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South Harrow Royal Jubilee display, 1935

Building the Brand

When Sainsbury’s opened up shop in 1869, produce didn’t come pre-packaged. Customers would place their orders at the counter and receive individually weighed goods. Butter, cheese and sausages would be wrapped in greaseproof and brown paper, and tied with string. People would bring their own jugs to collect milk, and sometimes their own dishes for butter. Eggs, which were sold loose, were carried home in paper bags.

Groceries were introduced in 1903 and their packaging was simple. Salesmen would make thick blue paper bags for sugar during quiet moments, and tea was lined in foil, in paper packets, with different coloured seals for different blends. Flour was sold in reusable cotton bags.

Pie and cooked meat packaging was fancier, marking them out as special treats. Pork pies came in boxes with illustrations of poppies and corn on the lid. Anyone ordering half a pound or more of York Ham would receive a white box, with green edging and green ribbon. Potted meats and jams came in earthenware jars with a design of an S with holly berries – a pun on the word ‘Sains-berry’ and the registered trademark between 1901 and 1951.  

During the 1930s and 40s, the store’s own-brand products took several names: tinned fruits were packaged under the ‘Basket Brand’ label, own brand margarine labelled ‘Crelos’, and grocery goods took on the brand name ‘Selsa’.

Self-service and the packaging design evolution

When the stores became self-service, packaging became a serious matter. It had to protect the contents from being handled by customers, and look attractive when stacked. Clear labelling was crucial so products were easy to identify.

In 1950, Sainsbury’s hired graphic designer Leonard Beaumont as design consultant to create simple, consistent designs to reflect the quality of the produce. The Albertus typeface was used across the entire range – with stylised graphics, and muted colours.

The introduction of polythene in the 1950s proved useful for packaging frozen foods, as it remains flexible even below 0 degrees. And in 1953, when eggs came off ration, Sainsbury’s introduced a new four pack for eggs.

The company set up its own design studio in 1962. Then head of design, Peter Dixon, used bold colours and geometric patterns to create pop art style graphics. By the 1970s, there was a section of the studio specifically dedicated to packaging research.

Now, as around 15,000 products - approximately half of those that Sainsbury’s sells - are own brand, the supermarket uses packaging to identify which sub-brand they belong to, such as SO Organic and Taste the Difference.

Environment and nutrition 

Sainsbury’s is always looking for ways to minimise the amount of packaging used. In 2001, compostable packaging made from potato starch was introduced. This is now also used for ready meals and organic products. And water bottles are also made partly from recovered waste plastic.

Clear nutritional labelling is essential today, by law. A product’s weight or volume, its ingredients, storage information, preparation instructions and place of origin must all be displayed. In 2005, Sainsbury’s became the first supermarket to use traffic light nutritional labelling, to help people recognise healthier food at a glance.

Shopping Bags

The carrier bag is a relatively new innovation for the supermarket. Before the 1950s, shoppers were offered paper bags for loose items including eggs, sugar and flour, and customers would carry baskets – or have larger shops delivered to their homes.

When self-service supermarkets were introduced, paper carrier bags were offered for 4d – though many people continued to bring their own baskets. It wasn’t until 1978 that stores introduced plastic carrier bags.

Sainsbury’s won multiple environmental awards when recycled plastic bags were introduced to stores in 1989. Two years later, the ‘Penny Back’ scheme launched, which did what it said on the tin: offering customers a penny back each time they reused a bag. When the supermarket commissioned its first environmental report in 1996, it found 80.2 million bags had been reused that year.1.5 million pennies were refunded a week (or £15,000) and customers had raised £3 million for charity by donating pennies. The same decade, Bags for Life, wine carriers and cool bags were all introduced.

2006 saw the launch of the new ‘green generation’ plastic bags that contain a lot less plastic – they are 10 per cent chalk and 33 per cent recycled material, and Sainsbury’s has been leading the way in a huge drop in disposable bag use over the last decade.

Advertising

Advertising has always stayed true to Sainsbury’s belief of offering quality and value. The company was slow to advertise formally, relying on appealing displays in stores with handwritten cards offering ‘Genuine old York hams’ or ‘famous pies’ to promote the products.

