Sainsbury’s Christmas ad this year marks the U.K. grocer’s 150th anniversary with an epic Dickensian spot that tells the tale of a chimney sweep who’s taken under the wing of the original founder’s wife.
The story begins with a nod to “Oliver Twist" in Victorian London, where some ragged young orphans admire the Sainsbury’s grocery stall brimming with fruit. A young chimney sweep, Nick, is wrongly accused of stealing a clementine that’s fallen off the table and his Fagin-like workmaster convinces the surrounding crowd that Nick is a thief and has him banished from the city.
Wandering outside the city in snowy wastes, he’s rescued by Mary Ann Sainsbury, wife of the founder, who was witness to his banishment. Nick persuades her to help reward his chimney sweep friends back in London before donning a red and white fur hat and cape and heading off into the sunset, presumably to grow up and become St. Nicholas.
The film features a number of witty touches—for example, a Victorian gent in the crowd scene shouts out “Give him a fair trial” before hastily reverting to “Burn the Witch” with everyone else. The tale was sumptuously filmed in Romania by Pulse Films director Ninian Doff, who’s helmed music videos for the likes of the Chemical Brothers. And if you think you recognize the narrator, it's "Succession" actor Brian Cox.
Meanwhile, the W&K creative team on the project included Tom Bender and Tom Corcoran, who were behind Nike's award-winning "Nothing Beats a Londoner" spot.
Sainsbury's admits it took some “creative license" on the story—for example, its original grocery store didn’t sell fruit, but eggs and bread; London isn't surrounded by mountains and St. Nicholas' origins lie somewhere in Turkey rather than Victorian London. But Head of Broadcast Marketing Laura Boothby said at a press briefing that there were "elements" of a true story in the attempt to recreate the Christmas of 1869, when Sainsbury's set up shop in London's Drury Lane. “This is the only year we could talk about being 150, and of course many of the tropes of Christmas come from that era," she said. "The challenge was how do you tell a story about our brand that is also emotional and heartwarming?”
Sainsbury's is of course not the first brand to dramatize the life of its founder to highlight its heritage; Burberry did it in its 2016 Christmas epic, Dodge romanticized its founders the Dodge brothers in 2015, and earlier this year, Mercedes-Benz featured founder's wife Bertha Benz in its International Women's Day ad.
Boothby also mentioned that using the clementine as a hero product helped the brand’s media buy as it’s healthy and not a HFSS (high fat salt or sugar) item that would have meant restrictions on airtime. As for the fact that it matches Sainsbury's orange branding? That was just a "happy coincidence," she said.