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How Sainsbury’s innovation team chases ‘entrepreneurial heat’



How Sainsbury’s innovation team chases ‘entrepreneurial heat’


Wasabi is one of the new suppliers brought into Sainsbury’s via the Future Brands team.

In a bid to source the next exciting challenger brands from the UK and beyond, Sainsbury’s decided it needed a dedicated team to chase innovation.

Established in April 2018, Future Brands nurtures new brands in categories from grocery and drinks to cosmetics and gifting, offering them the chance to be stocked in Sainsbury’s on an exclusive basis.

“We’re here to support the business to be a bit bolder and take a few more risks going into the areas we believe will blow up,” Rachel Eyre, head of Future Brands, tells Marketing Week.

Previously head of marketing planning, propositions and properties at the supermarket, Eyre set up the Future Brands team with the intention of supercharging Sainsbury’s “distinctive agenda”.

The 12-person team is split in two. While the origination group is focused on discovering new brands, the growth team is tasked with developing and supporting the suppliers in the Future Brands portfolio to ensure long-term success.

Eyre intentionally recruited the team in phases rather than trying to predict at the outset what skills she would need for the next 12 months. She initially brought in people with proven experience of making things happen at Sainsbury’s to ensure they understood how to navigate the company’s systems and influence other teams. This meant a mix of people with experience in buying, marketing, brand and strategy.

A few months into the process, Eyre started to hire externally, for example bringing in a marketer from a small brand who understood the challenger mindset.

We’re here to support the business to be a bit bolder and take a few more risks going into the areas we believe will blow up.

Rachel Eyre, Sainsbury’s

Prior to the establishment of Future Brands it was in the remit of every buyer across the business to source new brands, while continuing to work with the established players. However, the buyers could not feasibly attend every trade show, ready every trend report or nurture conversations with every potential supplier, so Sainsbury’s decided a dedicated team was needed to work in collaboration with the buying teams.

Now, every member of Future Brands has a partner within a specific category of the business. The origination and growth partners on the future facing side act like a “dotted line” to the buyer in the category team and are encouraged to attend their team meetings and strategy sessions, as well as scheduling regular one-to-ones.

“We don’t just tell them what we’re looking for, we tell them what we understand about their strategy and their priorities and what we’ve seen out in the market, and agree together what that means,” says Eyre.

“The teams we’re working with should absolutely see us as a support function, but one that is also responsible for bringing new insight, inspiration and challenge.”

The Future Brands team also collaborates with the own-brand teams, sharing relevant inspiration and then deciding whether to bring the idea in-house through an own-brand or source a new supplier.

Hunting for inspiration

Ideas for the next innovation in food and drink can come from anywhere. The team read reports, analyse customer data and keep up to date with the latest trends coming out of the US West and East Coast, which act as a proxy for what might take off in the UK.

They also informally partner with venture capital firms, accelerators and food and drink startup networks to identify where the “entrepreneurial heat” is and where investors are putting their money. This is coupled with insight from the buyers who know the marketplace inside out, as well as research from independent stores and specialists.

Unlike the other teams within Sainsbury’s, Future Brands is not really concerned with seasonality as they are looking for products that will sell all year round and suppliers prepared to commit to at least 12 months of brand-level exclusivity. However, the team do leverage brands in the portfolio that have seasonal opportunities by suggesting potential new product development.

Off the Eaten path
Future Brands collaborated with PepsiCo to bring Off the Eaten Path to the UK.

There is no limit to the number of future brands Sainsbury’s wants to bring into the business, although the team are keen to balance the desire for newness with the need to meaningfully support the brands.

Once a brand is selected to go into store, the Future Brands team build a growth plan involving in-store and online marketing, fuelled by data and insight from Sainsbury’s Nectar loyalty scheme.

Notable products brought into the Future Brands portfolio over the past year include curries and yakisoba from Japanese grab-and-go outlet, Wasabi. Eyre says the products have “flown off the shelves” because consumers already know and love the brand, while Sainsbury’s has got behind the roll-out by dedicating the right amount of space and stocking the products in a significant number of stores. To raise awareness, Wasabi highlighted the Sainsbury’s tie-up on its vans and staff uniforms.

In the impulse category, Future Brands recently started working with anti-slavery chocolate company Tony’s Chocoloney, which Eyre believes stands out due to its colourful design and mission-led messaging. By collaborating up front, Future Brands was able to develop a strong launch plan, which has helped Tony’s Chocolonley over-perform versus expectations, says Eyre.

A further example is PepsiCo-owned healthy snacking brand Off the Eaten Path. Future Brands worked with PepsiCo to bring the range over from the US, reformulating and redesigning the product for the UK market.

“The thing that links all of these products has been a true partnership approach with the supplier,” Eyre explains.

“We’ve got our strategy and our commercial interests, and they have theirs and that’s fine, but we’ve collaborated and aligned around the ambition and worked together to make it happen. There’s no coincidence that the brands that stand out as being the most successful are the ones where we have worked most collaboratively.”

READ MORE: How marketing and supply chain combine to create a ‘mission brand’

Balancing new trends with mass demand

The team often see trends or products that are slightly premature for the Sainsbury’s market, which means balancing the desire to bring in innovation with an understanding of what will appeal to a national retailer that attracts 27 million customers a week.

To help refine the decision-making process, Future Brands has kicked off a 14-week trial of 11 “very young brands” across 69 Sainsbury’s stores. Beginning on 24 June, the Taste of the Future scheme allows consumers to try 30 products making their UK supermarket debut, including Bootleg Booch, an alcoholic kombucha, and Sea Chips, salmon-skin crisps.

Sea Chips
Salmon skin crisps brand Sea Chips is taking part in the Future Brands trial.

The idea is to let consumers vote with their feet and use the data generated by the trial to work out which products consumers are buying into and whether there is sufficient demand.

Sainsbury’s has also launched a Future Brands area on the Discovery section of its website to highlight new challenger brands available in-store and online, including Beavertown craft beer, Fiovana superfruit cordial and Tiora herbal infusions.

The challenger brands’ relationship with Sainsbury’s does not have an arbitrary end date, as the team appreciates it may take some products longer to establish themselves, while some categories are new to consumers. At the same time, Eyre is clear that these brands have to earn their space on the shelf and have got to be something consumers love, meaning it is not an “infinite arrangement”.

Eyre’s team is comfortable with the fact not every new project will work, but instead of becoming attached to certain innovations they strive to learn from what doesn’t go to plan. Drilling down into the Nectar loyalty data enables them understand who is buying what products when and why, helping the team make “objective decisions”.

Now in its second year, the priority for the Future Brands team is to continue to source the best new brands, which means looking in the places no one else is looking. Eyre’s ambition is to scale the brands that are already part of the portfolio and solidify Sainsbury’s reputation for innovation.

“Now we’ve got a critical mass of brands that I’m confident are going to stay around for a good chunk of time we really want to be more confident in terms of how we talk to customers about Future Brands,” she adds.

“We want to talk about the exclusive nature of these brands so that customers start to see not just individual brands as they pop up around the store but they start to credit Sainsbury’s for being the one supermarket they go to where there’s always something new or unexpected they haven’t seen anywhere else. We [want] to get that strategic halo perception among customers.”

Rachel Eyre, head of Future Brands at Sainsbury’s, will be speaking at the Festival of Marketing on 10-11 October at Tobacco Dock, London. For more information and to buy tickets to the event, visit


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