While rivals used anything from hot air balloons to monster cheese pulled by elephants to attract customers, Sainsbury’s rarely went in for stunts. However, when rival Thomas Lipton erected signs over his shop fascias claiming ‘We serve the King’, shops quickly responded with banners saying: ‘God Save the Queen’.

 

Television advertising

When the company started advertising conventionally, there were no in-house writers or designers. Early claims – that cocoa was ‘nutritive, sustaining and of high food value’, and that Nuts and Milk margarine was recommended by doctors – would be frowned upon by the Advertising Standards Authority today.

In the Second World War, advertising agency Mather and Crowther created press advertisements with rationing meal ideas. When self-service was introduced in the 1950s, stores relied on advertising to introduce customers to the new method of shopping, using a comic strip format and slogans such as ‘Help yourself’ and ‘Q-less shopping’.

In 1958, Sainsbury’s broadcast its first television advertisement, promoting frozen chicken as an inexpensive family meal. “We did the filming at the Putney branch, and every time we started recording, one of us had to dash outside to stop the traffic because of the noise,” merchandising manager Jim Woods remembers. Later, sets were created for adverts, with shop fittings borrowed from the training school in Blackfriars.

In 1979, Abbott Mead Vickers (now AMV BBDO) was appointed to handle press advertising, and in 1985 the agency replaced Saatchi & Saatchi as the main agency for television advertising.

During the early 1980s, the advertising budget was less than a quarter of the one per cent turnover traditionally spent by large companies. Two thirds of this went on television advertising, with the rest spent on women’s magazines and regional press.

Familiar faces have often been used. In 1975, the ‘Shopping Bags’ advert starred Sheila Fearn from the television series The Likely Lads, playing an ordinary housewife. In the 1990s, actors and entertainers, including Catherine Zeta Jones and Ernie Wise, cooked their favourite recipes as part of the ‘Everybody’s favourite ingredient’ campaign. Chef Jamie Oliver started representing Sainsbury’s from 2000.

In 2016, Sainsbury’s appointed Wieden + Kennedy to lead its advertising.

Promotional gifts

Between 1882 and 1913, the company gave away hundreds of thousands of ‘golden guineas’ to promote new branches. These imitations of old coins featured slogans including ‘Arrivals of Pure Butters Daily’ and ‘For Best Provisions’. They weren’t accepted as currency, but they became popular as gaming tokens or toy money for children.

To promote tea in the first decade of the twentieth century, the supermarket gave away fairy tale tea cards, with a little twist. So Jack was given a reviving cuppa after his tumble from the beanstalk, and the Prince woke Sleeping Beauty with a cup of Pure Tea.

Coupon schemes were also offered to reward regular customers: in 1914 shoppers could save coupons from tea packets and exchange them for gifts, including a tea set, cutlery and table linen.

Loyalty schemes

During the 1930s, the home delivery service meant stores got to know regular customers’ shopping patterns. Special promotions and samples would be offered, depending on their tastes.

In 1966, the first loyalty card scheme launched. The Reward Card gave points for purchases, which could be exchanged for money off shopping or ‘rewards’. In 2002, this scheme was replaced with the Nectar card, which remains popular today.

 

Our magazine

Sainsbury’s first magazine, Family: Sainsbury’s quarterly magazine for every woman was launched in stores in 1961. Each issue included a ‘meal of the month’. The magazine became part of Family Circle in 1964, and special recipe supplements were included.

Sainsbury’s continued to build on the recipe ideas, which have been part of its marketing since the 1920s. Campaigns including ‘Everyone’s favourite ingredient’ and ‘Fresh food, fresh ideas’ have combined recipe cards with recipe suggestions in TV and press adverts. It evolved into the Try Something New campaign.

Slogans over the years

'Quality perfect, Prices Lower' Slogan used Islington shop front, 1882

'Sainsbury's for Quality, Sainsbury's for Value' Drury Lane store, 1918

'It's clean, it's fresh at Sainsbury's' 1945 to 1960s.

'Good Food Costs Less at Sainsbury's' 1959 to 1990s, on everything from bags to delivery lorries. Described by BBC News as 'probably the best-known advertising slogan in retailing.'

'Sainsbury's - Everyone's Favourite Ingredient' 1990s campaign featuring celebrities cooking Sainsbury's food.

'Making Life Taste Better' 1999 until 2005.

'Try something new today' 2005 until 2011

‘Live Well for Less’ introduced in 2011.