

Posted by: Louise | Sep 22, 2005 5:16:31 PM

Take your point!

You have to blame Accenture for that I think. Or is it EDS.

Anyway, they did spend £3bn to try to bring you Broccoli, but it just wasn't enough. Oops.

To Johnnie's original post about conversations, this weeks Marketing Week has Sunny Delight recruiting 12 parents as brand advisors.

Why don't you approach Sainsbury...

Posted by: Tim Kitchin | Sep 22, 2005 5:29:18 PM

I enjoyed this topic...in all these discussions there is an element of the abstract which I fear comes from the business mind, or high intellect..
I am sorry that Louise did not find broccoli in her Sainsburys and had to go to Marks and Spencers, this is what it boils down to. A bit like Adrian and his milk. This is always going to be how people perceive Sainsburys, Tesco, Waitrose,not by its rebranding but by what is on the shelves and staffing levels. An awful lot of effort has gone into this though obvously not in the Local store Louise goes in.
High ideals are fine. Conversations exist but they seem to be one sided if the stock isn't on the shelves.

Posted by: Materfamilias | Sep 22, 2005 8:20:07 PM

Note, Louise went into TWO stores, not just one to find broccoli and couldn't find it, fresh, frozen, organic, not in any form. There were also plenty of other empty veg and fruit baskets in both stores, so had I wanted other ingredients they wouldn't have been there either.

And no, they didn't spend £3 billion to try to bring me broccoli. Pay attention - they spent that money to get me to go into the shop and hopefully keep coming back. Signs, logos, badges, adverts. Just no actual food to back it up.

When I wanted nice tomatos and mozzarella for tonight's tea, I didn't even bother with either Sainsburys. I went straight for easy peasy M&S food. And voila, in, out, got my goods, and got great ideas for further cooking with food porn photos and adverts all over the store. Made me look forward to my dinner! Sainsburys at this point has all but lost me forever.

Posted by: Louise | Sep 22, 2005 11:14:29 PM

Forget whether the advertising was right or wrong it seems to have worked. They've run out of broccoli. That's a problem between the demand forecasting systems and the supply chain. Whether it was as a result of an unexpected hike in demand is another matter. If they're monitoring effectiveness then they'll know.

But. I saw a 'try something different' ad this evening. It sounded OK but in the end I couldn't make out what Jamie O was saying - it was almost as though the 'do this' bit had been squeezed in. My partner couldn't work it out either. So in a sense the ad failed for me. Would I be encouraged to go into Sainsbury? Maybe. OK - I live in Spain - so it's unlikely, except around 12-13/10 when I'm in the UK - in fact I probably will go, just to see for myself what's happening...

In the meantime, they could try something like Patient Opinion...(http://www.patientopinion.org.uk/index.cfm?fuseaction=main.home)

Posted by: Dennis Howlett | Sep 23, 2005 2:26:52 AM

Louise, Tim is correct. JS spent £10m on the ad campaign and £3 billion on new automated depots (which didn't work properly). That's documented in various places.

Dennis is spot on here - in fact, I used to buy organic milk from Sainsbury's until the SO campaign stimulated demand. Now it sells out on a regular basis before I get to the store. I have told frontline staff and they tell me they have reported it "upstairs," but so far the shelves are still empty.

To see both sides, I reckon it must be a hell of a job to predict demand when you are using such a different ad strategy, but once demand starts to become clear, reaction time is vital. One sell out might be OK, but more than that and the momentum wanes.

Availability may also be dictated by seasonality. UK brocoli dominates the market from July to September, so it really should have been available for Louise's dinner. But what about between December and May, when imports dominate? For me, that's a grey area: if I wanted brocoli out of season and someone from the store engaged me in a conversation about seasonality and food miles, I would probably trust their alternative ideas (after having recovered from the shock). I would certainly continue to use the store - regardless of stock outs - based on that conversation alone.

