Five years ago Sainsbury's was in big trouble - a fact that the supermarket's customer director, Gwyn Burr, makes no attempt to hide. 'This was a brand that was desperately struggling for a place,' she says. 'There was a view that we were somehow caught in the middle territory and that wasn't a sustainable position.'
Since then, the turnaround in Sainsbury's fortunes has been little short of spectacular. The retailer's return to form was epitomised by its results in the 2009 festive period: in the 13 weeks to 2 January 2010, it posted a 6.2% rise in total sales. The 24m customers who passed through its doors in the seven days leading up to 25 December, made last Christmas Sainsbury's busiest on record.
It is no exaggeration to say that 47-year-old Burr has played a pivotal role in this comeback. She joined the retailer in 2005, when Sainsbury's was in the slough of despair, taking on a role created by chief executive Justin King. Its scope is eye-watering - she manages a team of 350 and a budget of more than £250m a year.
As well as marketing, she is responsible for customer service, own-label brand strategy, internal and external communications and store space and design. It is this wide-ranging influence that persuaded her to take the job.
'I didn't want to come in and just be a marketer. That's not a bad thing, but I'd been there and done that,' she says. 'I wanted something much broader and more commercially focused than I would otherwise have been able to achieve.'
Burr had previously spent 13 years at Asda, gaining invaluable experience in roles ranging from marketing director to customer service director. However, the Sainsbury's opportunity was simply too good to turn down.
'The business had been neglected for 10 years before I arrived, but the scope of the role attracted me, coupled with a fantastic brand,' she adds.
Given the challenges she faced on her arrival, it would have been understandable if Burr had paused to take stock of her surroundings before implementing changes gradually. However, she knew that a major overhaul was required, and jumped headlong into the task.
'I didn't start with anything small. The first thing I did was launch the strapline "Try something new today,"' she says.
'I have a really strong philosophy that I think played a key role in the turnaround, which is that great marketing is an external and internal vehicle.
'I saw it as a two-way mirror. For customers it was a way of saying, "you may have had bad experiences with Sainsbury's over the past few years, but come back in and take a fresh look". For our colleagues it was a chance for them to look at the ways they worked.'
Since then, the affable Northerner has rolled out three big campaigns: Switch & Save; Cook & Save, which includes the much-lauded Feed Your Family For A Fiver initiative; and Shop & Save.
'I launched those in 2008 when we saw the beginning of the downturn. I was very keen that we listened to our customers and communicated to them in a very simple way,' says Burr.
'The philosophy was based on changing how you shop, and not where you shop. That has come through in the downturn where we have managed to grow customer numbers, when, if I'm honest, particularly at the start of the recession, we were falling the wrong side of the winning line.'
Burr predicted that consumers would cook more at home during the recession, and, with Sainsbury's reputation of more than 140 years' standing for selling quality food, she believed the retailer was well-placed to capitalise on this trend.
'Everything we do is anchored in the philosophy of great food,' she says. 'We are uniquely placed because the Sainsbury's brand has this enormous heritage.'
The Switch & Save campaign for the retailer's own-label products has been described by some as brand bashing. However, Burr argues that it is beneficial for branded goods.
'Is it tit for tat with brands? No it isn't. It's about mutuality,' she says. 'What we've seen is that we are attracting more customers to shop at Sainsbury's and both brands and own-label products benefit.'
She adds that the retailer's own-label ranges - which account for 50% of its sales - have cross-generational appeal, as there are grandmothers who can remember eating Sainsbury's-branded products.
The Rotherham-born marketer admits that although successful in food, the business still lags behind its rivals in non-food. 'We have less general merchandise than some of our key competitors, but the business will continue to grow,' she says.
Corporate social responsibility is also a major issue for the UK's third-biggest supermarket and it recently announced it had become the world's biggest Fairtrade retailer. Burr is keen to emphasise how this sits alongside Sainsbury's focus on locally sourced goods, pointing out that a third of British apples and pears bought from UK retailers is sold by Sainsbury's.
'We are huge supporters of British farming,' she says. 'At the same time, we source with integrity from around the world, which means we have to care for the environments we have an impact on.'
The mother of three lives in the small Yorkshire town of Ilkley, and makes the arduous commute to Sainsbury's head office in Holborn, London, twice a week. She clearly understands the need for businesses to sit comfortably within the communities that support them. 'We very much see the store as the heart of the community and, on a local level, there is vibrant activity taking place,' she says.
Her home town provides evidence of the power of communities, with residents establishing the campaign group Ilkley Residents Against Tesco Encroachment.
Burr's approach is simple: the customer is placed at the heart of everything, and her overarching role allows her to ensure this is implemented across the Sainsbury's business. Having worked in retail for more than 25 years she has plenty of experience to draw on. 'I wear my age with pride,' she laughs. 'There's a lot to be said for a sensible, mature, marketer.'
Having achieved a great deal in her five years at Sainsbury's Burr can probably be forgiven for thinking about how she will be remembered.
'I'm enormously proud to have custody over the brand,' she says. 'I hope that, in 140 years, when a person is doing a review of the past 280 years, Feed Your Family for a Fiver will be up there on the screen.'
- 1984-1988: Graduate trainee, rising to European marketing manager, Rowntree Mackintosh
- 1988-2001: Various roles, rising to retail managing director, Asda
- 2001-05: Managing director, The Resultant Team Consultancy
- 2005-present: Customer director, Sainsbury's
- Lives: llkley, Yorkshire
- Family: Married with three children - Amy, David and Simon
- Last holiday: Antigua last month
- Hobbies: Cooking, travel, opera, watching rugby
This article was first published on Marketing