Sainsbury’s 50p challenge exposed to the world

Today the story of an internal comms campaign by Sainsbury’s supermarket has hit the headlines, with customers expressing outrage, disbelief and amusement.

Through this article I’m going to examine what’s going on and look at what happens when a clearly internally-focused campaign makes its way externally.

In case you’ve not seen it… On Saturday, Twitter user Chris Dodd @mynameischrisd spotted a poster, reportedly in the window of a Sainsbury’s store in Stratford, East London, and tweeted it:

It states: “Fifty pence challenge. Let’s encourage every customer to spend an additional 50p during each shopping trip between now and the year-end.”

It’s obviously intended to be an internal campaign, I don’t imagine for one moment that Sainsbury’s wanted this to be displayed in store, much less in a shop window.

(Note for international readers: one US dollar is equal to 62 pence).

As the majority of my blog readers are internal communication professionals, I’m sure messaging like this, for an internal audience, doesn’t jar or strike us as odd.

It’s a rallying cry to employees for them to be involved in the organisation’s efforts to drive profits and demonstrates the part they can play in getting involved. (It doesn’t say exactly how – I imagine it’s part of a wider IC campaign).  

Clearly some kind of breakdown in communication happened somewhere along the line, that enabled it to be put up in full view of customers.

Sainsbury’s responded to Chris, and you can see their exchange below:

Sainsbury's Twitter exchange      

So what do I think?

I’ve written countless times on my blog and also in books, including in the interview I did with CIPR President Stephen Waddington @wadds, in #Brandvandals: Reputation Wreckers and How to Build Better Defences: Corporation Risk and Response book (Bloomsbury, 2013),  how you are only ever an internal magazine left on a bus away from your IC going externally.

The lines between internal and external comms are now increasingly blurred, particularly because of the use of social media. So  thinking something will always stay purely internal is foolhardy. My advice for IC pros is to bear this in mind with everything that is written and produced internally. (Tweet this)  

That’s always been the case, it’s just easier than ever now for things to be shared in places they’re not meant to be.  

I can think of numerous campaigns I was involved with during my decade of working in internal communication in-house plus work I do with my clients now, where it’s all designed to be internally focused, for employees. To go externally would require additional context or just simply be inappropriate. However, in all the work I’ve done I’ve kept the fact it has the potential to be pinged via email or inadvertently publicised, in mind.

You can never guarantee information will not be shared externally and I’ve often challenged stakeholders to say: “How do you feel about that information being a headline?” to highlight making decisions about what to communicate internally. I think being an ex-journalist helps give me that perspective, but know many IC pros do that.

What about Sainsbury’s?

Looking at the wording of the poster, one would presume it’s part of a wider internal comms campaign to help drive profit.  

So the headline should be… Company in profit-drive shocker… hardly a surprise huh?  

Companies exist to make money. That’s not news. However, the reason I think it has captured imaginations and the headlines is because it’s the first time it’s been so overtly stated externally that employees are being encouraged to entice customers to spend money.  

But surely everything is designed to do that? From the packaging, to store layout, the bakery smells and the offers in store – they’re all designed to entice customers to spend more money.   I think it’s the outward focus on driving money for the company rather than savings for the consumer that has got people in a tizzy.  

A hashtag has been created and is taking on a life of its own – see #50pchallenge to discover the recent tweets. 

Here’s an example of some of the press coverage:


Customers have also expressed their views:           

Final thoughts
Has something similar happened to you? How did you handle it? As ever you’re welcome to comment below or Tweet me @AllthingsIC.

If the Sainsbury’s comms team would like to share their side of the story and give insight into the wider IC campaign this forms part of, you’re more than welcome to get in touch.

I’ve written about Sainsbury’s blurring the lines of internal and external comms before (albeit deliberately) – see my article on their Little Stories campaign.

Post author: Rachel Miller

Published on All Things IC blog 30 September 2014.


  1. Paige says:

    This is a great post, very interesting and I hadn’t heard about this until I read your post!
    I don’t think Sainsbury’s handled their twitter responses very well. For a company that wants their customers to spend more and create a relationship with them, they could’ve been what I’d call a bit more ‘polite’ and less ‘assertive’. Although I can sense the panic in their voice. I don’t agree that it’s a bad internal communications poster to have in their stores, like many customers are expressing, how else are they meant to drive their employees to work to the highest standard they can?

  2. Paul Osgood says:

    Agree it’s an interesting post. For me it’s very clear cut. An internal communication, whether digital or physical, must be considered as external communication when it is widely distributed to employees. In this case, if Sainsburys are embarrassed about this, then there is a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of internal communications. It does, of course, create the dilemma that you can’t share information or strategy that you don’t want employees to share externally and that is where leadership and verbal communication plays a role. I’m very relaxed about Sainsburys having a policy of extracting more money from its customers but they have to make the choice between sharing this with their customers or sharing it verbally with employees.

  3. […] interna y la externa se difumina cada vez más. Esta realida me hace pensar después de leer un post de Rachel Miller (@AllthingsIC) sobre una campaña de la cadena de supermercados americana […]

  4. Joel Postman says:

    Seems Chris Dodd derives glee from Sainsbury’s faux pas and enjoys taunting the Sainsbury’s rep instead of trying to be helpful. We seem to be all about catching screw ups and gloating that we are better than that.

  5. Thank you all for your comments.

    Paige – I think you’re right in that it’s not a bad IC poster, I think what’s caused the reaction is the fact it was seen externally.

    Paul – I agree with your thinking re: the need to understand all IC has the potential to be shared externally. It’s an interesting one – and perhaps a whole new blog post of its own around should you only share “sensitive” info verbally, or can you write it down and trust it won’t be shared further. I think trust has a massive role to play – feel like that’s a brand new topic of its own.

    Joel – I can see what you mean, there was a hint of glee in the replies. I think the overarching lesson is that we’re all human and we all make mistakes – I don’t for one moment think the poster was intentionally put up by a disgruntled employee for example to catch the company out. I’m certain it’s not the first, and certainly won’t be the last incident of this nature.


  6. Deanne says:

    My reaction is more to the content of the campaign. Of course businesses are there to make money – but does this sort of messaging seriously motivate employees, and does it motivate them to act in a way that makes customers feel valued? A poster that encourages employees to give exceptional service toward a goal of increasing in-store spending by XX% would not nearly be so shocking in the store window.

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