The Sainsbury’s saga: Nectar announcement is latest comms fail

As a long-standing Sainsbury’s customer, I was somewhat shocked, this morning, to receive the following email from the company:

Sainsburys Nectar announcement - Oct 2014

 The first shock was that I even viewed the contents of the email in the first place, given the myriad of marketing communication that I receive on a daily basis from various brands I have some loose affiliation with. However, an announcement regarding Nectar points piqued my interest – after all, with Christmas just around the corner, these have a tendency to come in very handy indeed.

Upon opening the message, however, I was not met with seasonal goodwill in e-mail form (although a festive points promotion was briefly mentioned within). Instead I, much like the thousands and thousands of other Nectar card owners around the UK, received a brief message explaining that, from next April, Sainsbury’s would be halving the number of reward points it currently awards to its customers. Not only that, but the ‘green’ concession that the company has become synonymous with – rewarding those customers that diligently bring their own bags to the store rather than unnecessarily wasting plastic – will also be ditched.

Now, undoubtedly many discussions took place around the boardroom table before this announcement was made. Unquestionably, there will be a sound fiscal rationale for reducing this rewards scheme – which is, after all, a ‘value add’ proposition for customers. However, the fact that the supermarket chain did not even attempt to craft a supporting narrative to explain this upcoming reduction and put a positive slant on it is surprising, considering the feedback that such communication was destined to receive.

 The Twitter backlash

Of course, upon receiving said email I did what so many of us now do when we have a grievance with a large corporate – I turned to Twitter and aired my frustration for the company to see. I was not the only one:

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Like me, many were aggrieved by this announcement, and above are just three of the comments that I came across by mid-morning today. Currently, if you search for each #sainsburys or #nectar on Twitter, you will find timelines teething with dissatisfaction; so much so that now it’s getting national coverage. While some subscribe to the old adage of “any publicity is good publicity,” I have never agreed with this way of thinking and would suggest that this is a very poor situation for a company to find itself in – particularly after what has been a very bad month for the Sainsbury’s brand…

The ’50p challenge’ debacle

By now, much has been written about what hasbeen dubbed Sainsbury’s 50p challenge. A promotional poster encouraging Sainsbury’s staff to upsell, that was intended for internal use, unfortunately made its way into the window of the company’s Romford store several weeks ago and was snapped by a passing customer. Following one simple tweet and an amusing back-and-forth Twitter exchange with a clearly worried social media account manager, the nationals had an absolute field day, and Sainsbury’s was swiftly on the receiving end of one incredibly fast and well-executed advertising campaign by competitors LIDL.

It made for a good story, but to be fair to Sainsbury’s, they were just encouraging their staff to do what shops are designed to do: make customers spend money. It really is as simple as that, and the practice of upselling existing shoppers is as old as retail itself. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, but equally it is not a strategy that a company would choose to shout about from the rooftops – which, in this unfortunate case, was exactly what Sainsbury’s inadvertently did.

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It was an oversight – a sizeable one, granted, but an oversight all the same – that a decade ago may have led to, at worst, a small amount of negative local publicity for the branch in question. In the age of social media, however, a light was quickly and brightly shone upon the store’s drive to bolster the bottom line and boost revenues in Q4 2014.

What damage has been caused?

What the 50p challenge should have demonstrated to Sainsbury’s was the vast power that social media can yield and how quickly reputations can be damaged. Judging by the email that prompted this piece, however, that message has yet to sink in.

In the latest issue of PRWeek, WPP’s Sir Martin Sorrell, widely regarded as the world’s most successful marketing services entrepreneur, spoke about the rise of social media, and one quote particularly stood out at me with regards to the above.

Asked about the future of PR in the face of integrating disciplines, Sorrell stated, “Digital and social media make communication more challenging. You can lose reputation that has taken many decades to build, in a single click.”

Sorrell’s advice should be heeded by Sainsbury’s. I actually like the company a lot – I agree with many of their ethical policies, I enjoy the shopping experience, and their staff are invariably helpful and friendly. Which is why I find this Nectar email so frustrating; there was simply no need for the company to make this announcement  now, about changes coming into effect next April, at a time when the 50p challenge embarrassment is still so fresh in the public’s consciousness. It was an ill-timed e-blast that has, quite rightly, backfired in the firm’s face – as any informed marcomms professional worth their salt would have advised them it invariably would.

The events of the past month have done significant damage to one of the UK’s most valued brands. Significant strides will now need to be made by those responsible for Sainsbury’s communications in order to rectify this, before the company gives its competitors any more leverage to entice its customers away.