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Justin King, chief executive, Sainsbury’s

Sports Sponsorship Insider talks to the Sainsbury’s boss about the brand’s presence in school and Paralympic sport – and its title sponsorship of British Athletics’ Sainsbury’s Summer Series.

Sports Sponsorship Insider: How has Sainsbury’s nine-year sponsorship of the Active Kids school programme worked for the brand?

Justin King: For a long while we have felt that part of why Active Kids worked for us is was because it allows us tell a story of healthy and active lifestyles. There is lot of conversation about whether the food we eat today is making us unhealthy. The reason that young people are a lot unhealthier than they have been for a long time is because of lifestyles in which food plays a part. We’ve tried to build a story on both sides of the equation – calories in, calories out. For example, in terms of the former we’re still the only retailer which uses multiple traffic lights on front of all our food.

SSI: How does Active Kids engage with consumers?

JK: Importantly, when you are a retail business that trades though 1,100 locations what you are looking for are things that will engage people at a local level that don’t feel distant and remote from their lives. If you’ve got children, you will take the vouchers home and they will take them to school [to convert into sporting equipment]. If you haven’t got children, you hear stories of old ladies at the school gates giving kids their vouchers. It’s a big part of making a difference in our communities.

SSI: Why did Sainsbury’s decide to take the next step into competitive school sport?

JK: What we learnt from Active Kids was that the story was one of activity rather than sport per se, as well as inclusivity with everyone being able to play a part. The problem is that quite quickly in the teenage years, the sporty kids are on the sports team and the others get left behind. The stats are quite extraordinary – about 75 per cent of girls do no active sport beyond their 13th birthday.

We also recognised that our top sports people can be inspiring to young people, not just young people who want to be sports people. This started a conversation that got us involved with English School Athletics, which is where I first met [British Athletics chairman] Ed Warner, and ultimately led to the deal signed last year with [Minister for Sport] Hugh Robertson and his department and various governing bodies where we now sponsor all four levels of school sport – in-school sport, intra-school sport, regional sport and then the UK School Games.

SSI: Why switch to the Paralympics at London 2012?

JK: The Paralympics, of course, started as a one-off.  Here’s this amazing opportunity …but it had its gestation in the idea of inclusivity and what could be more inclusive than the idea that everybody, including those with disability, has sporting opportunities? What we learnt from the UK School Games [which has both able-bodied and disability sport] was that disabled sport can be more inspiring to our young people. That’s why we were very quick to the starting block post-Games in terms of our sponsorship of the British Paralympic Association through to Rio 2016. As part of that we’ve created a programme called Active Kids for All, which is funded by us and Sport England, which is a train the trainer programme in schools… the objective of that is to get disabled children into mainstream PE in schools.

SSI:  Did you, in a sense, get lucky with the Paralympic Games because LOCOG’s supermarket and grocery category was reportedly blocked by Coca-Cola?

JK: We were always thinking of the Paralympics– don’t forget every Olympic sponsor had an automatic right to enact in the Paralympics and when we signed to do the Paralympics I think I’m right in saying that only one, BT, had formally taken up their rights. We knew exactly what it [the property] was, why we wanted to do it, and why we wanted it to do it uniquely. Did we luck out? Of course it became much more than we imagined it would be – and we imagined it would be more than most people thought.

SMF: How did the Paralympic sponsorships work on a consumer level?

JK: I don’t believe this is painting by numbers – with some of these things, you have to be committed to making them work and believe in them enough to make it work. It only makes sense if you live it in the day to day– we have 23 million customers every week – so there was that opportunity.

We also think we are the biggest disabled employer in the UK and 20,000 of our employees are register carers… We now have a formal carers policy, which give them the same rights as parents in the ability to switch shifts and so on.  The sponsorship worked on a number of levels.

SSI: As title sponsor of the Sainsbury’s Summer Series are you moving into mainstream sport?

JK: I met [British Athletics commercial director] Sophia Warner through Active Kids for All and that started the discussion of this Summers’s events and British athletics’ ambition to be fully inclusive. So our route into this was the Paralympic angle – two of the three events cover Paralympic sport - and this led to a conversation about grassroots activity with UK athletics and that was of particular to interest us because UK Athletics’ grassroots activity encompasses Paralympic sport.

SSI: Are you looking at other sports?

JK: No. When I joined we were a sponsor of the English FA, but we haven’t looked at other sports. For us, it’s about inclusivity. The breadth of the Paralympics made sense us, and this [new deal] makes sense to us because it still has that Paralympic breadth but also because athletics is the pinnacle of kids running, jumping and throwing in the playground.  It has the purest connection to what kids do... in the sense that we all do athletics even if we don’t call it athletics.


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