The ‘mum test’: why Sainsbury’s new campaign is simplifying prices

If you want to get any marketing ideas past Sarah Warby, first you have to pass the “mum test”. Sainsbury’s marketing director believes everything the supermarket does has to be simple to explain and simple to execute. If her mum can understand it and would approve of it then it gets the go-ahead.

That strategy is no clearer than in Sainsbury’s new marketing campaign, which launches on the 26 September. It is focused on simplifying prices, promotions and therefore the retailer’s communication of value.

Warby’s mum is also clearly not afraid of a little controversy, though. The activity takes aim squarely at Sainsbury’s competitors, even appropriating the colour green – the brand colour of Asda – in recognition of the benchmark the brand provides in consumers’ perceptions of low price.

Sainsbury’s campaign is the result of work that started two and a half years ago, shortly after Warby joined from Heineken, which she says was intended to “make sure we know what we think we know”. It was a “warts and all” look at the supermarket’s 24 million weekly customers and what they really think of the brand and shopping in its stores. It was not just about the nice stuff, but also about what concerns shoppers, what they get frustrated by, what annoys them.

What came out of that piece of research was one clear message: shopping at supermarkets is too complicated.

Warby says: “Customers said they felt like they needed a calculator to work out if they were getting the best deal. They were shouting ‘stop making it hard work’.”

This was a clear warning klaxon that her mum would not approve. “So we sat down and said pricing and promotions can be simpler than this. The value that we offer has to be simpler,” she says.

Having listened to that feedback, Sainsbury’s has spent the past 18 months working across its entire business to simplify and improve its pricing. According to Warby, the first part of its new campaign will communicate that, while taking a dig at rivals such as Tesco that still run “confusing” deals.

We get utterly riled when we’re referred to as one of the big four because we don’t see that we have much in common

Sarah Warby

However, she says this is more than just a three-week campaign; it will mark a change in how “things are done at Sainsbury’s and the way we offer value to customers going forward”. Which raises the question why it wasn’t doing this before?

“When you’re selling 45,000 products stuff just gets complicated. You’ve got lots of people doing the best thing for their four-foot bay of the shop. I have walked into buyers’ meetings and told them they are confusing the bejesus out of customers with the pricing and they can very eloquently talk me through why it’s like that. As you understand more about the granularity of what each customer wants you can build up this really complicated mosaic and we’ve had 10 years of this complexity building up,” she says.

The promise behind the new strategy is to offer “really clear, simple value our customers can trust every day” says Warby. That will include making sure pricing is “consistent and fair” and promotions are “a great deal”.

Sarah Warby, Sainsburys
Sarah admits finding the speed of retail a stark contrast to FMCG, where marketing was focused around certain events throughout the year.

In this bid for a more straight-forward message on pricing, Sainsbury’s is also simplifying its Brand Match price-matching scheme. It will now only match Asda’s prices because it is seen as the market leader on price, says Warby. As part of that push to communicate the competitiveness of its pricing, Sainsbury’s is introducing the Asda green into its stores.

Warby admits the move is “quite a big deal”. The four big supermarkets have strong brand identities defined by their colouring. Blue for Tesco, orange for Sainsbury’s, yellow for Morrisons and green for Asda. The supermarkets have used each other’s colours in external marketing but not in-store before.

However, she says the decision came about after work she has done on behavioural economics showed that colour is a good way of helping to explain a message.

“Colour is a wonderful shorthand to help customers understand what we’re saying about Brand Match. If you see a bit of point-of-sale it doesn’t need to have a whole longhand explanation all it needs is the Brand Match logo, Asda and a promise and the customers can join the dots. It’s unusual to put rivals’ colours or logos in our stores but the context in which we’re doing it is helpful for customers, they’ll get the message faster.”

The price focus represents a change of tack for Sainsbury’s, which has been more likely recently to foreground brand values in its above-the-line marketing. This put the business on a sound footing over the past few years.

When other supermarkets’ came under scrutiny in 2013 for selling beef contaminated with horse meat, Sainsbury’s was not implicated. When Tesco issued the first of its now-customary profit warnings in 2012, Sainsbury’s was beginning what Warby told Marketing Week was a “year like no other”, thanks to solid growth and its sponsorship of the Paralympic Games.

