It began with butter. John was a dairyman, so butter was obvious. The best butter in the world, he said, and it's too late to argue.
Some 140 years later and the shop that John Sainsbury launched on Drury Lane in central London to sell the produce from his herd has grown into a retail phenomenon with almost 800 stores, 30,000 product lines and a shiny new commemorative advertising campaign. You might already have seen it: a 60-second romp through Sainsbury's milestones, from selling butter in 1869, to spotting women's potential in the workplace in 1914 via introducing the avocado pear in 1962 to stocking only eggs from cage free British hens in 2009.
It's a lush ad, lovingly created by Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO to capture authenticity – right down to building an exact replica of a Sainsbury's store from 1914. It might remind you a little of last year's Hovis blockbuster celebrating more than 100 years of brand success. The similarities in narrative of the two campaigns are, perhaps, inevitable. But both campaigns reflect an interesting new advertising trend: the birthday campaign.
More and more advertisers are suddenly feeling the need to celebrate their anniversaries. And not even the real milestones. 140 years is a long time, but more significant than 130? Hovis, even more curiously, produced its historical blockbuster to mark 122 years. Are they even now planning another to mark 123? Virgin Atlantic's recent advertising campaign marked its 25 years in business, although the more romantic 21st birthday slipped quietly by.
So why the birthday ad frenzy? Oh, perhaps it's natural when everything's a little gloomy to look for something to celebrate, however tenuous the anniversary. And perhaps it's natural when agency finances are tight to seize every opportunity to persuade clients into an advertising extravaganza.
Of course nostalgia is enjoying a healthy comeback in advertising anyway as companies channel memories of our less complicated past; all this rose-tinted reminiscing creates a warm glow that is helpful to brands. But there's a more strategic insight at play, and it's an insight based around authenticity, reliability and trust – values that in these confusing times we're more hungry for than ever.
Even though recent events in the financial sector have shown that longevity is no guarantee of stability, we are still more likely to see brands that have been around for a long time as reassuring and reliable. Their sheer familiarity is comforting. After all, these are brands that served our parents and our grandparents, they're part of our family history. And they're on the side of the family. With the economy in turmoil, we're putting our trust in those brands that we believe are fighting our corner, brands like Sainsbury's and Virgin that over the years have positioned themselves as champions of the consumer. Really, there's never been a better time for brands to keep prices keen and focus on value as a way of persuading us that they care and it's even more convincing if they can suggest they have our best interests built into their DNA.
But let's not get too romantic. Scrape away the lovely ad campaigns with their cosy nostalgic whimsy and consider that the rise of brands like Sainsbury's and Hovis killed many local family businesses which had been a presence on neighbourhood high streets for generations, trusted by their customers because they knew them all by name. Ironic, then, that canny marketers are now responding to our hunt for the authentic and the trustworthy by turning the wheel almost full circle and adopting the sorts of values and practices that make their brands feel more local and personal: using more local suppliers, employing more personal customer service techniques, featuring real staff in their adverts so we feel more rapport.
Oh, the cynics in us know that it's a corporate trick. But we're playing the game, because in a world of upheaval, heritage brands have become beacons of stability. The brands that have survived wars and cultural revolutions, recessions and depressions are the ones we're clinging to as reliable, reassuring and trustworthy. If I was Sainsbury's, I would be celebrating.
Best in show
The Prince's Rainforest Project
(Hurrell Moseley Dawson & Grimmer)
Strictly speaking this is not an ad campaign. Prince Charles, starring in an ad? No, no, no. Don't be fooled by the fact that it was created by ad agency Hurrell Moseley Dawson & Grimmer.
It's a film, a film that promotes the Prince's Rainforest Project. And it stars Prince Charles, an array of celebrities and an animated frog. One can only imagine the delicate negotiations and administrative headaches that the agency had to go through to secure the footage and create such an advertising campaign with such an impact.
Thankfully, for the sake of the planet, they did a fine job of it. Watch it at rainforestsos.org and pledge your support.