Why sorry makes it all taste better

A strange and wonderful thing has happened to marketing. It’s acquired a state of grace. You can tell this from the way failed, or lapsed, adherents repent.

Recently, representatives of Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury’s have appeared on television, the confessional box of our age, to declare that they have sinned and do shrive. One is reminded of Damon Runyan’s character Benny South Street who, when obliged as the result of a lost bet to testify before the Band of Hope, clasped his fedora to his chest and declared, “I was a bad guy and a bad gambler. Now I want to be a good guy and a good gambler.”

The spokesmen for M&S and Sainsbury’s, heads bowed in contrition, mouthed their almost identical recantations. “We have failed. We became too bureaucratic, too remote from the customer. We have not delivered. We are deeply sorry. But we are resolved to do better. We are pledged to make customer service a reality.”

What is to be achieved by such public expiation is unclear. Perhaps the retailing giants hope to pluck the nation’s heart strings and to wring from the consumer a sympathetic tear or two, a feeling that these two lost sheep deserve a second chance.

However, for its infinite tangle of sophistry, Jesuitical debate has nothing on marketing. This is evident from the fact that nobody really knows what went wrong at M&S or Sainsbury’s. It’s all a matter of opinion. After all, is Sainsbury’s really that inferior to Tesco?

Speaking for myself, I find them both pretty unpleasant.

There is, however, something to be said for the view of Mike Pearce, chairman of marketing agency TSM. “Tesco has done to Sainsbury’s what New Labour did to the Tories,” he says. “It has hijacked its ideas, added some value and stolen the hearts of Middle England. To win them back Sainsbury’s needs to reinvent the supermarket.”

It is an analogy worth pursuing. For as Tony Blair has explained, we are all Middle England now. But, as this column has argued, there is Old Middle Class and New Middle Class. Old Middle Class comprises the socio-economic groups ABC1, the people for whom Sainsbury’s spelt a new way of life, whose epitome was a dinner table adorned with pesto, rocket salad, guacamole, organic potatoes, and fine wines. New Middle Class wears Gucci jumpers and wipes its nose on the sleeve.

It is my belief that if Sainsbury’s is to reinvent the supermarket, it is to the New Middle Class that it must look. There are encouraging signs that its chief executive, Dino Adriano, is moving in that direction. His announcement that he is firing 1,100 managers will win favour from the jealous and spiteful New Brits who hate meritocracy, suits and other people’s wealth. Cleverly, he has reinforced the banishment of the suits with a decree that henceforth the words “manager” and “staff” will be replaced by “colleague”. In future, university students will be invited to join graduate colleague trainee schemes, and disgruntled customers (should such things exist under the new order) will angrily demand to see the colleague.

Ingeniously, or “brilliantly” – to use a word much favoured by New Middle England – Sainsbury’s is to adopt a “fun and fashionable look” designed by Paul Costeloe, one of Princess Diana’s favourite designers and therefore a man who has touched greatness and known divinity.

All 130,000 colleagues will wear baseball caps, with women given a choice of blue skirts or trousers and long- or short-sleeved blouses. Men will have a choice of four ties bearing fruit and vegetable patterns. Out go the old orange and beige corporate colours, in come “living orange” and blue. The failed slogan, “Value to Shout About”, cast into the wilderness along with its creators, Abbott Mead Vickers.BBDO, is to be replaced with the sparkling canticle, “Making Life Taste Better”.

Of all these changes, the baseballs caps are undoubtedly the most significant, or, as those in design consultancy are wont to say, “emblematic”. They tell us that Sainsbury’s is at one with its new constituency, the new middle classes. The male colleagues’ ties, however, give rise to a niggling doubt. Fruit and vegetable patterns imply that Sainsbury’s still sees its business as that of a greengrocer. But to run a successful supermarket today it is necessary to see what the public is spending its money on in its entirety, and then to meet all those demands under one roof. That the high street is thereby made derelict is the price of progress and neither here nor there.

If Sainsbury’s is to make a fist of winning over New Britain, it must be imaginative. It must provide non-food services such as body piercing and tattooing. Child crèches have been a success: they should be followed by areas of the stores specially designated for public and communal emoting. Places where New Brits can clasp each other, wail and weep together, and write doggerel verse in remembrance of departed icons.

Amid the stores’ carpark, there should be lakes and hedges, places that New Britain would instantly recognise as the proper repositories for supermarket trolleys, Monster Munch wrappers, and empty two-litre bottles of own-brand cola. Retail, as I am sure Mr Adriano knows, is detail, and it pays to know your customers.

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