Waitrose’s marketing chief on trust, celebrities and why TV advertising isn’t dead

Nathan Ansell explains how the supermarket chain is expanding its marketing strategy to embrace modern media channels and finding success through savvy sponsorships 

Waitrose customer director Nathan Ansell

Nathan Ansell began his journey to the Waitrose C-suite on the shop floor. “There was no better place to learn,” he says of his sixth-form Saturday shifts at the supermarket chain’s Reading branch. 

Stacking shelves and talking to customers, Ansell says, offered an “organic” insight into how retail works. “It’s good to have knowledge and understanding of what you’re selling first-hand,” Ansell says. For him, marketing is about so much more than sales figures. “It’s good to know what people like, what they’re asking, and what they’re looking for,” he adds. 

Ansell returned to Waitrose as customer director (the retailer’s chief marketing officer equivalent) in January 2023. Early on, he developed his interest in human behaviour when he studied psychology at Swansea University. “That’s what marketing is all about, right? It’s about how you understand behaviour.”

This understanding of what makes customers tick is propelling Waitrose’s marketing efforts in a new direction. Ansell, who acknowledges the retailer’s average customer tends to be higher up the socioeconomic scale, is driving the company to become more relevant as shopper choices are increasingly being shaped by the cost-of-living crisis.

Harnessing the power of modern media

At a time when people are prepared to pay a premium to skip ads, Ansell is acutely aware of how challenging his job has become. Faced with shortening attention spans, inculcated by a culture of social media scrolling, he suggests that the best ways for brands to achieve cut-through is to be bold, distinctive and, crucially, relevant.

“Good brands do three things,” says Ansell. “They’re realistic about the challenges they face, they drive relevancy and they’re relentless.” To do this, Waitrose is expanding its marketing strategy to embrace more modern media channels, particularly those social platforms which are typically popular with younger shoppers. 

“We’re now live on TikTok and Instagram. Social media reach is up about 40% year-on-year, which is a very deliberate effort, and we’re working with lots of new influencers to cut through.” 

One example of this is a campaign Ansell’s team ran for Valentine’s Day. Waitrose paired with reality TV personality Sam Thompson, who is best known for his appearances on Made in Chelsea and I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! Thompson’s Instagram post, showing off the supermarket’s meal deal, amassed 32 million views. 

Sponsorships and celebrity endorsements

Indeed, this focus on high-profile partnerships is paying dividends across the board. Beyond online media, Waitrose is finding a lot of success with sponsorship. 

The retailer has made the strategic decision to partner with television programs where it might find new audiences, such as I’m A Celebrity, as well as more obvious pairings, such as Channel 4’s prime-time cooking competition The Great British Bake Off. 

A supermarket has to be more than a supermarket

Unlike many of his marketing peers, Ansell does not subscribe to the view that TV advertising’s time is over. He points out that the average UK consumer is still watching three to four hours of television a day, offering excellent levels of reach and persuasion if marketing chiefs can identify the right partners. 

In the run up to Christmas last year, one such partner was the singing competition The Voice, which Ansell said offered an opportunity to display a new face of the brand. “You can show a more fun, more energetic, slightly cheekier side,” he says. “And you can do it in a way that builds frequency over time. So you’re building a relationship with that audience group of seven or eight million customers who are tuning in on a weekly basis.”

Celebrity endorsements, too, are a strategy that CMOs should be exploring – provided they feel authentic, rather than contrived. It’s not enough to simply put a product into a celebrity’s hands. It’s best to choose a personality that is relevant to the brand and who genuinely has something to say. 

As a vehicle for this, Waitrose runs its own podcast, The Dish, which is presented by TV presenter Nick Grimshaw and Michelin-starred chef, Angela Hartnett and reaches 8 million listeners every week. The show has hosted stars from Monty Don to Dua Lipa. One particularly noteworthy episode featured culinary heavyweight Gordon Ramsay, who endorsed the supermarket’s food and drink as worthy of placement in his own restaurants.

Brand partnerships and the evolution of the supermarket

There is a strategic balance to be struck between passive and active advertising, notes Ansell, as well as a need to “integrate” brands more into people’s wider life and interests. 

Our interview takes place in the wine bar at one of Waitrose’s stores in London’s King’s Cross. Ansell points out that modern consumers expect more bang for their buck, explaining that “a supermarket has to be more than a supermarket.”

Even in the digital age, he suggests, on-site customer experience is hugely important. Adapting Waitrose’s physical stores to offer more things to do is part of a wider strategy to evolve perception of the brand beyond simply shopping. The same King’s Cross branch also hosts regular cooking classes and community clubs.

Ansell also points to Waitrose’s portfolio of brand partnerships. It has joined forces with Caffè Nero, for example, to provide members of its loyalty card scheme with a free coffee while they shop. In return, Caffè Nero’s coffee products are placed front and centre in Waitrose stores.

The supermarket also has an arrangement with Waze, the satellite navigation software company, to explicitly highlight its stores and provide real-time directions, based on traffic updates and road conditions. If someone is driving and suddenly realises they need something from a shop, Ansell explains, this is a good way of making Waitrose their default.

Ethics, trust and offering value for money

Against the backdrop of the cost-of-living crisis, Ansell says, marketers must focus on conveying a sense of trust and value for money.

He rejects the idea that Waitrose is just for wealthier people, pointing out that the chain’s customer base increased by 7% in 2023 to nearly 14 million people, encompassing a spectrum of household incomes.

He nods to the growing Essentials range. Waitrose is sensitive to tightening budgets, he insists, and has lowered the cost of key items, such as bread, eggs, and milk accordingly. While it would be a stretch to call Waitrose cheap, Ansell admits, it is not the obscene luxury that some social media accounts would have you believe.

Good brands do three things: they’re realistic about challenges, they drive relevancy and they’re relentless

Where a product involves a particular skill or craftsmanship to make, or contains particularly high-grade ingredients, Ansell adds, marketers should not be shy and shout about it. “People want to know what they’re paying for. Even in the cost-of-living crisis, people are prepared to pay for quality products, so you’ve got to show them that quality,” he explains.

As well as quality, Ansell says modern consumers care about “ethics, where their food comes from and the impact it has on the environment.” 

Animal welfare is a growing concern. Recognising this, Waitrose aims to only use suppliers with sustainable practices, and that treat their animals well. Animal welfare, he says, is a “very tangible thing” that customers are likely to attach value to, so highlighting these practices has become a core part of the supermarket’s marketing strategy, through labelling and signage.

The cost-of-living crisis has ramped up pressure on brands to get creative. Where consumers may be anxious about their spending, Ansell says, marketers should move to reassure them that what they are buying is ethical, sustainable, and affordable. Or, better still, partner with the right celebrities and influencers and let them spread the message for you.