Posted by: Adrian Trenholm | Sep 23, 2005 9:55:43 AM

Except it isn't just broccoli. There were all sorts of empty fruit and veg baskets empty in both stores. The only two veg available in both was cauliflower and cucumbers. Given I have cucumbers galore in my garden, either cauliflower for tea or go somewhere else. This isn't a result of the new marketing campaign, this is the way Sainsburys has been for years. You can either get there early, fight it out and get what you want (maybe) or you can go elsewhere at any time and actually count on getting it.

The premise here seems to be that Sainsburys are losing ground and profits because they're not engaging in some sort of conversation with their customers. I suppose you could interpret it that way. Mostly, people now shop elsewhere due to the fact that it is just easier to get what you want. Like, say, organic milk. Or broccoli in season (what on earth makes you think that if they won't have it in season, they'll have it out of season at all and will then engage in a food miles conversation with you about it when they don't? Who are you going to find working for minimum wage in Sainsburys to tell you to cook something else. Don't forget they'd have to put up with a lot of people shouting "Eff off, I just want my organic broccoli milk!" as well.

I've had more sell outs at Sainsburys than I can count which is why I try not to shop there.

I did have to go in this morning for something, and happened to notice that at 9 in the morning again loads and loads (although not as many as at 5) of fruit and veg baskets empty, and since this is a local it isn't like there was great choice to begin with. The more I have to go in, the more I never want to again.

And the ad campaign didn't get me in the store in teh first place. The dialogue here did to see what was supposedly so different. Answer: nothing but new cartoons.

Posted by: Louise | Sep 23, 2005 12:43:44 PM

I'm not sure this is gelling for me. Materfamilias says:

"The concept and the conversation that we are being encouraged to use is not a fad it has always been part of Sainsburys culture, it has just been given greater emphasis. And we need this emphasis as it gives us credibility in the workplace." Yet stock outs seem to be an ongoing internal issue. A classic supply/demand problem.

Maybe the internal conversation could usefully start with: "Why the heck are you throwing a ton of money at Big Media when we don't have what we're advertising. It's pointless and counter-productive."

My sense is that debate would yield extraordinary results but run the risk of inaction. But to take a step forward, if the 'have a terminal in the cafe' idea for consumers did work, I'm guessing that even loyal JS customers would back up the internal convo. That's the point where management really has to listen because customers can always vote with their feet.

In a curious way, it's not so different from being a consultant cf. employee. I find that in a consulting engagement, the client always takes more notice, even when I'm 'telling them the time.' There is a curious dynamic that supercedes the employee/employer relationship which I've never fully nailed.

But...if the JS culture understood the customer value of internal feedback then maybe things could change much more rapidly.

Posted by: Dennis Howlett | Sep 23, 2005 3:36:54 PM

Hello Johnnie.

Many of the authors and commenters here apply their experiences in their work and current fields of interest to come up with suggestions for Sainsbury’s. So here’s my suggestion, from the point of view of someone involved in fundraising.

As well as supporting various national charities, Sainsbury’s encourages its employees to fundraise for local charities by offering a matched giving scheme. It’s called Local Heroes and anyone who is interested can get the ins and outs from Sainsbury’s site.

Why not kill two birds with one stone? It occurred to me that they could promote their Corporate Responsibility agenda AND get employees out there sharing the 'try something different' ideas with friends and family (who may well be customers) by encouraging them to organise food-related fundraising events for local charities. I read on the site that fundraising for health charities is particularly encouraged by the Local Heroes scheme.

Aiming for a third bird with that proverbial stone, how could that create a conversation? The employees organising fundraisers could comment on what their guests liked best when they submit their request for matched giving. They could also point out if any of the ingredients they needed for their event were in short supply. As an aside, out of stocks annoy me too, but that’s for another day.

As well as making the company look good, employee fundraising can be fun and boosts morale. That can't be a bad thing. It's the germ of an idea. Perhaps Materfamilias would like to pass it on via the Tell Justin scheme?

Posted by: Donna Trenholm | Sep 23, 2005 8:07:56 PM

The thing is, the customers are already voting with their feet. That's why Sainsbury's profits are down and Tesco profits are up.

