Radha Davies

most creative marketers

Most Creative Marketers: Radha Davies

The director of brand, planning and creative at Sainsbury's (and Argos, Habitat and Tu) has set her sights firmly on becoming the leading grocery brand. Again

By Creative Salon

As we approach one of the biggest trading periods of the year - Christmas - competition is more fierce than ever for the hearts and (digital) wallets of the nation's supermarket shoppers.

While it's true that grocery price inflation recently fell for the seventh consecutive month to the lowest rate in more than a year, consumers are continuing to look for cheaper food options in the supermarket aisles (Kantar report). Thanks to crunching credit and price inflation, retailers face another challenging festive season.

Step forward, then, Radha Davies. One of a new breed of modern marketers whose insight into and understanding of her customers is matched by sharp business acumen and a flair for creativity, Davies is the director of brands, planning and creative at Sainsbury's, Argos, Habitat and Tu. And a woman about to find herself in the white hot heat of the Christmas retail conflict.

With a new agency - New Commercial Arts - and a bold new vision, all industry eyes are on Sainsbury's this year. So how does a supermarket brand that finds itself holding a challenging upper middle-market position between the discounters at one end and the premium brands at the other stand out in this fiercely competitive market? And it's not just the discounters but also the behemoths of the sector, including Tesco, that are talking up their value credentials while aiming to appeal to an increasingly cash-strapped consumer. What does Radha have up her professional sleeve? Creative Salon sat down with Davies to find out just that.

Sainsbury's Plan To Stand-out In The Fiercely Competitive Market

As the quest for lower prices continues to replace brand loyalty as the driver of choice, for Davies the way to differentiate Sainsbury's is to showcase the brand's passion for the food it sells. "I'm really keen for us at Sainsbury's to reassert ourselves in that area and take that leadership position again," she says. "We are the brand that offers high quality, great value food wherever and however customers want to shop with us.

"The [retail] category has become so very functional," Davies acknowledges. "As retailers, so much of what we do has been largely around cost and prices. Everything else, like the sheer joy of food, has somehow got lost in the mix.

"Of course we recognise that it can sometimes be difficult for customers to have the time, money or inspiration to access the joy that good food can bring. But everyone still wants delicious food to eat. And that is what we want to highlight, food that delivers quality and taste, and also value. It's about being relevant at the right moment and in the right time."

She points to Sainsbury's recent 'Good food for all of us' campaign, created by New Commercial Arts, which seeks to offer good food to all customers no matter their budget, tastes, dietary requirements or busy daily lives. NCA was awarded the Sainsbury's advertising business earlier this year following a fiercely-fought pitch against Mother and VCCP. The move extends NCA's relationship with Sainsbury's after the agency won the retailer's home and clothing brand Tu in 2022 and NCA also works on the Sainsbury's-owned Habitat business.

“Good food for all of us” will replace the retailer’s current slogan “Helping everyone eat better” in advertising and marketing from November. It will also feature for the first time in the supermarket’s upcoming Christmas campaign.

The retail category has become so very functional. As retailers so much of what we do has been largely around cost and prices. Everything else, like the sheer joy of food, has somehow got lost in the mix.

Radha Davies

Underpinning this new strategy is a fierce determination to boost Sainsbury's market share and propel growth. "I'm really ambitious for the Sainsbury's brand to become the leading [grocery] brand again," Davies says. "There is so much warmth to Sainsbury's and so much heritage, especially when it comes to the quality of food. And I think it's really important that we regain our food credentials leadership. We’re putting food back at the heart of Sainsbury’s."

For Davies this is both a business and a creative positioning, which the brand aims to use consistently through every dimension of its business.

Creativity.... Not Just For Christmas

"What NCA has created for us is a long-term brand platform and a long-term creative idea. And that's the bit that excites me the most - that we're building something. It's the kick-off of every stage of Sainsbury's and how we show up for consumers," she goes on to explain. "It's not just about having one bold play for Christmas."

And talking about breaking conventions, she points to one of her boldest creative plays for Sainsbury's. Its sponsorship for Channel 4's The Great British Bake Off , called ‘Cake or not cake?', launched last year and was the largest sponsorship deal in the show’s history.

"Taking on the Bake Off sponsorship was quite a bold play for Sainsbury's because we just didn't do that sort of thing. Using a national treasure like Bake Off and creating a conversation and being playful with customers was a big creative leap for us. But it's worked brilliantly - it's playful and engaging, and it really makes people look at the food, which is great. And it really tapped into a moment that was in culture.

"It was also a time when we needed to make our budgets go further and gave us the perfect opportunity to celebrate and showcase the quality and innovation that Sainsbury's is known and loved for," Davies adds. It's a brand strategy that is evidently moving in the right direction for the retailer and contributing to its bottom line: in its most recent results, Sainsbury's reported a 9.8 per cent increase in like-for-like sales for the three months to June, driven by volume growth rather than price increases. Grocery sales rose 11 per cent.

Davies is meanwhile chomping at the bit to further recharge the brand and adds that as a marketer the task that she relishes most is bringing creativity to organisations that are looking for transformation. "As a marketer I've always been attracted to roles that are about transformational growth. Really fun for me, because it makes businesses more daring."

