8 Xmas Marketing Lessons from Sainsbury’s



I recently got myself down to an ISBA event to checkout Mark Given, Head of Brand at Sainsbury’s, who was one of the speakers.  It was hardly a surprise to see the ISBA conference room packed to the rafters with eager marketers trying to sniff out the secrets to Sainsbury’s success.

Mark knows his stuff and shared the lessons he learnt whilst working on Sainsbury’s incredibly successful 2014 Christmas advertising campaign.

Unless you spent December with your snout buried in the dirt you’ll know Sainsbury’s partnered with the Royal British legion to commemorate an extraordinary event which took place during the First World War one hundred years ago:  The Christmas Truce.



Given the turmoil in the supermarket sector, it was a bold move on Sainsbury’s part to choose this campaign rather than to run a more sales focused one.  Despite the amazing success of the campaign, Mark spoke with great humility and shared the following 8 reasons why the campaign was such an incredible success:

Understanding what Xmas means to consumers

This sounds obvious but despite all the hype and nonsense around Christmas, Sainsbury’s understood the single most important thing to its customers:  Christmas is for sharing.

They based the whole campaign around this fundamental truth.

World class creativity takes time

Sainsbury’s didn’t just throw large chunks of money into their creative process and hope for the best.  They invest time.  Lots of time.  The planning cycling for each Christmas campaign is 18 months.  I’m willing to bet this far longer than every other retailer they’re competing with.

Is this a campaign only your brand could do?

Sainsbury’s believed because of its history, association with the British Legion, and the fact they lost many of its staff during the Great War, they were in a unique position to create this brand story.

Get your brave pants on?

As I said earlier, no one expected Sainsbury’s to be this bold during a time when the market was in a bit of flux.  Mark and his Sainsbury’s marketing colleagues took a big risk.   They caught the whole market by surprise.  Their ambition was amazing and it paid off.

I heard my mate – the advertising legend, Dave Trott, say last week creativity is one of the last remaining legal ways of getting an advantage over the competition.  Well, to be creative you need to be brave.

Hire the very best, be clear what your expectations are and get out of the way.

Mark worked with AMV, a very large and successful agency, on this campaign. He ensured they knew what he wanted and that this campaign was at the top of the agenda for the most senior creative executives in the agency.  Then he let them get on with it.

 Bring your colleagues on board.

Mark made the very smart move by involving the whole company with the campaign.  He organised a special preview viewing for the whole company the morning before the advert first aired on ITV.    With 161,000 employees this is no small feat.  However, Mark felt it was crucial to get buy-in from everybody in the organisation, and wanted to use the campaign to inspire every individual during the most important trading period of the year.

Interestingly, all non-retail staff, including the senior executives, work in store during the Xmas period

Be Prepared

Another reason for the 18 month planning cycle, apart from ensuring that the very best creative concept is developed, is to allow this concept to be executed to the very highest standard possible.  The level of detail taken to ensure historical accuracy was better than many films.  Mark also involved many credible outside experts early on to counter any criticism around such a sensitive subject matter.

Say thank you and move on

Mark is a bit like that old dog Sir Alex Ferguson.  As soon as he wins a trophy, he moves quickly on to the next challenge.  Although he is probably a bit nicer to work with than Sir Alex.