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Jamie Oliver – the ingredient brand that became the whole meal

So farewell, Sainsbury brand ambassador Jamie Oliver. You were the exception that proves the rule – the celebrity endorser untouched by scandal or degrading personal conduct. The ultimate ingredient brand that spiced up Sainsbury’s fare without overcooking it.

Oliver’s uncompromising stand on food and animal welfare gave Sainsbury’s brand an unimpeachable wholesomeness at a time when its reputation and performance were being winded in the solar plexus by Tesco and Asda. Like all such felicitious relationships, an element of luck was involved. Right at the beginning of his tenure in 2004, chief executive Justin King was advised to drop Oliver from the advertising (agency, AMV BBDO), on the grounds that his reputation was overexposed and past its sell-by date. How wrong that judgement was, and how wise King to ignore it. One year later, Oliver was leading the charge as the great white knight of children’s healthy nutrition in the School Dinners TV series.

There was, of course, rather more to the success of the 11-year marriage than Jamie’s teflon-coated moral demeanour. In truth Oliver’s crusading fervour could be very trying; several times, he seems to have entirely forgotten who was paying £1m a year into his bank account for services rendered.

Five years ago, King must have been sorely tempted to fire Oliver when he condemned parents for putting junk food (for which read typical Sainsbury products) into children’s lunchboxes. Two years later, Oliver drew even closer to the line when he very publicly condemned Sainsbury’s refusal to take part in a television debate on battery-farmed chickens during his programme Jamie’s Fowl Dinners.

To the credit of both parties they twice pulled back from the brink, rightly judging the overall benefits of the relationship to be more important than the occasional tiff.

However wayward Oliver can be, it’s worth reflecting for a minute on what he is not: Marco Pierre White. MPW epitomises the once great chef whose celebrity has fallen on hard times. Seemingly, no brand endorsement is anathema –  Knorr and Bernard Matthews spring to mind – so long as it fends off the next alimony demand.

With Oliver, the problem is the polar opposite. His brand value has waxed to the extent that it now threatens to eclipse that of the product he is endorsing. Analysts were quick to point out that Oliver’s latest book – 30 Minute Meals, the fastest selling non-fiction book of all time – played a major role in boosting Sainsbury sales by over 10% last Christmas. No doubt, but the ingredient has now become the meal and it’s time to move on – for both parties.

None of this detracts from the Oliver/Sainsbury partnership being one of the most successful endorsement relationships of all time. As a brand ambassador only Gary Lineker – who began fronting Walkers ads in 1995 and continues to do so to this day – bears comparison.

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