Sara Weller is using an Abbey National pen but the irony seems lost on her. She declares innocently: "I've got the world's biggest collection of biros ­ there are about 50 in my bag and I just reached in and grabbed one. I've even still got one from Mars." Sainsbury's marketing director left Abbey National 18 months ago to take up her post with the retailer and started her career with Mars, but still has ties with both companies. She stays in touch with former colleagues and is so conscientious that she even checks up to make sure her programmes are still working. "I look back with pride on every business that I've worked on." Chatty and forthright, Weller is still bubbling with enthusiasm for the job which she admits has been her biggest challenge ­ compounded by the fact it wasn't a brand she was close to. When hired by the then md of UK business David Bremner, Weller was even a Tesco shopper because of her proximity to the nearest supermarket. "I came to it quite fresh and didn't have a lot of preconceptions about it. But like most people I had built up a picture of Sainsbury as a quality food retailer and had seen the Value to Shout About campaign and thought That's odd ­ that's not the Sainsbury I thought I understood'." Not one for backbiting, she defends the reasons behind the much-maligned ads and claims that results proved they worked, but admits that on an emotional level the campaign wasn't successful because it was incompatible with people's view of the brand. "It did quite a good job of bringing in people who were at the edges of the brand and had a positive impact in a functional sense, but on an emotional level it was very dissonant." Weller first looked at what Sainsbury had as a brand that was unique. She found a heritage and a proposition rooted in people's minds. "There's something quite good about taking on well known brands in trouble because it's a challenge and you feel you should be able to do something with them." She claims to have been "really excited" about the sense of urgency and desire to make a difference at the chain and says she was struck by how high morale was among staff. "I expected it to be rock bottom after seeing all the negative media reports." A whirlwind tour of stores followed as well as lots of product tasting. "My weight's been an issue because of all the food, but I tried lots of new products, such as low fat things and ready meals, and found they weren't horrible or like cardboard." It's obvious that ready meals still aren't Weller's usual culinary choice though, despite a punishing work schedule. She's up at 6am, works on the train and is in the office by about 7.30am to wade through e-mails before meetings start at 8am. There's no time for lunch and she's at her desk until about 5.30pm, works on the train home, arrives back in Basingstoke by 7pm and then, after her two young children are in bed at 8.30pm, spends an hour and a half catching up on the day's work. She doesn't work weekends, though, nor does she tour stores as some execs are wont to do. "I'm not quite that compulsive yet, although I've only been here 18 months ­ it may still catch up with me!" Weller has evidently always been driven and is, by her own admission, a very analytical person who decided on marketing after rejecting a family tradition of civil service posts. "I didn't want the kind of career which meant stay put for life and eventually you'll get your chance.'" Even at a tender age, Weller realised a commercial business was more meritocratic. After a science degree which grounded her in the collection and use of data (helpful for making sense of Reward cards) she plumped for marketing at Mars after deciding the firm's broad approach and flexible hierarchy would suit. She spent 14 years there. Mars was a veritable breeding ground for retail hot shots in the 1980s ­ Asda's marketing director Richard Baker was a contemporary of Weller's and Marks and Spencer's new head of food Justin King started on the same day. She still keeps in touch with Baker who has just become a non-executive director at Abbey National. Weller's remit when she joined Sainsbury was to (simply) rebuild the brand and understand customers better. She reckons she's made a good deal of progress. Recent improvements have been the result of "doing things valued by customers well, and communicating it in a more inclusive way", and by making the business "warm and appealing". A previously aloof and cold retailer has been fired up by Jamie Oliver. His two-year contract has a year to run and will mean more TV adverts and a lot more interaction in developing ranges and packaging ­ the herbs campaign with Tips from Jamie' on the packs is the first area to get the treatment. Much work has been done to get a picture of the Sainsbury shopper ­ typically a bit upmarket, older, with children and a high interest in food (known as foodies in Sainsburyspeak). But there are other categories: traditionalists, who are a bit older, cook more, buy scratch ingredients; and health conscious shoppers, mainly young mums keen on nutrition for their kids, which Weller says has been largely driven by the Be Good to Yourself range. She agrees there is space for similar ranges once the chain gets a better handle on customers by store location. "Instead of saying what we have goes in everywhere, we can have sets going in different places." Much of this customer information will be gleaned from the Reward card which takes up half the time of the 300-strong marketing team and is "very much here to stay". Sainsbury will use the data to tailor the individual offer in stores to suit customers better, understanding the catchment area and putting in the right ranges. It also plans more direct marketing and more use of data with third parties to find mutual opportunities with suppliers to ensure their offer is going to the right consumer. It has shaken up its data management through a deal with NCR that gives it more sophisticated software. "Suppliers have made significant progress in their own capturing of customer data and their knowledge of who they are, so as we open our data up we'll be able to work together much more actively. "We've got to be more open with our data but we're not at the moment because we can't get it to them. But as we make it more available one of the big prizes is being able to work with suppliers and to target what they want to do more effectively so they get a better return and our customers get a better deal." And apart from the Reward card, there are still strides to be made in improving the Sainsbury brand. "The brand has to be evident everywhere ­ across the bank and online ­ and the forthcoming upgraded home shopping site will be a significant upgrade as the proposition is all about trusting Sainsbury for the quality of the food and that should be the same in store as online. "You need to work hard to bring to life the things that you want people to believe about your brand." Weller admits she doesn't go to stores as often as she should, but there obviously aren't enough hours in her day. "We have a pretty good handle on what drives customer satisfaction ­ quality, range and choice; service measures such as queues and colleague interaction; and value for money such as prices and how these affect sales. "We now have a quality stream more embodied in the way we do business. The next building block is to ramp up the service part to get more consistency. "We're not bad at functional service but we fall short of our competition in the way we interact with customers and there are benefits to be had if we can improve this." This lack of empathy has often been levelled at Sainsbury on other levels, and she sees the company's forthcoming move to Holborn as a way to change the way it works ­ moving it from being "a bit overly-led and bureaucratic" ­ to a more responsive and customer focused organisation with a better partnership between head office and stores. Weller obviously relishes this challenge, however hard that might be, and laughs out loud when asked if she's having fun in the job. She insists she is ­ but it's not terribly convincing. "It's tempered with really hard work ­ there's a lot to do. It's not an easy ride but people love being part of a successful turnaround and there are suggestions that it is just that." {{PROFILE }}