Sainsbury's marketing boss talks WWI Christmas ad, historical sensitivity

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Sainsbury's ad: depicts temporary truce at Christmas 1914.
Sainsbury's ad: depicts temporary truce at Christmas 1914.

Mark Given discusses the U.K. supermarket chain's decision to use the First World War to promote its brand

LONDON — The U.K. launch of Sainsbury's Christmas spot — which for many in that country is giving department store chain John Lewis a run for its money in terms of a TV ad as epic, emotionally charged, national event — has got the Twitter-sphere abuzz with, mostly, positive sentiment.

But — like John Lewis' #MontyThePenguin — the use of sentimentality is not to everyone's taste, especially when based on something as grave as the First World War. Here, Given talks about treating the subject matter with the reverence and sensitivity it deserves.

Tell us about the development of the campaign

It’s a creative interpretation of accounts of [Christmas Day 1914] that we researched and looked at. In truth, it happened in different ways down the line. What we wanted to do was capture the spirit of that day.

When we first saw the script, it had the hairs standing up on the back of our necks as we read it. We went into the offices of The Royal British Legion and talked extensively about it.

What’s the reaction been to the campaign so far?

The consumer reaction has been fantastic in the last few hours. This is an incredible story in our history and when [Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO] presented it back in March, it felt like it was a great opportunity to retell that story in a sensitive way. It also marks our 20th year working with The Royal British Legion.

What other activity is happening beyond the main TV ad?

TV is the lead message — it’s such a simple and beautiful film. I imagine there will be a lot of activity on YouTube, and it’s really important to bring the link in-store and use it to raise money. Consumers can buy the chocolate bar for £1 and all proceeds will go to the British Legion. We will also run a range of ads focused on food and drink quality as well.

What’s the message you’re trying to get across to consumers with the ad?

What our customers tell us is that Christmas is a special time that is not just about food and drink. It’s about sharing those special moments. And as a moment in history, our ad dramatizes that really well.

Did you take into consideration the fact that using WWI to advertise a supermarket brand might offend some people?

The customer reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. It was a huge moment in our history, and in the early days [of developing the campaign] we were very aware of the responsibilities of bringing it to life in a sensitive way. We worked closely with The Royal British Legion and historians to get the tone and balance really, really right.

Mike Coupe yesterday (Nov. 12) spoke about £150m in price cuts — will price become a central part of your advertising?

Mike laid out his strategy and we’ve never been sharper on price. Our customers see great quality and value.

This article first appeared on marketingmagazine.co.uk.

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