SURROUNDED by talk of takeovers and embroiled in an intense fight to become the king of the high street, two of Britain's best known retailers have picked an unusual battleground – the avocado.
As both retailers attempt to convince the British public they are at the heart of Britishness, both have launched nostalgia-based campaigns which highlight how long they have been around and what an important role they have played in the fabric of the nation.
Bizarrely, both have picked the avocado pear as a symbol of their impact on Britain, and there's the dispute.
First in was Sainsbury's, who chose the avocado as a symbol of its innovative food practices in their campaign to mark 140 years of trading. It said it introduced the avocado to discerning palates in 1962 when the UK was finally throwing off the rigours of post-war austerity.
Then Marks & Spencer stepped in saying, as part of its new sales push to celebrate 125 years in business, that it was the first UK chain store to sell avocados to shoppers in 1968. In an expensive TV advert, Twiggy, one of the brand's "faces", is shown holding an avocado in her hand as a symbol of M&S's originality.
Richard Bent, senior lecturer in retailing and marketing at Queen Margaret University, said that both stores were trying to appeal to a sense of nostalgia in customers in the hope of picking up sales. "It's all to do with creating a feel-good factor about what the stores offer," Bent said. "Both are harking back to what appear to be happier times, but they forget to mention that kids were still working in factories then."
He added that Sainsbury's had the strongest case to be the first to sell avocados in the 1960s. "When I saw Twiggy with an avocado in her hand, I did wonder what it was doing there," he said. "At that time, Sainsbury's was a food retailer and M&S was more of a clothing shop. It would totally make sense for Sainsbury's to have been the first."
Despite the apparent discrepancy – and a quiet admission that Sainsbury's probably got there first – a spokeswoman for M&S said the company was not trying to mislead the public: "Our claim is that we first started selling them in 1968. In the TV advertisement, Twiggy is seen holding one in her hand as a way of getting across that we are at the forefront of innovation and bringing produce into the country."
But a spokesman for Sainsbury's, after searching company records, countered: "We have documents from our product team in 1962 advising the guys in the shop how to store avocados correctly. That's what we take as proof that we introduced them at that time."
Recent speculation has linked Sainsbury's with M&S in terms of a possible takeover bid. Sainsbury's, which runs more than 500 supermarkets and 300 convenience stores, declared a full-year dividend up 10 per cent to 21 March and an 11.3 per cent rise in underlying annual pre-tax profits to 543 million.
In March, the M&S board, headed by executive chairman Sir Stuart Rose, announced a 4.2 per cent sales drop in the first three months of 2009. Last week the company said dividends to investors would be slashed.
A merger between the two iconic high street brands would create a group with a combined turnover of 25 billion, although this would still be overshadowed by Tesco's 54bn.
The two rival campaigns are aimed at persuading consumers to put their trust in stores that have a long and reliable tradition of serving the public with quality goods from home and abroad.
The M&S advertisement, being aired this month and made by Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe, focuses on the company as an innovator in retail, from selling bras to avocados, and on its penny bazaar heritage. Michael Marks, a Polish immigrant, founded M&S in 1884 as a market stall in a penny bazaar in Kirkgate, Leeds, pairing up with Tom Spencer 10 years later.
In the ad, Twiggy, now a glamorous 59, goes on a journey back through the company's heritage. She goes "shopping" in the Leeds market where it began in 1884, recreated by a team of Hollywood set designers in London's Borough Market.
In the scene with the avocado, a smiling Twiggy holds up the fruit and says: "They brought us a taste of the exotic." Then, in an ironic reference to the fashion trends of the late 1960s and 1970s, the camera cuts to an avocado-coloured bathroom suite. "Did I say taste?" Twiggy asks with the raise of a shapely eyebrow.
The ad was released a week after Sainsbury's launched a similar campaign focusing on its 140-year history, which followed on from Hovis's critically acclaimed relaunch ad, first broadcast last year. Other companies, such as Persil and Heinz, have also launched nostalgia-heavy campaigns.
Sainsbury's lush 60-second advertisement was created by Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO and aims to capture authenticity, even building an exact replica of a Sainsbury's store from 1914.
The retail chain was started in 1869 by a dairyman, John Sainsbury, who opened in Drury Lane, central London, to sell the produce from his herd.
Retail milestones, as well as the avocado claim, include selling butter in 1869, spotting women's potential in the workplace in 1914, and stocking only eggs from cage-free British hens this year.
Avocados in numbers
900 The year (AD) when a water jar shaped like an avocado was found in the pre-Incan city of Chan Chan.
1519 Year of the first European reference to an avocado by a Spanish writer.
1696 Year of first written record in English of the use of the word "avocado", by Hans Sloane in an index of Jamaican plants.
1962 Year Sainsbury's introduced the avocado to the British high street.
66 The height in feet of an avocado tree.
120 The average annual pear yield of an avocado tree.
17 The percentage by which cholesterol levels fall after a seven-day diet rich in avocados.