Is there really that much loyalty amongst supermarket shoppers anymore? Mr Trenholm, if you can't get your organic milk at Sainsburys, do you get it elsewhere? Or do you get non-organic milk, which is worse for you and for the environment? Why the loyalty to an organization that wants nothing more than your pocket money?

Posted by: Louise | Sep 23, 2005 8:42:05 PM

Dennis Howlett's feeling that clients take more notice of consulting is the subject of this Harvard article The Hidden Cost of Buying Information.

research has not examined the effect of free versus costly advice on the influence of that advice. This is the goal of my study. Thus, my initial hypothesis is that advice is weighed differently depending on whether it is costly or free. In particular, I hypothesize that costly advice is assigned a significantly greater weight than free advice.

This also has an impact on Max's post here about JS and McKinsey.

Posted by: Adrian Trenholm | Sep 23, 2005 8:45:56 PM

Louise, in that I prefer Sainsbury's to Tesco and Asda, I am loyal. In that I would go to Waitrose if it opened a store within spitting distance, I am not loyal.

People have voted with their feet. This site is about looking at ways people might return. Focus on food. Keep stock on the shelves. Be distinct from Tesco.

"Try something new" might deliver on that last one. The new approach has led to a lot of comments here - so people are certainly interested. But can Sainsbury's build on this kind of interest and make it work in the long term?

Posted by: Adrian Trenholm | Sep 23, 2005 9:02:23 PM

The comments here are by an interested minority and haven't been entirely positive (for example, mine). The real question then becomes can they get the attention of the populace who already voted?

Posted by: Louise | Sep 24, 2005 10:09:54 AM

Thanks to all for some great comments... and for making this post into a smarter conversation.

One theme that emerges for me is "keeping it real"... which applies to my style of writing, where I need to avoid being unnecessarily intellectual.. and to Sainsbury's, not letting the excitement of creating adverts distract from the absolute fundamentals of putting food on the shelf.

There are some good thoughts here too about trying something new in the day-to-day conversations around Sainsbury's... from staff explaining shortages, to applying the theme to existing charitable schemes.

And Louise makes an important point at the end here. Part of the challenge for Sainsbury's is to initiate conversations about what isn't working, otherwise the customers may remain silent... and go elsewhere.

Posted by: Johnnie Moore | Sep 25, 2005 9:43:46 AM

Adrian - I've just dropped on to pick up the debate as I've done a looooooooong post on retail challenges and generally reference this site. I had a conversation with a professional in my old game. There's a fair chance I'll end up consulting back to them. The pertinent piece was: "Isn't it amazing how companies will take notice of an external consultant when they don't listen to insiders?" It struck me as to why? Insiders never get asked the question: "What are we doing wrong?" It's always: "Make a suggestion." So Louise is spot on.

But here, there are two conversations. The one some of us would like to have with JS and the one those with direct consumer interests want. They're closely related but different. Am I right?

Posted by: Dennis Howlett | Sep 27, 2005 3:46:23 AM

Do you mean there are some here adopting the position of advisor to JS, while others are simply commenting from the position of shopper? That's sounds about right to me, plus you have staff in on the conversation as well.

I am not sure, however, that each group is having a separate conversation, at least not on this blog. To attempt to separate out various strands - this one an "advisory" conversation; that one a "customer" conversation, for example - feels artificial to me.

Perhaps I have misunderstood your comment?

Posted by: Adrian Trenholm | Sep 28, 2005 3:35:23 PM

So there you have it. Somewhere out there Sainsbury's have increased their like for like sales to 2.8% discounting fuel. This is the third consecutive rise.

So what do you think is the reason?

Posted by: Materfamilias | Oct 7, 2005 7:38:35 PM

The real conversation happens when customers meet staff in the store. If you meet (as I do frequently) a couldn't care less attitude from staff and management then you're likely to conclude that the brand has become detached from the service and as I consume the service Sainbury's provide I see the sum total of their glossy flyers and commercials as having no bearing whatsoever on my experience.

Posted by: Sean Owen-Moylan | Apr 11, 2006 8:40:35 AM

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