However, despite maintaining a steady market share over this period – when rivals Tesco and Morrisons were struggling with declining sales, market share and profits – Sainsbury’s past two quarters have seen dips in like-for-like sales, following 36 consecutive quarters of growth.

The supermarket business has always been notoriously competitive but it is becoming even more so. They way customers are shopping has shifted – they are less loyal, less likely to do big weekly shops, more likely to top up at convenience stores or order online.

There are also more competitors taking share from the big four of Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons. At the top end of the market that is Waitrose and Marks & Spencer, while at the lower end Aldi and Lidl are experiencing double-digit annual growth, according to figures from Kantar Worldpanel for the 12 weeks to 14 September. Tesco suffered the biggest year-on-year sales drop in the period, followed by Sainsbury’s (see table at end of story).

Customers said they felt like they needed a calculator to work out if they were getting the best deal

Sarah Warby

Many speak of these low-priced German brands as if they are a new phenomenon, but Warby is quick to highlight that they have been trading in the UK for more than 30 years. Things are different now, however. Aldi and Lidl are appealing to a new audience of customers that would never previously have shopped in their stores, attracted by the quality of products such as smoked salmon and wine and the low price of its fresh fruit and vegetables.

Sainsbury’s knows there is a growing threat, and perhaps also an opportunity, in the low-price end of the market – hence its tie-up with Dansk Supermarked to bring the Netto brand back to the UK after a four-year absence. Shore Capital analyst Darren Shirley has called it an “inspired move”, although cautions that “it has all to prove”. The first stores are set to open in the north of England this autumn.

Warby calls the venture a “very interesting branding challenge”, needing to balance Netto’s brand history with the fact that the business didn’t thrive previously. Tom Hampson, who was formerly head of new business marketing at Sainbury’s, is taking on the role as Netto’s UK marketing director, although he stills sits with the rest of the Sainsbury’s team at their office near Holborn in London.

Warby believes the role is a brilliant opportunity for Hampson and testament to the opportunities available to people at Sainsbury’s.

“There aren’t many places where you have people doing one job and the business will go ‘hey, why don’t you give this a shot’. There is something really peculiar to this company where if you have the right attitude and we think you’re up for it and you think you’re up for it we’ll support you to do something that is not obvious in your career,” she says.

Warby admits to being a little jealous of that opportunity and the breadth of experience people can now get early on in marketing. She explains that her career has been “very linear”, starting out as she did at Unilever before leaving for Heineken.

Still, moving across from FMCG to retail is a big jump and one that is high on the news agenda at the moment following the arrival of former Unilever marketer Dave Lewis as the chief executive at Tesco. What is it that attracted Warby to retail?

“The utter customer obsession of the entire organisation,” she responds. “I don’t care what anyone says, in my experience in FMCG, it is patchier than it is here. And the incredible proximity I have to my customers. There is no middle man anymore. I can talk to my customers immediately all the time.”

Warby believes FMCG sets marketers up for the retail environment. She says working at Unilever and Heineken taught her “an awful lot” about how to develop customer knowledge, insight and understanding.

“You learn how to develop customer insight when you’re in FMCG. There is a discipline and a theoretical customer centricity and a brand obsession that, when you bring it here, falls on really fertile ground. In retail there is an opportunity to actually do something with it,” she adds.

Nevertheless, she admits finding the speed of retail a stark contrast to FMCG, where marketing was focused around certain events throughout the year.

“The speed is a shock. Everything is faster here – light-speed faster. Our job as marketers is to be able to cut our brains in half and one minute be thinking about point-of-sale and at the same time about five-year brand strategies. I have to be able to look incredibly short-term and incredibly long-term simultaneously,” she says.

Sainsburys My goodness range
Sainsbury’s ‘My Goodness’ range

She admits that some people won’t be able to cope with the speed, but that hasn’t stopped Warby filling her ranks with people from multiple backgrounds. Mark Given, head of brand communications, held roles at Heineken, Procter & Gamble and O2, while head of insights Alex Owens has a background in banking from his time at Lloyds. Sophia Weir, advertising and media category manager, was previously at media agency Mindshare.

“If you look around our floor we’ve got analysts, people from hotel chains, people who know about service delivery and how to bring service to bear and really execute a customer proposition in person. I will take talent, whatever their background. We are very much ‘recruit for attitude and train for behaviour’,” she says.

