Sainsbury’s agency swap shows supermarkets must prioritise marketing beyond Christmas

As Sainsbury’s switches its advertising agency after nearly 40 years, new data suggests the big four supermarkets are suffering by prioritising Christmas, rather than brand building all year round.

The news that Sainsbury’s is ending its near 40-year relationship with AMV BBDO in favour of Wieden+Kennedy is a surprise given the departing agency’s work on popular Christmas ads such as Mog the Cat. Or maybe that’s exactly why they’ve been let go.

Does Sainsbury’s really peak at Christmas?

New data from YouGov BrandIndex shows awareness of Sainsbury’s advertising consistently peaks in the Winter months and then slides for the rest of the year.

Boosted by its World War 1-themed ‘Christmas Is For Sharing’ ad in Winter 2014, Sainsbury’s ad awareness score hit highs of 33.1 points in the first quarter of 2015. But from April onwards this fell sharply, hitting lows of 18.6 on 20 October, 2015.

Then, just like magic, the score starts to rise rapidly again on 12 November, 2015 – coincidentally the exact date Sainsbury’s launched its Christmas Mog the Cat ad – rising to 25.3 by New Year’s Day.

However, since 3 April, 2016, when the ad awareness score hit a peak of 28 points, a similar pattern has emerged and Sainsbury’s has suffered a sustained decline, falling to just 21.3 points by 1 August, 2016.

The ad awareness score of Sainsbury’s from November 1, 2015 to August 1, 2016 [YouGov BrandIndex]
“Sainsbury’s has become very frustrated with their brand and comms. To them the marketing was good not great and [outside of Christmas] was quiet, unmemorable and lacked consistency,” says a source.

“The AMV relationship was strong but not working. The brief was to develop the best food advertising in the UK and recapture the Sainsbury’s mojo.”

The ‘John Lewis’ effect

There is also evidence of a longer term slide in consumer perceptions of the Sainsbury’s brand. On 1 August, 2011 its Index score, which measures the public’s perception of metrics including a brand’s reputation, quality and value, was at 42.3 points, according to YouGov BrandIndex. But fast forward to the same date this year and that score has fallen to 32.7.

And according to Brand Finance’s annual Global 500 list, which ranks the value of the world’s biggest brands, Sainsbury’s brand valuation has fallen from a high of £7.9bn (which placed it 149 out of 500) in 2014 to £5.07bn (which put it at 278) in 2016.

Brand Finance’s marketing director Robert Haigh also believes the decline is due to Sainsbury’s not maintaining its Christmas momentum all year-round.

He adds: “Maybe it is the John Lewis effect but there is a significant push at Christmas for all of the big four supermarkets but then they seem to deflate for the rest of the year.

“If you look at Aldi and Lidl they’ve consistently grown positive brand sentiment as they’ve had brilliant year-round marketing talking up their food quality. All the recent changes of ad agencies at Sainsbury’s and the big four suggests they are each taking note of the discounters and starting to wake up and smell the coffee.”

The ad awareness score of Tesco, Morrisons and Asda from November 1, 2015 to August 1, 2016 [YouGov BrandIndex]
Haigh could have a point, with Sainsbury’s not alone [see above] in its status as a big four supermarket that appears to lose its ad awareness momentum from April through to November [when the Christmas campaigns tend to launch].

Sainsbury’s must become the ‘default’ supermarket brand

According to Bryan Roberts, insights director at TCC Global, the data doesn’t paint the full picture. Although he admits Sainsbury’s marketing is “low key” outside of Christmas, he says it has been “effective” in reinforcing the brand as a destination for food shoppers.

“They are playing to their strengths with stuff such as the ‘Little Twists’ campaign”, he says. But in order to reach the next level, Sainsbury’s must change the record, according to Roberts.

“They’ve been trying to improve the shopping experience with a leaner range and shopper friendly promotional tactics but they have not communicated this at all. That has to change under W+K.”

Bryan Roberts, insights director, TCC Global

Brand Finance’s Haigh, meanwhile, would like to see the new agency push on and help Sainsbury’s occupy the space inhabited by Tesco in the 2000s.

Sainsbury’s has confirmed to Marketing Week that it will keep its marketing for the recently acquired Argos brand separate. Argos will continue to be managed by CHI, with W+K only responsible for Sainsbury’s marketing.

But even if their marketing is separate, Haigh says the Home Retail acquisition must result in more ambition.

He concludes: “With the Argos deal, Sainsbury’s is trying to become the master supermarket brand. They now need to play on that positioning as the natural supermarket of choice in the centre ground. Like Tesco under Leahy, they now need to become the default brand. That’s the challenge that awaits W+K.”

Latest from Marketing Week


Access Marketing Week’s wealth of insight, analysis and opinion that will help you do your job better.

Register and receive the best content from the only UK title 100% dedicated to serving marketers' needs.

We’ll ask you just a few questions about what you do and where you work. The more we know about our visitors, the better and more relevant content we can provide for them. And, yes, knowing our audience better helps us find commercial partners too. Don't worry, we won't share your information with other parties, unless you give us permission to do so.

Register now


Our award winning editorial team (PPA Digital Brand of the Year) ask the big questions about the biggest issues on everything from strategy through to execution to help you navigate the fast moving modern marketing landscape.


From the opportunities and challenges of emerging technology to the need for greater effectiveness, from the challenge of measurement to building a marketing team fit for the future, we are your guide.


Information, inspiration and advice from the marketing world and beyond that will help you develop as a marketer and as a leader.

Having problems?

Contact us on +44 (0)20 7292 3703 or email

If you are looking for our Jobs site, please click here