The sincerest form of flattery

I like Sainsbury’s. I used to go there as a small boy, so there’s plenty of nostalgia-related affection for the brand. Plus, unlike Morrisons, they use an apostrophe. Proper grammar is always good. And I’ve always liked their air of confidence. They believed in what they were doing and were jolly well going to carry on doing it. A few years ago, when other members of the so-called Big Four were shutting stores and slashing prices, Sainsbury’s refused to get involved. Stores stayed open, and although prices were lowered, they were done so without fanfare, as if they thought price cutting was a little vulgar. Good for existing customers, not-so-good for potential new ones.

Sainsbury’s had every right to remain confident. Although part of the ‘squeezed middle’, between the upmarket stores of M&S and Waitrose, and the German discounters Aldi and Lidl, they seemed to have the ‘upper-middle’ to themselves, a little above Morrisons and Tesco, and quite a lot above ASDA. That confidence seems to have slipped a little of late, though; the Taste the Difference offering has been repackaged, with Sainsbury’s managing to make a premium range appear quite downmarket – the complete opposite of the Morrisons Savers range, a value range that somehow looks quite premium (although, sadly, it’s now being replaced by something rather ‘meh’).

Now they have a new value range of their own. The Basics sub-brand certainly needed retiring, belonging to a bygone era when shoppers were happy to buy cheap food that didn’t sound very cheerful. Aldi and Lidl have always had their in-house brands, often, stupidly, claiming to be ‘exclusive’ – many of them visually piggy-backing on the success of household names whose brands have cost millions to build. First, Tesco copied this approach, and now, Sainsbury’s, officially launching 12 (yes, 12) new sub-brands in the place of Basics.

The trouble with these ‘pretend’ brands – aside from the confusion that they create, and the unneccessary expense of having to market 12 brands instead of 1 – is that they seem a little disingenuous (and that’s without mentioning the Aldi adverts that compare the prices of their own-brand products against the likes of Kellogg’s and Pampers at Tesco!). The reason Aldi and Lidl have been so successful is not because of their in-house brands – consumers would still have bought, and enjoyed, the products just as much if they had a large Aldi or Lidl logo on the front of them – but because they are seen to sell good quality products at low prices.

For a supermarket that used to have its own design department, and which presumably sees the value of good design, it seems odd for Sainsbury’s to launch a range where the packaging largely looks half-hearted and underdeveloped. I recommend Jonny Trunk’s book ‘Own Label – Sainsbury’s Design Studio 1962-1977’ to anyone starting out in the industry – they may initially scoff at how dated the designs might seem, but could learn a lot from the typography-led, geometric, almost screen-printed, simplicity that came out of the Sainsbury’s studio in the 60s and 70s.