What do fashionable Milan and ‘live well for less’ Sainsburys have in common?

Travel broadens the mind, as they say, and I certainly benefited from this mind-developing effect after a trip that included a few days in Milan.

The broadening of the mind was nothing to do with the magnificent buildings or the amazing food, it was the people. I realised Milan is packed with slim people, no fatties to be seen anywhere.

I recently made a brief appearance in a BBC2 programme called ‘The men how made us fat’. I was interviewed and filmed for a morning and most of the material ended up on the cutting room floor. The reason why is because I had not given them the content they were looking for, my argument was more about people and their eating habits than food manufacturers and/or fast food chains.

What struck me in Milan was the love of food by Italians yet in our area of central Milan everyone was slim or skinny. Obviously this reflects the quality and quantity of what they eat (and we were in the fashion district). At lunchtime each day all of the cafes and restaurants were packed; the food however looked very healthy, fresh, smallish portions, not much alcohol and lots of water.

Over the course of our trip which included France as well as Italy it occurred to me we had visited places where the overall average shape of most people was ‘normal’, likely to have a BMI of around 25-ish. The one exception was a party of Americans off a cruise ship in Nice who all took XXXL clothes – too much food on board with nothing to do between meals.

This brings me to the Sainsburys television advertising on air at the moment. From AMV/BBDO, it is a refreshing change from the usual list of discounted food brands. It features a dad making a kite for his daughter, then out in the country trying to get it to fly. At some point they have a brief snack and then return home for another snack. The v/o says “You can live for less than you thought at Sainsburys” and the end line is “Live well for less – Sainsburys”. No sign of wolfing down a plate of rubbish food or a list of bargains.

Making a statement of the blinding obvious, we all know supermarkets sell food so there is zero point in saying so in advertising. It would be the same if Shell advertised petrol. The issue for all of them is brand share of the available market. The likely deciding factors are location, pricing, quality, range and brand preference, in no particular order. The Sainsburys work nods at several of those factors – live well for less, i.e. value/price, quality, and I suspect the content is strong in terms of brand preference – dad, daughter, countryside, simple pleasures, and exercise. A lot of clues in a 30-second spot.

I never understand advertisers spending media money telling the public the obvious, we know what most major retail chains sell so why does Comet feature six identical white boxes with price points? If price is a tactic this week/month why not say ‘massive price reductions this weekend’ backed up by why them?

The current Sainsburys work is a bit ‘John Lewis’ as it is about people and values rather than ‘here’s a long list of what we sell’. I am in the camp that thinks ‘standing for something’ is the most important ingredient of a brand’s promotion to the public at large. Interesting how Nike rarely feature a product in their advertising, it is all about the brand.

Returning to people, food, Milan and slim people I guess the mental attitude of Italians is about looking good – think Ferrari – so their diet is a key part of their behaviour. I also suspect their approach to food is about quality first rather than quantity. It is all about lifestyle. Back in the 90s Simons Palmer had a joint venture with Armando Testa, then Italy’s largest ad agency, and being with them was always a delight. Stylish, urbane, sophisticated and the food was always outstanding – but never too much.

Walking around Milan made me think about the obesity issues in the UK and elsewhere and the role retailers play in encouraging us to buy more than we need in the pursuit of brand share. Discuss!

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About Paul Simons

Paul joined Cadbury-Schweppes in brand management and then moved to United Biscuits. He switched to advertising in his late 20s, at Cogent Elliott and then Gold Greenlees Trott. He founded Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow & Johnson in the late 80s, one of the leading creative agencies of the 90s. Simons Palmer then merged with TBWA to create a top ten agency. Paul then joined O&M as chairman & CEO of the UK group. After three years he left to create a new AIM-quoted advertising group Cagney Plc. He is now a consultant to a number of client companies. Paul also shares his thoughts on his blog. Visit Paul Simons Blog.