So what is Radha Davies' approach as a marketer to these knotty times when budgets are being slashed to keep the lights on, its so hard to predict consumer behaviours, there's a cost of living crisis and a general anxiety about how brands should behave in the societies they serve?

Marketers as problem solvers

"I'm so happy that I managed to make the switch from working in a lab to following my more creative aspirations. And I think the reason I've moved into different brands and different categories is because I love understanding consumers and their behaviours and their needs, and bringing creativity to organisations that are looking for transformation, or transformational growth. It makes creativity more challenging, but when there's a really clear problem to solve, then as a marketer that is a great thing to go after."

Davies started her career at Diageo, working on Bailey’s, Smirnoff and Johnnie Walker in domestic and international roles. She also worked in private equity, building the bathroom brand Ideal Standard for Bain Capital. In the public sector, she led the repositioning of the Post Office brand during a period of transformation. She then led brand and comms teams in the tech sector for King, launching new games within the Candy Crush Saga franchise. Most recently she was brand development director for Virgin Group.

But retail is one job, she says, she never thought she wanted to get into as a marketer. "It was the tail-end of Covid when I was first asked to do the Sainsbury's job and I wasn't at first quite sure I wanted to. But what I really liked about the role was the immediacy of it - the fact that it's so, so tangible and that it affects everyone you know. Also as a brand it is truly part of the fabric of the nation. It has so much potential for impact and that was so motivating. Also the breadth of categories - from food to clothing to furniture to home furnishings. It also happens to be just the nicest company, with great culture, lovely people. And I think our CEO [Simon Roberts, CEO since June 2020 and the former Boots UK MD] is exceptional. He brings so much ambition to the organisation. And so I said yes."

As someone in-charge of four different brands - Sainsbury's, Argos, Habitat and Tu - does she have a favourite brand? "I've got three children of my own. And I love all of them. Equally, but differently. And they all have different strengths and different qualities that make them very, very special. The same goes for all my brands."

Sainsbury’s acquired Argos and Habitat in September 2016, paying over £1bn to build what the supermarket at the time called “an integrated multi-channel proposition” spanning food and non-food lines. Critics questioned whether there would be sufficient overlap in the customer base for the deal to work. Sainsbury’s has since relaunched Habitat in both its physical and online stores and most of the Argos spaces are now located inside Sainsbury’s supermarkets. "All these brands have slightly different customers with different mindsets and missions. I want each brand to be the best that it can be and to engage its customers in the most appropriate way," says Davies, denying any plans to consolidate all the different brands into one mega brand - Sainsbury's.

"I love Argos' brand ambassadors Connie and Trevor [a plastic doll and a toy dinosaur] created by The&Partnership," says Davies. Her love for the work stems for the fact that the campaign drives brand salience and growth. "I'm constantly thinking about how creative engagement and appeal leads to commercial deliverables. Making sure we convey the right message that is driving sales across the year." This campaign, according to Davies, drives reappraisal for the brand and reminds consumers that Argos is the number one destination for premium tech, stylish homeware, and essential household items. It's another example, she says, that marketing, creativity and engagement come together to deliver a successful commercial outcome. "And no, the Argos catalogue as we knew it is not making a comeback," she adds.

The world according to Radha Davies

What is your favourite piece of creativity?

I love London. I'm a real Londoner and I love work that really encapsulates London. So I love all the Burberry work that captures the essence of London. I thought it was so joyous. And it felt really inspiring and very premium. I also really, really liked the recent Nando's work from NCA. It leverages humour brilliantly. And it really spoke to that target audience, with the fabric of London running through the DNA of the work. Just excellent.

What's been feeding your imagination?

Travel always sparks my imagination. And I take a lot of inspiration from different cultures. My family's from Sri Lanka and I grew up in East London. I think the diversity of thought that comes from mixing it all up and learning from other cultures and people is really interesting.

We recently went to Rome and it just blew me away. And I was absolutely astounded in the Sistine Chapel looking up at the paintings. I always take a lot of inspiration from travel and the smells, the sounds. I do think our job as marketers is to give a multi sensory experience, but we often think too much in 2D.

I recently took up drawing. Growing up in an Asian family, it was all about science. Grow up learning science. It wasn't really about arts unless they were traditional 'art' arts. So I did learn some classical Indian dancing until I was about 19. So I wanted to explore a bit of my creative side that I never had an opportunity to do. And during Covid I took up non-dominant hand drawing.It was perfect for me because drawing with your non-dominant hand means you have zero expectations. And if it looks odd, it doesn't matter because perfection is not a thing. A vase would look like a stone. It was so meditative and so calming. I loved it.

What frustrates you as a marketer?

Risk-aversion frustrates me. Because if you want to do bold work, if you want to drive transformation, sometimes you need to think expansively. That's my biggest frustration because it can really constrain creativity.

What excites you about the future?

Unleashing the potential of our people. People, talent - that will always be any organisation's secret weapon. So as I think about building brands, I really am fundamentally thinking about building up people and helping them to grow and reach their full potential and really helping them to bring their skills and their diverse thinking to the table.


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