So what next for Sainsbury’s? The pricing and promotions campaign will run through October and then the supermarket will be into the crucial Christmas shopping period. Sainsbury’s has a lot to live up to this year after its bold move last year with ’Christmas in a Day’. That campaign saw the supermarket create a 50-minute film, created by Oscar-winning director Kevin McDonald using footage sent in by customers of their experiences of Christmas.

Warby admits the Christmas TV ad by AMV BBDO is already shot, although isn’t giving any hints as to what is in store. Beyond ensuring the high quality of the ad itself, Warby says her biggest concern is the fact that every other brand launches its ad in the first week of November, while Sainsbury’s waits until after Armistice Day on 11 November due to its partnership with war veterans charity the Royal British Legion.

“The Christmas ad is always a fairly big deal for us – you want to do a nice one. The work in October segues into Christmas and then we pick up on value again in January, because of course that is what January is all about. We make ourselves promises that last until 2 January and then we dread the credit card bill at the end of the month.”

Whether or not that is something that resonates with Warby’s mum, it will certainly sound familiar to most of Sainsbury’s customers.

Sarah Warby on Sainsbury’s brand values

Sainsburys deal low prices

Sainsbury’s new campaign is price-focused, but isn’t eschewing values entirely, marketing director Sarah Warby claims. It will still talk about the sourcing and quality credentials of its own-label product, of which she says the supermarket is proud – perhaps rightly, given that Sainsbury’s was not among the retailers found to be selling adulterated products in the horse meat scandal of 2013.

Brand values remain an important differentiator, she believes, particularly at a time of structural change in the supermarket sector.

“Our values make us different. We genuinely believe not all supermarkets are the same. We get utterly riled when we’re referred to as one of the big four because we don’t see that we have much in common with these other organisations [Tesco, Asda and Morrisons] other than maybe size. For me the whole idea that supermarkets are a homogenous mass is nonsense. You can taste it in the air, the jealous guardianship of our values from the basement right the way up to the eighth floor,” she says.

Warby believes that Sainsbury’s wins not by “running around with its hair on fire” but by being a “better version of us”. Marketing’s job, she says, is to keep the business focused on what customers want and what the brand is all about it.

“The draw about working here is the brand and what the brand means to people will endure. This brand is about helping people to get closer to the lives they want to lead and that’s relevant no matter what the structural changes in the market are. For me, the brand is something that stays rock solid, is a compass as business change moves around it,” she says.

Q&A – The breadth of marketing at Sainsbury’s

Marketing Week (MW): What comes under your remit?

Sarah Warby (SW): If you ask 10 marketing directors what constitutes their scope you’ll get 10 different answers. We have within marketing corporate affairs, consumer PR, corporate social responsibility, customer experience, brand communications, marketing, own-brand, insight, analytics and the loyalty work.

Online, we also put out a lot of content and we have a website called “Live well for less”, which is very content rich. And then all our social media presence.

MW: Sainsbury’s marketing team has been expandingly rapidly, how big is it now?

SW: We have 200 in our team.

MW: What opportunities are there for people without marketing backgrounds?

SW: There is a huge number within my 200 that are real data scientists. I have people who have brains the size of planets doing really clever things with numbers. They are the sort of people who can see stuff [like in 2009 film] in The Matrix – that’s how I imagine it. I love the fact that I have people on my team who can do things that I can’t do, that I can’t conceive of. We are working really hard to create a place where they can not only do cool things with numbers today but also have really cool careers doing the kind of work that turns them on. Data scientists aren’t just for Christmas, they’re forever.

MW: How do you attract people without a marketing background?

SW: One of the things that businesses struggle with is career progression, so we’ve developed an analytical community around the business. Marketing is the biggest place for analytics but we aren’t the only place, so people can have a pretty exciting career jumping around the business doing cool stuff.

Supermarket Growth Rates
Supermarket Growth Rates – source Kantar Worldpanel (figures have been rounded up)


12 weeks to 14 September 2014

Market share

12 weeks to 15 September 2013

Market share

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The Co-operative
























All grocers






Sarah Warby CV

January 2012 – present
Marketing director, Sainsbury’s

2007 – July 2011
Marketing director, Heineken UK

2005 – 2007
Innovation director, Heineken UK

2003 – 2005
Marketing manager Foster’s and mainstream beer, latterly Heineken UK

2000 – 2002
Planner, Leo Burnett Sydney

1994 – 1999
Brand Manager, Unilever