Opinion: Leader - Sainsbury's PR must go beyond 'basics'

Sainsbury's CEO Justin King evoked memories of former PM John Major's famous political slogan by labelling his revival strategy 'Back to Basics' this week.

The three-year plan - in essence to shift jobs from head office to the shop floor - will go some way to appease the City and customers that Sainsbury's is acting to turn around its present-day reputation for poor customer service and out-of-stock goods. But phrases such as 'Back to Basics' and 'Making Sainsbury's Great Again' hold little long-term appeal as they are predicated on the company's less-than-adequate present state.

Of course, Sainsbury's needs to get its customer service, pricing and order processing - the basics of retailing - right. But it cannot rely solely on hammering home this message for the next three years while consumers wait to experience an improvement.

Sainsbury's needs to show more innovation in its media relations. It is a reliably poor performer in PRWeek's Reputation Monitor (currently rock bottom for the second successive week) while Tesco and Asda regularly top the table. Part of the reason for this is that journalists often laud Tesco's achievements and chart Sainsbury's decline in the same breath.

Supermarkets punch way beyond their weight in the media because they touch all our lives. So the historic rivalry between Sainsbury's and Tesco makes it business's version of the Tories v Labour or Man Utd v Arsenal.

Sainsbury's needs desperately to break out of being perceived as the failing half of that dichotomy (which persists even though Asda too has overtaken it). It needs to show it is not just 'not-Tesco'. It needs to create its own quirky storylines in the media to rebuild an emotional connection with consumers and reinvigorate the brand. That requires a nimble, proactive comms culture that has hitherto been absent. It will be a ripe old challenge for whoever succeeds outgoing corporate affairs director Jan Shawe.

'Back to Basics' alone doesn't hold much appeal with the public. Look what happened to Major.

Gidon Freeman is on holiday.

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