I've been watching with interest the 'Same Price - Different Values' campaign that Sainsbury's launched in the last few days. My interest is sparked for two primary reasons: firstly, because I applaud Sainsbury's focus on the need for a fair comparison in advertising claims; and, secondly, because I enjoy nothing more than a good, gritty tussle between fiercely competitive businesses.
For several years now, big retailers both in the UK and overseas have focused their communications muscle on prices, which is was course a logical reaction to the financial crisis. But this has been problematic for Sainsbury's, which is almost certainly not the cheapest. It challenged Tesco through the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), complaining that Tesco's price comparisons did not take into account other factors such as provenance and ethics - but its complaint was not upheld.
As a result of this failure, Sainsbury's has now decided to try its luck by escalating its complaint to the court of public opinion. Its latest campaign encourages a fair comparison between two products - ham and bananas - that rank amongst the retailers' most popular mainstream offerings. In the case of ham, it shows that despite the price nominally being the same in its stores as at Tesco, Sainsbury's value ham is 100 per cent UK-sourced, whereas Tesco's is not. In the fruit's case, the ads show that Sainsbury's bananas are Fairtrade, whereas Tesco's are not.
In my opinion, Tesco has a valid point - for most people, price remains king in this economic climate - but as Sainsbury's is highlighting, its arch-rival has underestimated two major complementary social trends that have the potential to contend with price.
The first is what one might call the emergence of the 'me economy' - i.e. in the face of swirling global uncertainty, people are looking to their own community (me and my world) as a pillar of stability. In doing so, we have become more aware of the challenges faced by small businesses, farmers and so on - our neighbours. In the UK, this trend has been significantly advanced by the flurry of nationalistic feeling triggered by the Olympics, a certain baby and a range of other sporting triumphs. You can argue whether it's logical or indeed accurate, but our human response to things like the horsemeat scandal has been to reserve our trust for those who are closest to us. In an environment like this, local sourcing has become much more important, and is a proxy for other issues such as quality and taste.
The second trend is related to the first and is an elevated interest in the concept of fairness. Following the recession and various corporate, political and institutional failures, we feel let down by our leaders and subject to a range of injustices. For many, it seems that the 'fat cats' have not been unduly inconvenienced by the financial crisis yet we all have to pay the price for their poor long-term planning. As a result of this frame of thinking and the fact we all now know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of unfair behavior, many of us are more attuned to the plight of others who are subject to an injustice. Obvious fairness, whether it's here in the UK or overseas, inspires an emotional response in many of us that interacts with the rational brain that evaluates prices.
In all of this I'm not suggesting that price is anything other than king and I would be the first to admit that price comparisons have been transformative for consumers. However, they are not the whole story, particularly if they do not compare like with like. I think the emergence of the 'me economy' and fairness are two trends that will gather momentum in the coming years. If retailers are to keep our trust, then they must give us price comparisons that take into account all of the issues that we care about. If price is significantly out of kilter then a focus on these two trends will only ever engage a certain demographic. But if prices are the same or similar, then they could very well sway the balance.